Marseille has a horrible reputation. There is a popular joke in Paris, “Hey, did you hear what happened in Marseille this weekend??? A man went to a café for the morning, enjoyed his coffee and walked home safely.” It kinda makes you think twice before heading there. Especially as you follow a Jefferson County Sheriff car with California plates in to town…
But if you don’t read the news, you’d never know there was a crime problem in town. Our first night in town we pulled ourselves away from the stupendous view in our room at La Residence du Vieux Port and strolled that very same port out to the Fort St Jean. The pathway narrowed, grew darker, rounded a bend, and yet we felt totally safe in the warm balmy air, walking pass lovers and fishermen and joggers as we rounded walked around the corner and were dazzled by the astonishing set of the Mucem museum. A lace work of concrete, built to look like the ripples of water was lit a sapphire blue, reflecting in the sea below. We couldn’t wait for our visit the next day.
For an urban destination, a visit to Marseille can be physical. There is a great run along the Old Port; a flower market and a fish market line the way and you pass under the surprising Norman Foster designed Pavillion before getting to the Palais du Pharo gardens and up the corniche which follows the sea, the Count of Monte Christo’s Chateau d’If in view. It was lovely, and I was thrilled that on the return trip we ran through the odor of sardines before hitting the mimosa scented air. Then there is the hike up the Observatoire hill to the Notre Dame de Garde Basilica. I loved the mobiles with giant model boats that hung from the ornate, gothic ceiling. And I had a blast watching out of shape visitors as they trudged up the stairs as we headed down.
My body was telling me it was time for lunch. We headed to the beach where Chez Michel is known as the best place for boulliabaisse in the Marseille, which is known as the best place for bouilliabaisse in France. It was delicious and a well deserved break after all that running around!
As we walked through Le Panier and La Plaine, two dynamically creative neighborhoods full of young people trying to make a mark on the retail world with original merchandise in charming boutiques, we kept an marveling at what a great lifestyle was to be had at this very affordable city by the sea. But we also marveled at the number of abandonned shops and disenchanted store owners. And although we strolled the boutiques, Mr French had banned me from shopping still recovering from the shock of my purchases earlier in the week. “Honey? You bought honey? As if you can’t find honey in Paris. And olive oil? Really? Now that’s the perfect thing to be packing in a suitcase for under a plane.” He was not impressed when I explained the apiculture had been a sweet old lady and the olive oil was rumoured to be some of the best in the region. So I satisfied myself with shooting everything in sight. Walls of colorful graffiti my target of choice and I was thrilled with the day.
As the sun was setting, we stopped in an antique store, and there, I spotted her. An 18th century doll that aristocrats used as models for the dresses they wanted to order, a delicate porcelain bouquet in her hands, nothing but wire frame and fragile (200 yr old) cloth below the bodice. I caught my breath at the beauty of it. Mr French asked the price. 60€. Even a fake would be worth 60€ but I didn’t dare ask. She was fragile and I had that pot of honey to schlep. “We’ll take it.” Mr French declared and I looked on in dismay as the antique dealer shoved her bubble wrapped form into a generic brown paper bag.
That night we were still full from our decadent lunch. We agreed on cocktails at the Intercontinental up the hill from the port. In an imposingly elegant 18th century public hospital, the hotel looks a palace. The bar is plush and modern, with great cocktails and even better live gypsy jazz music. We could have stayed all night. But we eventually rambled back to our room in the wee hours, the lapping waters of the sea below playing a lullaby as we fell asleep.