My article on Marseille which follows was recently published in the newspapers Stars and Stripes and the Houston Chronicle. A slightly different version will soon appear on the dynamite travel web site: www.travelsquire.com Check it out for a wealth of travel info. Marseille is hot — this year named a European Capital of Culture. Read on — and plan a visit.
It’s a tiny place, all decked out with souvenirs of the sea: shells and stuffed fish in nets dangling from the ceiling, a bench with bold orange life vests as cushions around a big corner table, a wall plastered with small sardine cans. Perfect décor for La Bôite à Sardine, a popular Marseille eatery. A few regulars down pastis, the licorice flavored drink of Provence, at a mini bar while chef Celine is busy on the other side with lunch preparations.
Outside proprietor Fabian arranges freshly caught fish on a sidewalk table. Another display of creatures that had been swimming in the Mediterranean a few hours earlier greets us at the entrance.
My husband and I had come to Marseille from our home in northern Provence to savor treats from the sea for which this port city is famous.
We were charmed with La Bôite à Sardine — and even more so when Fabian sat us at a table with two friendly women, Jeanne Feutren, 68, and her mother, Claire Gilormini, 93, who live nearby.
”We come here because the fish is fresh. It’s delivered every morning. That’s rare. We know,” said Feutren, who, like her mother, was born in France’s second city, is a retired English teacher, and, like most natives, a diehard fan of this fascinating city, the oldest in France.
They, and many others, began their meal with platters of oysters. I asked for Fabian’s recommendations, and he suggested we split an order of calamari, then move on to sole for the main course. “It’s the season for sole,” he explained. “They are full of eggs. The taste is the best.” The squid were in a tasty sauce with a side dish of panisse, a local specialty made with chickpea flour. The sole, lightly fried, was exquisite. Fabian made sure we did not miss the cheeks, the minute and delicate portion of flesh under the fish’s eyes.
“I love Marseille. It’s so cosmopolitan,” said Feutren. “You can meet the whole world here. We have the sea, the sand, hills, the calanques (dramatic coastline cliffs). People are so exuberant.” Her mother interjected. “It’s a wonderful town. We have sun year round. It’s January, but look at the weather.” (It was glorious. Marseille has 300 days of sunshine, the highest number of sunny days in France.)
Now is the time to visit. Marseille is the European Capital of Culture for 2013 with a wealth of activities on the agenda this year. The New York Times rated Marseille second in its list of “46 places to visit in 2013.”
Crime, drugs, violence, the Mafia – the city’s reputation was shrouded by all for years. Fortunately policing and public security have improved somewhat. Nonetheless, as in any big city, caution is advised.
What to See:
Vieux Port. The old port is the heart of this city that was founded by the Greeks six centuries before Christ. Every morning fishermen unload their catch at the tip of the port, the Quai des Belges, for the fish market where locals survey the specimens and tourists take photos. “Soles vivantes,” fish still flapping in a shallow pool of water, were a hot item recently, no doubt because it was the sole season as we had learned from Fabian. On one table, an octopus slithered back and forth in a tray. The 17th century Hotel de Ville, the centuries-old home of the city government, is on the right side of the quai facing the water.
New at the Vieux Port is Norman Foster’s Ombrière, a giant mirror hanging above the repaved waterfront. Slender columns hold a thin sheet of polished steel aloft. Reflected are all those passing underneath, from gnarled fishermen to strolling pedestrians.
Pavilion M. This temporary structure of wood and glass erected for Marseille 2013 in the Place Bargemon near the Vieux Port has exhibits on the city and its people. Visit the tourist office on the upper floor for information about special events this year. Tickets for events are also on sale here.
Chateau d’If. Take a boat from the Vieux Port to his legendary castle, France’s Alcatraz. King Francois I had it built in the 16th century as a fort outside the harbor. It never saw battle, but became a prison. Its most illustrious inmate was Edmond Dantès whom Alexandre Dumas immortalized in The Count of Monte Cristo.
Le Panier. Steep steps from the Vieux Port climb the hills of this district whose narrow, cobbled alleys are reminiscent of ancient Mediterranean cities like Naples and Lisbon. The Place des Moulins was once the home of 15 windmills where flour was milled. The name “panier” (basket) is thought to come from the baskets used to carry bread. Check out the boutiques on rue du Petit-Puits. The whimsical ceramics at number 7, Serge Mautarlier, are a delight.
Vielle Charité. This striking architectural masterpiece in Le Panier was a home for the city’s poor in the 17th century when Louis XIV decided poor folks on the streets were bad news. It housed up to 1,000 needy residents. The noted architect Le Corbusier recognized its beauty in the 1950s which led to renovation. The complex of columned arcades includes a Baroque domed chapel.
Notre Dame de la Garde. A golden statue of the “Bonne Mère” tops this Romanesque-Byzantine basilica at the highest point of the city, 500 feet above the harbor, majestically watching over Marseille’s 860,000 inhabitants. Hike up the hill, or take bus number 60 from the old port, and enjoy the best views of the city and nearby islands.
La Canebière. The grand boulevard of Marseille which leads from the Vieux Port. A bit shabby, the Champs Élysée it is not, although it was modeled after the Parisian avenue. Some of the buildings are worth admiring, such as the one with caryatides housing the store C&A at number 53
Calanques/Beaches. Sightseeing boats from the Vieux Port opposite the Hotel de Ville offer coastal tours to admire the stunning cliffs and deep fiord-like inlets between Marseille and Cassis. Marseille has 16 beaches along its 57 kilometers of coastline. The Plage des Catalans offers golden sand, while soft gravel covers the Plage du Prado. Both are crowded in summer.
