Marseille is the second biggest city in France. It is the capital of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, which was why we were there in the first place. While putting our European itinerary together, I’d remembered the Provence episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, where Tony spent several days in the area, playing pétanque with the locals, touring a vineyard, and dipping fresh summer vegetables in a bowl of homemade aioli. Provence (although not Marseille in particular) is also known for the artists who lived there or went there to paint: Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin. Visions of lavender fields and starry nights had me giddy at the prospect of stopping by.
There are many trains to Marseille from elsewhere in France. Direct TGVs from Paris only take 3 hours (and 30 euros if you book really early). My sister and I arrived by a more circuitous route: a slower sleeper train took us from Paris to Nice, where we spent a few glorious hours gawking at the sea off the Promenade des Anglais. After feverishly trying to figure out how we could afford to retire in the South of France (conclusion: not likely), we boarded another train from Nice to Marseille.
It was already late afternoon when we arrived. After checking in and freshening up, we found that the sun had stubbornly retired for the day, so we settled for a short walk along the old harbour. The waterfront was quiet by mid-evening but it was still mildly interesting. Street lamps cast a yellow glow on the pavement as we strolled by. Inside one of the more brightly lit buildings, a theater show was underway. There was a store, about to close, with piles upon piles of differently hued Savon de Marseille. Boats nudged each other for mooring space in the water; with sails furled, their masts looked like wooden spikes against the still-faintly-orange sky.
The moon rose, a perfect circle, and we remembered we were hungry. For dinner I wanted to try bouillabaisse, or ratatouille, or something with aioli, or any typical Provencal dish, really. But the restaurants in the Vieux Port area proved too expensive for our budgets, and in the end we wound up dining — yikes, don’t tell Anthony Bourdain — at McDonalds.
Daybreak transformed the harbour altogether. The boats were still there, but they were now gleaming in the early morning sun. A solitary figure in a blue kayak glided across the water as seagulls flew overhead. Melodies from a street musician’s flute accompanied the cacophony of local residents negotiating with fish vendors. My sister and I decided to forego our planned hike along the calanque trail from Marseille to Cassis and instead boarded the ferry to Chateau d’If and the Frioul islands. This turned out to be our best decision yet: our afternoon in the Frioul archipelago, with its rocky Mediterranean beach and quietly beautiful landscape, was one of the highlights of our European trip.
Back when my sister and I were being interviewed for our visa at the French embassy, the guy behind the counter expressed surprise and skepticism at our plan to visit Marseille. It’s true that Marseille is one of the poorer urban areas of France and it’s not usually in the itinerary of first-time visitors to the country. However, if we had any regrets at all about our trip south, it’s that we were only there for a short time. There’s more to Marseille than our one-and-a-half-day trip allowed us to discover, there’s the rest of Provence to explore, and we vowed we would return someday.
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A painting exhibit was also being launched and I remember walking in, summoning enough courage to grab a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers. I don’t think i even got near enough to any of the servers. Took more guts than I’d managed to gather. Next time! Haha!
Hehe. I don’t remember that! Must be getting old. 😛
unsaon pag like ani tanan posts? 🙂
Haha, salamat kaayo doc! 😀 Create your own na dayun doc! Makasuya kaayo imong recent trip. 🙂 🙂
I’m glad you enjoyed Marseille, although when I was there two years back I didn’t like it that much! I guess it pales in comparison to more beautiful places in Provence such as Avignon and Saint-Remy.
Really love the photo of the harbour at sun set! You’ve captured it perfectly.
Hmmm…maybe I wasn’t there long enough to dislike it. Haha! I didn’t get to explore it much in the ~1.5 days I was there, but I absolutely loved our trip to the Frioul islands. I’d love to visit Avignon and Saint-Rémy someday. Thanks for dropping by!
I know! I didn’t have the heart to reveal it in the post but we had breakfast there too. I don’t know if our vision was impaired by hunger but we really didn’t see anything we could afford in the nicer-looking restaurants. 😀 😀
Haha, it’s okay! Someitmes budget eating makes it possible to do other stuff, since you save time & money. I like to have at least one “nice dinner” if possible but I usually search out cheaper eats before I even get there so I save money-I am cheap!!
That’s the one thing I always forget to do — research where to eat.
I’m horribly irritating with my planning-once we’re somehow I like to be more loose but I bring a folder & notebook with everything including all the restaurants that have food that accommodates the whole group(like say one meat eater, 2 vegetarians and a lactose intolerant sometimes-vegan)…it’s fun for me which sounds lame but I also get my greatest joy out of finding the cheapest airline tickets so I guess it’s just how I am.
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Small-town Girls, Midnight Trains is almost a year old now! This was one of my very first posts.
Happy blogsary to you!!! 🙂
Thank you! 🙂
Lovely post! I have actually given Marseille a skip on my recent trips to France, always pushing it back on my list. I need to see the city!
Thank you! We didn’t get to explore the city as thoroughly as we would have liked but it was a wonderful jump-off point to see calanques and the Frioul islands. I hope you get to see it soon!
Thank you! 🙂
Hello! My family and I are living in Marseille for a year already. Our appartment is within the vieux port area and we really love it. This city was the European Capital of Culture last 2013 and they have improve so many things that now attract tourist. You should come back and explore 🙂
Yep, restos in vieux port are really pricey so I understand the mcdo thing 🙂 next time, try Quick for a change. It is a french fast food resto and we find their burgers better than mcdo. Though not good for breakfast as they only offer muffins and donuts.
Oh, i love Frioul Island too! For Cassis, the best time to go there is during spring and summer. People are happily enjoying the beach. We went there last winter and it’s like a ghost town. Only few restos and stores are also open
Hi! Yay, it’s great to hear from someone who lives there. I would go back there in a heartbeat. I’d love to explore Cassis and go back to Frioul. No budget for it yet though. 😀 How is it living there? Is there a lot of diversity? No racial tensions or anything?
Thanks for sharing! Honestly, the reason my cousin and I ate at McDonald’s in Nice was because we didn’t have that much money too haha! But I didn’t have a burger because I’m not a huge meat eater. I had Mc fish and it was buy one get one free haha!
I don’t remember what I ate anymore — probably a burger, lol — but I did learn a few things, eating there. Like, I found it interesting that their meal sets would often have 2 drinks, 1 hot and 1 cold, which is rare in the Philippines. Also, I guess to prevent people from popping in just to use the toilet (without ordering) you would need a passcode to use the toilet and the code would be printed on the receipt. Small things but, you know, different. Gives you an insight, however small, into people’s lives and how things are done in countries other than your own.