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Marseille, France

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Did You Know … ?

  • Marseille is the oldest city in France (2,600 years).
  • La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, named for Marseille, was originally called “War Song of the Army of the Rhine.”
  • Paul Ricard created the popular Ricard pastis in Marseille (1932).
  • Fernando Rey, the lead French character in “The French Connection” (1971), was cast by accident.
  • Marseille’s MuCEM is France’s first national museum located outside of Paris.

The bouillabaisse taste

It takes a long time to shake a bad rep, but Marseille is succeeding in a big way. The effort reached a crescendo in 2013 when the city was Europe’s Cultural Capital.

Marseille had been seen as something of an urban disaster; the 1971 movie, “The French Connection,” based on a true story of drug dealers, dovetailed with the stereotype.

But this French port city on the Mediterranean worked for its new place in the sun. In 1995, it charted a path for improved economic health through the Euromediterranee project, a long-term intergovernmental program to redevelop the central city. Tourism rose with this boat. The rejuvenated Vieux Port (Old Port), for example, is now a natural tourist magnet.

The Culture Capital designation allowed Marseille to bring on new museums, most notably the European and Mediterranean Civilizations Museum (MuCEM).

Other attractions have been around a long time, well hidden by the bad old reputation. For one thing, the city has a spectacular location on the Mediterranean with mountains at the back, beaches, picturesque islands, rugged cliffs that hug its calanques (fjords) and 300 days of sunshine a year. Its long history has left its mark in quaint old neighborhoods, colorful ports and markets, plus a remarkably diverse population and their related churches, mosques, synagogues, festivals and ethnic culinary choices.

Then there are those extra little things for which Marseille is particularly noted — soap and soup, pastis and petanque, plus a little chateau made famous by a book.

The Savon de Marseille, made using traditional methods, dates from the Middle Ages, while the soup — bouillabaisse — is a descendant of stews concocted by fishermen from unsold fish. A favorite drink, Ricard pastis, was created in Marseille, and petanque, a version of ancient games of boules, was first played nearby, both in the 20th century. Chateau d‘If gets a boost as a tourist attraction because it was the setting for the fictional Count of Monte Cristo; in fact, tourists would visit the charming island chateau anyway.

Finally, Marseille is a gateway to the cities of Provence, but there is no need to rush inland.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Refine your windsurfing skills taking advantage of the area’s mistral from the north.
  • Walk to the hilltop 19th century Notre-Dame de la Garde church, 500 feet above sea level, for great views of the Vieux Port, the coastline, islands and the sea. There are easier ways to get there, too.
  • Go sailing. You can take your sailboat into several ports, including the Vieux Port, as well as some fine calanques, the inlets that are effectively France’s answer to the fjords.
  • Get acquainted with the heart of Marseille at ground level: Meander around the Vieux Port and into the historic Le Panier district to see what you can discover. Time the walk to coincide with the port’s fish market.
  • Rent diving gear and see the area’s stunning calanques from the water.
  • Making the rounds of popular bars and clubs is really a late-night operation. Plan for it and check out spots in and beyond the obvious Vieux Port area.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Walk from the city into the natural wonders of a park, the Calanques National Park. See the cliffs that frame Marseille’s famous calanques (fjords). Access to footpaths is sometimes limited, but you also can access the calanques by boat, which lets you see the dramatic cliffs from the sea.
  • Take a cooking class to learn the rudiments of making bouillabaisse.
  • Jog along the three-mile Corniche for another way to see the coast and admire the architecture at waterside.
  • Cheer on the home team — with the local fanatic fans — at a soccer game in the Velodrome Stadium. Also, join a tour of the stadium.
  • Watch a game of petanque. Then, join a game yourself. Marseille hosts an international petanque tournament each year.
  • Allow time for the new European and Mediterranean Civilizations Museum (MuCEM), which incorporates a startlingly modern building and the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean for a facility that focuses on the Mediterranean-facing cultures, their connections, their histories and current challenges.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Take the ferry to Chateau d’If to see the spot associated with the fictional Count of Monte Cristo. It really did function, at one time, as a prison.
  • Take one of the sightseeing tours available aboard the city’s tourist train.
  • Do what the locals do. Eat bouillabaisse. Drink pastis.
  • Buy traditional Marseille soap in big bars. Also, buy santons, clay models of Christmas crib figures representing the people of Provence.
  • If a lover of popular tradition, be enlightened at the Musee du Terroir Marseillais de Chateau-Gombert (Marseille Museum of Folk Culture). Or, for an overview of Marseille’s long history, see the Musee d’Histoire de Marseille, which encompasses the remains of a huge third century Roman trading ship.
  • Take a day trip to the village of L’Estaque to see hillside tile-roofed houses that appear in many Cezanne and Renoir paintings.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Marseille Office of Tourism and Congresses at www.marseille-tourisme.com and choose your language if necessary.