Markets. In addition to the fish market, this vibrant city has numerous morning markets offering everything from clothing to spices, fruits and vegetables to hardware. The merchandise for sale reflects the diversity of the city’s population which includes 200,000 Italians, 150,000 Corsicans, and
400,000 Muslims (mostly from Algeria). Arab specialties are found at the Marché les Noailles on side streets to the right at the end of Canebière just a few hundred meters from the Vieux Port, every morning except Sunday. Nearby is the Marché des Capucins for fruit and vegetables, also daily except Sunday. Everything imaginable is for sale at the huge Marché du Prado along the this main artery of the city. Tuesday through Saturday.
Bouillabaisse. Marseille is the capital of this legendary fisherman’s soup. It’s said to taste better there than anywhere else because of the variety and freshness of ingredients – several kinds of fish. It’s a hearty meal beginning with the fish broth served with aioli, garlic mayonnaise, and rouille, aioli with cayenne pepper. Smear the mayos on toast rounds which you submerge in the soup. Then comes a huge platter of the fish and potatoes. It’s a pricey dish, between 53 and 60 euros per person at these restaurants all known for authentic bouillabaisse: Le Rhul, chez Michel, Le Miramar and chez Fonfon. A less expensive but authentic version can be ordered ahead at Chez Madie Les Galinettes at the Vieux Port. Other restaurants along the Vieux Port also offer bouillabaisse for less, but it may not be the genuine version.
New Attractions: Villa Méditerranée and Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MUCEM). Continue down the waterfront from the Vieux Port to an abandoned pier (J4) that is now all spiffed up and the site of avant-garde architecture. The Villa Méditerranée looks much like a supersized diving board with a vast exhibition hall jutting towards the sea and suspended above a pool of water. It will host exhibitions, but it is primarily a place to provide contact for all Mediterranean countries with the focus on cultural and artistic exchanges. There is no charge to enter and wander around, although there is a charge for exhibitions.
President Francois Hollande will inaugurate MUCEM on June 4. Doors open to the public on June 7. This striking structure, a squat glass building shielded from the harsh Mediterranean sun by a dark concrete filigree veil, echoes the architecture of North Africa. Exhibits from national museums will illustrate the theme of Mediterranean civilization.
The J4 area and the adjacent old Fort St. Jean are linked by a 130-meter walkway overlooking a dock. You can stroll in the public Mediterranean garden suspended on the heights of the Fort and lap up the stunning panoramic views over the sea and city.
Where to stay:
Hôtel Escale Oceania Marseille Vieux Port
The location does not get any better than this, just adjacent to the Vieux Port. The small (45 rooms) newly renovated hotel does not offer luxury, but it does have all you need, including free Internet access. Ask for a superior room with a balcony for superb views of the Vieux Port and Notre Dame de la Garde. 5 La Canebière, 04 91 90 61 61
Where to eat:
La Bôite à Sardine, fish restaurant as described in article, 7 Boulevard de la libération, 04 91 50 95 95, www.laboiteasardine.com
Le Café des Epices, gastronomic brasserie near the Vieux Port, a tiny but bustling place with innovative cuisine. There is a terrace in front of the restaurant for outdoor dining. Many of the customers are regulars who greet the talented chef with the obligatory air kiss on each cheek. 4 Rue du Lacydon, 04 91 91 22 69. Restaurant does not have a web site.
Pizzeria Jeannot. Much more than a pizzeria, this large restaurant offers all manner of seafood and grilled meats, in addition to a variety of pizzas. The location, tucked in a tiny fishing port just outside the heart of the city, is a delight. 129 Vallon des Auffes, 04 91 52 11 28. www.pizzeriachezjeannot.net
Chez Fonfon. If it’s authentic bouillabaisse you seek, try this well-known restaurant (mentioned in the article) located almost next door to Pizzeria Jeannot, but with a classy ambience on the second floor of a building with lovely views of the sea and the mini harbor full of boats. 140 Rue du Vallon des Auffes, 04 91 52 14 38, www.chez-fonfon.com
For the best home made Italian ice cream, Le Glacier du Roi, 55/49 arret Place de Lenche, www.leglacierduroi.lesite.pro
For the city’s famous traditional cookies (Navettes – flavored with orange flower water ), Navettes des Accoules, 68 Rue Caisserie, http://www.les-navettes-des- accoules.fr
Travel throughout the city by bus and/or metro (two lines). A one-day City Pass at 22 euros ($28.50) includes use of both bus and metro for 24 hours, a roundtrip boat trip to Chateau d’If, a ride on the tourist train to Notre Dame de la Garde or through the Old Town and Panier, entrance to all museums, a guided tour, plus some discounts. Tickets at Pavilion M, the city tourist office at the Vieux Port or at resamarseille.com
Marseille also has Hop-on-Hop Off buses running between April 1 and Oct. 31 which stop at 13 different locations. Tickets for one or two days from 18 euros ($23) can be purchased on board.
Sightseeing boat trip of the calanques: two hour trip: 22 euros. ($28.50) Details at www.visite-des-calanques.com. Boats run daily from April through October.
Boat excursions to Chateau d’If, from 15,20 euros, ($19.50) http://www.frioul-if-express.com/ Boats run daily year round.
There is free ferry service from one side of the Vieux Port to the other.
More at www.marseille-tourisme.com
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