Nice might be one of the hottest destinations on the French coast (figuratively and literally), but if you’re looking for a cultural escape with those same great Mediterranean views, head west to the beautiful city of Marseille. Pronounced mar-sey (roughly!), few folks realise that it is in fact the second largest city in France. It has a great airport that makes it easy to get in/out of town, and the city itself has the same whiff of chic culture that you find in Paris, with a decided sea-side influence. Being a bigger city, there are more opportunities to find inexpensive accommodation, though of course neighbourhoods right in the heart of the action can be pricey.
While you won’t be spending all your time on the beach, Marseille still makes for a brilliant holiday. Here are some highlights.
The Corniche is the road that winds along the coastline, and connects the Old Port area with the city’s beach areas. This road is centuries old, and even back then this is where the smart developers decided to put their resorts, and wealthy locals build houses to show off their wealth. The result is obvious – clear sea on one side, hills and beautiful homes on the other. It’s a wonderful, particularly later in the day when the sun seems to hit things just right.
It’s France, right, so expect the same above-par quality restaurants and top notch bar selections that you’d see elsewhere in France. Last summer the New York Times said that the city might be the best place to eat in France.
Marseille has a bit of a fishy influence – with all those fisherman back in the day, there were plenty of fish to fry, but skip the fish and chips – in Marseille the treat du jour is Bouillabaisse, a fish soup. Eating it is an experience – the soup typically comes with a pile of croutons that you rub with garlic or smear in mayonnaise and then drop it in. It sounds weird, but trust me – it is delicious. And cheap.
You may also want to hit the Fours de Navettes, in the Old Port area, for their famous Navette biscuit. It’s got an orange twinge to it, and they’re boat shaped, which may or may not make them taste different.
I have to say, the French seem obsessed with finding the perfect viewpoint to round off your Marseilles experience. Given that its a coastal city surrounded by some hills, the conclusion is obvious, but that also makes it hard to make specific recommendation. However, the best place to go is Notre Dame de la Garde: This is the iconic church, which looks slightly more like a fortress, sitting on top of a hill overlooking the city – it is one of the highest points, so the view is incredible. The fortress part is intentional as this was once primarily a defensive building. You’ll want to check out this church anyway – inside you’ll notice a lot of boat memorabilia; that’s because fisherman used to come here for blessings. A few years ago the interiors were refurbished, so the beautiful gold ceilings shine once again.
Let’s round off the list with a bit of detail about the beaches of Marseille. They certainly aren’t as nice as Nice, as Marseille has a few pollution problems. As I mentioned briefly earlier, La Corniche and Les Plages near the Prado are the really busy, main beach areas. If you keep going on from this area along the Corniche, you’ll end up in La Pointe Rouge, where there are a few smaller beaches and several surf shops where you can book for all sorts of watersports packages. Most would say the Point Rouge is better for hanging out in the sand, but it all kind of depends on the weather and crowds, so bring a map and be flexible!
Posted : Friday, January 28th, 2011 at 15:06
Andy Hayes is a travel journalist currently based in Seattle, Washington. When not soaking up the Pacific Northwest lifestyle or enjoying life on the road, he is spending time hanging out on his own travel lifestyle magazine, Sharing Travel Experiences.