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.