Marseille is France’s second largest city and has been one of Europe’s largest ports for many centuries. The economy of Marseille and the surrounding region is still very closely linked to its port. The docks experienced decline in the 1970s after the oil crisis but have recently been redeveloped with funds from the European Union.
Marseille is a lively city and while it lacks the historical monuments which many cities can offer the tourist, it seduces the visitor with an exciting sense of the present. This year the city is bristling with events as it blasts through its stint as European Capital of Culture. The city is packing a lot into 2013 with new museums and cultural centres, restored old ones and around 500 different events during the 12 months. There’s also a parallel fringe festival (“le Off”). The Capital of Culture year has been split into three “episodes”. Episode 3: “Marseille Provence – a Thousand Faces” runs from September to December 2013.
The Vieux Port (old port) has always been Marseille’s focal point for celebration, protest or anything else. Commercial traffic moved from the VieuxPort in the 19th century, so this area now bobs with pleasure craft. Ferries sail from here to the prison island of If, where the Count of Monte Cristo was supposed to have been imprisoned. Visiting the fortifications is a bracing experience and well worthwhile. You can also take the free ferry boat from one side of the port to the other. In the summer there is a boat service to Pointe Rouge, the port on the south side of Marseille. Every morning you can come to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the fish market but the main reason most visitors come to the VieuxPort is for its cafés and restaurants. Marseille’s modern food scene is one of the most exciting in France, with restaurants and bistros serving a diverse range of cuisines from around the Mediterranean.
The area around Notre Dame du Mont and Cours Julien just inland from the VieuxPort is alive with bars and restaurants. Marseille’s most famous dish is Bouillabaisse, a fish soup. The number and type of fish in the soup vary according to the chef and what fish is available. Another local speciality is Navettes which are small hard biscuits shaped like little boats and often flavoured with orange. They are traditionally eaten after the Candlemas procession on 2nd February but are available all year. Pastis, the aniseed flavoured drink usually served with water is made in Marseille. Probably the one most well known in Britain is Pernod. In Marseille pastis is drunk mostly as an aperitif, best enjoyed sitting outside in the sunshine.
On the hill behind the Quai du Port is the area known as Le Panier. It is a maze of narrow streets where you can escape Marseille’s traffic and explore the small shops and cafés dotted around.
Marseille may be a busy, bustling, hard-working city but it is worth seeking out the areas where you can just relax, enjoy the food and drink and soak up the Mediterranean sun.