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Travel Talk – Marseille offers different take on France (Feb. 25, 2015 issue)

When most people think of France, they think of Paris, the City of Lights. While Paris is an extraordinary city, you cannot sum up an entire nation with one city. Since I studied abroad in Southern France, I prefer this less well-known region and the port-city of Marseille. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, France’s second largest city has been the entrance point for new visitors to France, and it remains an important port, both in practice and symbolically. Marseille has always been a place where new cultures meet French culture, and it is now the home to many of France’s North African immigrants.
To appreciate Marseille’s symbolism, le Vieux Port, or the old port, is a good place to start your visit of this old and ever-changing city. There are several restaurants near the port, but these can be pricey until you wander a little farther away. From the port, you can take a boat to Château d’If. The Château was a prison-fortress and is considered the Alcatraz of France because it was hard to escape. It’s also the setting of Dumas’s fictional “The Count of Monte Cristo,” though in reality most of the prisoners were French Huguenots. From this island, you can also go to the island of Ratonneau. Be mindful of the weather, though, because boats to the islands do not go out every day and will not go out under certain weather conditions.
If you want to learn more about Marseille’s history, you can check out one of the museums or many churches. The Musée d’Histoire de Marseille is the best introduction to the city’s history as it will take you from the ancient Greek outpost of Massilia to its reconstruction before and after the French Revolution. Situated near an archeological site, you’ll see many of the finds of the site such as the hull of a ship from the 2nd century.
This museum will introduce to the ideas of Marseille as an ancient outpost and as a bustling port city. For more history, you can visit the Abbaye Saint Victor and the Cathedral de la Major. The Abbaye is one of the oldest churches in Marseilles and is a former monastery. The Cathederal is close to the port and consists of an older portion and the newer cathedral.
If you only visit one religious landmark of Marseille, Notre Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard), a symbol of Marseille, cannot be missed. The basilica, which locals also call la Bonne Mère (the good mother), is at the top most part of the city and has a panoramic view of Marseille. For many years, sailors came here to pray and gave thanks to the Mother Mary for protection on their voyages, and la Bonne Mère is also considered the guardian of the Marseille. A gilded statue of the Madonna and child caps the elegant basilica.
Since the building is not old compared to many European churches, it reflects a lighter style, is made of marble, and uses the natural sunlight to illuminate the gilded pictures inside. You’ll also find a number of references to the sea inside the Basilica. To get up to the basilica, you have two options. You can make the long and steep walk up or can take a city bus to the top. I enjoy the climb, but most people take the bus.
After getting your fill of religion and history of Marseilles, you can enjoy the beaches and Mediterranean weather. While Marseilles has a number of easily accessible beaches, you may instead want to explore the unique calanques of Provence. A calanque is a steep-walled cove or bay found in the Mediterranean, marked by the steep cliffs guarding these coves. Most calanques are found in southern France. Marseilles has a national park for these unusual formations. You can hike in the park to the seafront and swim in the refreshing water of these coves. You can also take a boat for a view of the cliffs. If you take a boat, you may not be allowed to swim and the boats will not go out if it’s too windy or rainy.
While in Marseilles, you’ll also find access to some of the best foods in the world. You should try the traditional fish stew, bouillabaisse, which is originally from Marseille. Since Marseille is now home to a large population of North African immigrants, you can also find some of the best Moroccan and Tunisian dishes, such as tajine and couscous, here. With its proximity to Italy, it’s easy to find delicious pizza and gelato. With its location to the sea, you’re sure to find excellent food from all over the Mediterranean anywhere you look in Marseille.
For getting around the city, you may want to purchase a Marseille city pass that is good for 2 days and includes admission and discounts for most of the tourist sites as well as unlimited public transportation travel. Marseille has a fairly straightforward metro system and a bus system.
Before you go, you should also be aware that parts of Marseille have a dangerous reputation, and certain areas of the city should be avoided. However, since it was designated Europe’s Culture Capital in 2013, the city has really cleaned up its act and is welcoming to visitors. For getting into the city, there is an airport nearby (with a bus that runs to Marseille) as well as a nice train and bus station.
Between its ancient history and warm Mediterranean weather, Marseille has something for everyone. It is a fascinating city and a great place to start a journey through southern France. With its unique blend of cultures, sunny climate, and bustling port, there is no other city in France quite like Marseille.