MARSEILLES: LA CITE’ PHOCEENNE

During Easter vacation, I left Turin with some friend, direction: Marseilles. I already was in this city but when I was a child so I cannot remember anything!

We spent two relaxed days enjoying the sun and exploring the major attractions of Marseilles.

The colors of the building give you a sensation of peace and of course, the sea help a lot in this… it is not an usual European city for me, it was more similar to different small villages one connected to the other: I am thinking to the center or to the panier, the old port and so on…. Each neighborhood with his own soul.

So the time I passed there was good and Marseilles let me a very good impression, an angler city with a long past and a long history on his shoulders. Founded by the Greeks some 2,600 years ago, it has uncoiled itself inland from gritty docklands over the centuries and grown a reputation as port with a seedy character.

A lot of places to see: from the Basilique of Notre-Dame de la Garde to the Abbaye Saint-Victor, the Old Port and then head out to Chateau d’lf, a fortress on the island of lf. You will find museums to explore including the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, La Vieille Charite, and Palais Longchamps & Musee des Beaux-arts. Spend some time at the Cathedrale de la Major. Of course, you need to check out Marseilles’s oldest district, the Panier.

WHAT TO VISIT

If you like to see an amazing view from the top of the city, you need to go to start your trip with the Basilique of Notre-Dame de la Garde. Dominating Marseilles’s skyline, the Basilique is of the 19th century Romano-Byzantine, an opulent Catholic church that sits at the city’s highest natural elevation spot on the south side of the Old Port.

The church, whose name means ‘Our Lady of the Guard’ was built on the ruins of an ancient fort and offers spectacular 360 degree views of the area. It was designed by Henri-Jacques Esperandieu. Over the years, restoration projects have been undertaken, most recently in 2008.

City buses and a tourist train make the steep ride to the top possible. The beauty of the architecture, both inside and out makes this a must-do when visiting the city.

After having see the city from the top, you can go directly to the old port, that is still the watery heart of the city, with its fishing boats and yachts bobbing lazily on the blue waters, and two forts framing its entrance at either end.

Stroll its flanks, the Quai des Belges, early in the morning for the catch of the day: the lively local fish market. The market runs from around 8am – 1pm, and is a Marseille institution. You can’t miss it!

For the “aperitivo” behind the Town Hall lies the city’s old town, "Le Panier". Experience the hidden gem that is Marseilles’s old town without a guide (guided tours available from the Tourist Office and Convention Bureau), on the Petit Tourist Train or on foot.

And remember drink pastis! You are in the city of this really nice and fresh drink! For what I read the pastis comes from the absinthe. In the past centuries France became addicted to absinthe.

When the prohibitionists (ably supported by the wine lobby, which didn’t like the competition from the green fairy) carried the day in 1915, during the first Great War the French probably needed a stiff drink.

Fast forward to the 1920s. Absinthe was still banned but the government (probably mindful of the tax revenues that would ensue) gave the go-ahead for absinthe-style drinks to be sold provided they contained no wormwood and were not too alcoholic. A brash young entrepreneur from Marseille with a flair for marketing, Paul Ricard, decided to market an anise-flavored drink he called pastis. It was strong stuff and got Ricard into trouble with the authorities, but the French public took a shine to Ricard’s concoction, which bore his name and which he declared to be “the true pastis from Marseille,” a claim that gave the drink a certain raffish allure. By 1932 Ricard and others had managed to get the law changed to allow a higher alcohol content and a market was born. Not to be outdone, Pernod launched its own anise drink (which to this day it resolutely refuses to call a pastis) and pastis became as much a symbol of France as the beret, the baguette and boules.

WHERE TO EAT

Marseilles is full of local restaurateurs seizing up the quarry for their menus. You can try a fresh saltwater oyster before you head to your next stop. Thankfully, they are not rinsed and come delicious au natural.

For a dinner we found a very good fish restaurant: Le Petit Cabanon,  the food was amazing and we drink also good wine!

If you want to taste something local you need to try the savory bouillabaisse, Marseilles's signature dish fish stew. Word on the street is, don’t pluck for the cheap version; opt instead for an eatery that serves up a bowl priced upwards of €25. Although finding an authentic bouillabaisse experience among the tourist traps can be tricky.

Of course, if fish stew doesn’t float your trawler (bouillabaisse is really, really fishy), this port city has a patchwork of other cultural dining options to choose from: you’ll find plenty of Italian, African, and Far Eastern joints to try, so you’re sure to find something tempting.

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