Marseille: A Big City on the Mediterranean Sea


A huge portion of our European adventure is taken up by the French and Italian Riviera, all along the Mediterranean Sea. There are many wonderful coastal towns along the south of France, but we decided to begin our journey in the French Riviera with Marseille.

Marseille is actually quite large. It doesn't exude the big-city, hustle-and-bustle personality like Paris, but it's the 3rd largest city in France. So, it's by no means a small town. While large and dense, it still has the feel of a coastal town. Kind of like Cape Cod in Massachusetts, where maritime tradition permeates throughout the town. 

To-Do List:

Day One

Our train to Marseille departed from Gare de Lyon, a different train station from where we arrived. It's a bit further from our Airbnb in Abbesses, but we got there well before our departure time to print our tickets at a kiosk. Since we had some time to kill, we stopped into a cafe named Brasserie la Tour for coffee, snacks, and free wifi.

We boarded our train and were on our way south towards the Mediterranean Sea. The train zoomed down the French countryside, offering views of small farming villages, fields of green grass, yellow flowers, and vineyards. I found myself wishing I knew the language, just so I could visit these beautiful, rural communities.

As we approached our destination, we passed through one of the many "slums" outside of Marseille. Cramped, graffiti-ridden buildings stood tall, row by row. Eventually, we landed at Gar de Marseille Saint Charles, the main train station in Marseille.

We stopped into the tourism office and bought two City Pass cards. With the City Pass, we were able to get 48 hours of unlimited public transit, entry into various museums, and one guided tour of Le Panier (Old Marseille).

With our City Pass cards, we took the metro to our hotel, which was about two stops away. We reserved a room at Hotel du Palais, a three-star hotel very close to the Vieux Port. It was very simple, small, and really clean. The receptionist was very helpful and spoke English very well.

After dropping off our bags and locking up our belongings, we made our way down towards Vallon de Aufes, a traditional fishing haven south of the Vieux Port. It was a quick bus ride and a walk along the coast. The sun was out, so the walk was absolutely gorgeous!

On the way, we stumbled upon a small bistro right alongside the rocky shore of the sea named Le Bistro Plage. Situated right below the Monument Armee D'orient (a large monument to honor soldiers who have died overseas), a long, concrete pathway led us down to a dock-side bar. We sipped on Stella Artois while taking in the view!

Continuing along Rue de Catalans, a bridge crosses over a small harbor. Looking over the bridge reveals a gorgeous sight: Vallon des Auffes! Many small fishing vessels are parked in the water, with tiny houses built up alongside the rocky cliffs surrounding the harbor. It's truly a wonderful scene!

Continuing on the main road, we stopped at a small bakery named La Vague Gourmande. It was a recommendation by my wife's coworker who had grown up in the area. We enjoyed an apple turnover and made our way through the windy neighborhoods to head down into the harbor of Vallon des Auffes.

Found another small bakery on the way named Aux Chauds La Pains. Couldn't help but pick up a chocolate croissant!

Exploring the harbor from below, we found ourselves surrounded by beautiful apartments, well-kept fishing boats, and a variety of high-end restaurants.

Hungry, but not willing to break the bank, we made our way to the south side of the Vieux Port for dinner. There were many more options in this area, as it's very popular with tourists.

Eventually, we stumbled upon a small creperie in Cours Honoré-d'Estienne-d'Orves, a major square around the Vieux Port. The place was named La Crepe au Carré, and had many good reviews on Google. My wife and I shared a burger gallette and smoked salmon gallette. A gallette is a traditional French, buckwheat pancake with a savory filling. The Google reviews were right, we loved it!

To end our first night, we stopped into a convenience store and picked up Monster Munch. I love junk food!

Day Two

We rose early in the morning so we could have enough time to explore Les Calanques, a natural wonder just minutes away from downtown Marseille. I felt this region deserved it's own blog post, so I've written one here!

After wandering the mountains for nearly four hours, we were pretty hungry. Back down at the Castellane bus stop, we went into a fast food joint named Quick. It's essentially like any other fast food you'd see in the United States, but it wasn't very "quick" or "fast".

After freshening up at our hotel room, we ended up falling asleep and missing our guided tour of Le Panier! Instead, we went back out to the Vieux Port to grab some coffee at Columbus Cafe and catch the last run of the Petite Train Touristique up the steep hills of the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde. Unfortunately, the train never came, so we hopped on a bus instead.

The Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde is a huge Catholic basilica, known to the locals as "le bonne mere", or "the good mother". It's panoramic views of the entire city of Marseille gives the church it's name as it stands guard and protects the city from invaders.

After climbing up the stairs to the terraces around the basilica, it's very easy to see why visitors flock to this location in droves. It's easily one of the best views of any city I've ever seen!

The ornate interior of the basilica is also quite breathtaking. We stopped inside and paid our respects before heading back out to the bus stop back down to the Vieux Port.

We had some time before our dinner reservations when we arrived back at the Vieux Port, so we wandered around a little more. The sun was out!

Le Poulpe is a nice seafood restaurant on the north side of the Vieux Port harbor. Prior to our arrival in Marseille, we tried to pre-order a meal of bouillabaisse. Unfortunately, we waited too long and none of the recommended restaurants were able to serve it to us! Lesson learned, order at least 72 hours in advanced.

Another lesson learned, cheese plates are served after dinner as a dessert. Obviously, being tourists, we ordered it as an appetizer. Regardless of the meal timing, the extremely aromatic cheese samples were quite the culinary experience.

I had the braised, whole St. Pierre white fish and my wife had the tuna belly tar tar. Both were very good! Marseille knows how to do seafood.

Full from the tasty dinner, we decided to take a brisk walk back to our hotel room.

The maritime feel of Marseille was a great introduction to our journey along the French Riviera. We expect more great seafood and sweeping views of the Mediterranean along the way!

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