Impressions of Marseille

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Marseille’s Vieux Port

Marseille is France’s second largest city and is located on the Mediterranean coast. Blessed with a mild climate and a stunning natural harbour, Marseille has played an important role in the trading routes in the Mediterranean since Roman times. However, the city entered a period of decline in the mid-20th century. In 2013, Marseille has the distinction of being the European Capital of Culture, an event that many locals hope will kickstart a revival of the city. When I started planning my trip to Marseille, I asked around for tips and advice. The opinions were evenly split; one group insisted I avoid the city and instead head straight for the French Riviera or the Provence, whilst another group spoke with great enthusiasm about the city. I was intrigued. It soon became clear to me that Marseille is perhaps one of those places that, with time and exploration, slowly reveals itself to you.

Exploring Marseille

Vieux Port

I felt the instant draw of Marseille the second I stepped out of the Metro station at Vieux Port, the historic harbour in the heart of the city. I was greeted by blue skies, gulls, a salty sea breeze and a gorgeous brand new promenade. The harbour was a hive of activity, with both locals and tourists enjoying the sunshine at the many al fresco cafés and restaurants, or at the embankments. At the harbourfront, a group of boisterous fishermen sold their catch of the day.

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Locals enjoying the sunshine at Vieux Port.

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The fish market at Vieux Port.

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This mirrored-roof is a great eye-catcher at Vieux Port.

The harbour itself was packed with leisure boats and fine yachts. I quickly spotted the city’s most-loved icon perched atop a steep hill fronting the harbour: the impressive Notre Dame de la Garde basilica.

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The Notre Dame de la Garde basilica overlooks Vieux Port.

Around the harbour, construction crews worked briskly to complete the renovation work on historic monuments, the promenade and new futuristic-looking buildings such as the Pavilion M (the brand new tourist office), MuCem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) and the adjacent Villa Méditerranée. This was clearly a city in the midst of a makeover.

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Marseille’s Hôtel de Ville or City Hall looking fresh and bright after its renovations.

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The brand new Pavilion M – tourist office and exhibition centre.

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The futuristic MuCem is linked to the historic Fort Saint Jean via a bridge.

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The Villa Méditerranée is another spectacular new building in Marseille.

I explored Marseille in the following days and discovered a cosmopolitan city, with a rich historic and cultural heritage, which was bent on re-inventing itself. The refurbished Vieux Port, the first stop for most visitors, is a wonderful window to the city. From here, streets branch out in different directions into the surrounding neighbourhoods such as the quaint le Panier district, with its gorgeous cafés and art galleries, and the bustling Arab quarter.

Le Panier

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Historic houses in le Panier.

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Quirky art in le Panier.

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This bar is apparently very famous in France.

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The Vieille Charité is one of Marseille’s most beautiful museums and is located in the heart of the Panier district.

Another muse-see in Marseille is the city’s 19th century Cathedral, situated between the Panier district and the port. Built to impress, the cavernous Cathedral or La Major is a mix of Byzantine, Romanesque and Gothic styles.

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The Cathedral was built in the late-19th century and was designed to reflect the city’s prosperity and influence.

The Arab Quarter

Marseille has a sizeable Arab population – immigrants from the ex-French colonies in North Africa, including Algeria and Tunisia. The Arab Quarter, situated just north of the Vieux Port, is a maze of streets filled with shops, markets and restaurants. The heavy scent of spices in the air was absolutely captivating.

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The fish market in the Arab Quarter.

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Spices galore!

The Arab Quarter also has a selection of some of the city’s best restaurants. For authentic Arab cuisine (with reputedly the best couscous in town), try Chez Kachetel. If you’re a big fan of seafood, you have to have a meal at Toinou!

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The best place in Marseille for couscous.

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Toinou serves some of the best seafood platters in Marseille.

The beacon of Marseille

I set aside a whole afternoon to visit the city’s most prominent icon: the Notre Dame de la Garde. Situated on the city’s highest point, this famous basilica is often referred to by locals as Marseille’s compass or beacon. It stands tall like a guardian of the city and the views from the hill are stunning, but get ready to be blown away by the magnificent interior the second you step inside!

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The magnificent interior of the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica.

Marseille is doing a remarkable job in re-inventing itself as a new cultural magnet. The museums and cultural centres look amazing and the line-up of exhibitions to be held throughout the year in conjunction with European Capital of Culture is impressive. I wish I could’ve stayed longer to explore other parts of the city – three days wasn’t sufficient in my opinion. I missed other beautiful and interesting sights like the Palais Longchamp, the fishing village of L’Estaque, the city’s islands and beaches, and the hip Cours Julien district. I guess I’ll have to return soon!

A big heartfelt thank you goes to Eva from the Marseille-Provence Greeters network for showing me around her city. Her enthusiasm certainly rubbed off on me! Eva is also the owner of a gorgeous holiday rental in le Panier. The apartment is bright, spacious and boasts stunning views of the harbour and the Mediterranean Sea.

The beautiful view from Eva's apartment in le Panier.

The beautiful view from Eva’s apartment in le Panier.

If you’re planning to visit Marseille, check out Eva’s apartment and ask her or any of her Marseille Greeter colleagues to show you around. It really is a terrific way to get to know Marseille… through the eyes of a local.

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7 Responses to “Impressions of Marseille”

  1. Keith Jenkins 23/05/2013 11:00 am
    #

    Thanks Paula!

    Cheers,
    Keith

  2. Paula C. Wilkes 23/05/2013 9:55 am
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    Stunningly beautiful photos as well as the Marseille. France is gifted with wonderful places. Two thumbs up Keith! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Simon 22/05/2013 2:50 pm
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    Oddly, I never really dedicated much time to France, apart from the ‘obvious’ Paris and a little bit of Provence and Cote d’Azur. Marseille looks so fascinating… 

  4. Keith Jenkins 22/05/2013 2:48 pm
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    Thanks Thomas. The crime level was one of the reasons some people advised me not to visit. I’m glad I did as Marseille was a great surprise. Marseille, like many other big cities, undoubtedly has areas that a visitor should avoid. With common sense and some research of where to go/areas to avoid, I’m sure you’ll be fine. I didn’t feel unsafe in the city at all.

    Cheers,
    Keith

  5. Thomas Dembie 22/05/2013 2:37 pm
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    Beautiful photos. Marseille definitely has some nice areas, and I’d love to visit one day. Having lived in France and met many people from the area, it’s a shame the city has a bad reputation for high crime. Like any city, if you’re smart about how you travel I’m sure you’ll be fine.

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