France’s second city has been on my ‘to do’ list for quite some time, but I never got around to making the visit. This year (2013) the city has been chosen as one of Europe’s cities of culture – so now seemed a good time to go.
The city has an unenviable comparison to Chicago – and they mean the Chicago of the 1930’s… Large parts of Marseille are virtual no go areas for Police and persons not wishing to get into danger (press report here). Accounts of drive by shootings are many and large parts of the northern suburbs are gang controlled. This year the death toll stands at 13 (so far), down on last year (so far) but not exactly a great advert.
Unemployment and poverty rates (both high) are not immediately apparent to a short term visitor, but the city does have a raw or unpolished feel to it, and there is definitely less money about than in Montpellier – which is not so far away.
So… why go? Well, you have to see for yourself don’t you…
Notre Dame de la Gard is the high point just south of the old port and overlooks the whole city; excellent 360 views.
On a short visit, most activities will be around the Vieux Port (old Port), and whilst mainly for pleasure boats these days still hosts a daily fish market where households and restaurants come to buy. The area has been cleaned up as part of the city of culture celebrations but thrives with real life activity as well as tourists. There are a few Dali statues scattered around the port area – such as the elephant below.
The port is lined with restaurants (mostly fish) and competition keeps prices fair. Just to the south of the port is a long square called Cours Honore d’Estienne d’Orves – this is even more ‘local’ with some good bars and food options.
There are a couple of tourist trains departing from the north side of the port; one tours Le Panier and the other makes the trip to Notre Dame de la Gard. A hop on hop off service operates at peak times, and the tourist office has a (almost) non stop tour departing from near their office on the Canebiere (the one stop is at Notre Dame).
On the north side of the Old Port is the oldest quarter of Marseille – Le Panier. Apparently this used to be rough, but is now undergoing gentrification. The new Intercontinental Hotel is here, set back from the port and built in what used to be an old hospital. Further back in Le Panier you will find twisty streets, familiar to Mediterranean visitors, leading up to le Vieille Charity – an old poorhouse now turned into a museum.
This is a pleasant area to wander, and there are restaurants in shady squares as well as some arty shops and galleries, despite developments the area is still very much lived in, its no tourist ghetto.
The showpiece of the City of Culture 2013 is without doubt the Musee des civilisations de l’Europe & de la Mediterranee (mercifully shortened to MuCEM).
The main building is cloaked in a lattice cut concrete coat and is quite stunning, the natural theme continues internally with many of the supporting pillars and beams looking tree like. The building is linked to Fort Saint-Jean (and on again to Le Panier district) by sweeping bridges that almost seem to float rather than being suspended.
As is often the case with new and showpiece buildings, some of the contents are rather mundane, but the complex is worth a morning of your time. There is a restaurant and a roof terrace bar with excellent views.
Final recommendation for areas to visit for bars and restaurants is Cours Julien – it may look like a road on a map but is actually a square with cafes and bars. There is quite a lot of activity in this area in the evening and night, both in the square and surrounding roads – especially Rue des Trois Rois, about 50m away from the square itself.
Getting in from the airport is easy and quick (about 30 minutes) by either bus or train. On arrival at the airport the bus ticket office can be found outside the main terminal (about 200m from the MP2 budget airline terminal), but on the return trip the bus makes a stop outside MP2. Busses and trains all go to Gare St Charles in the middle of Marseille, from where you can take the Metro or a taxi to most places.
So; in summary… Marseille isn’t going to be on most people’s ‘urgent list’, but it is well worth a visit and there is plenty to do for a 3 or 4 day visit. Prices are reasonable and the ‘troubles’ are unlikely to bother you in the main visitor areas.
It has excellent transport connections and for this reason alone I would consider going again; if only to travel on to Aix-en-Provence (30 minutes away) or Avignon.