Who’s afraid of marseille?
The Roamers discover an enchanting city
I’ve dreamed of seeing Marseille for many years, largely because of how Julia Child wrote about the time she and husband Paul lived there. However, we had heard lots of negative things about the city: it’s dangerous, there’s a lot of crime, they have a drug problem, it’s dirty, etc. But when we had an expiring credit card benefit, we decided to use it to explore this city. And what a great experience it turned out to be!
Getting there was easy, just 1 1/2 hours on a fast train
We checked into our hotel, the beautiful Intercontinental Hotel Dieu, which overlooks the old port. As part of the credit card benefit, we received a room upgrade, breakfast both days, and a credit to spend (which we used at the bar, of course).
The view from our room
We enjoyed lunch on a sunshiney terrace nearby before boarding le petit train for a little tour. Our main objective was seeing the basilica at the top of the hill (you can see it in the photo above). Topped with a golden statue of Mary and Jesus (which in the English translation of the French tour narration became “Mary and the Kid”) the Notre Dame de la Guard is magnificent.
We climbed about ten thousand steps to arrive at the chapel, where a prayer service (call and response) was in process.
The chapel during a service
In the basilica I was fascinated by the paintings on the walls and ceiling. Looking more closely, I saw that wealthy people had donated these decorations, I assume in order to be remembered for posterity.
“Donated by the Count and Countess Pastré, 1889”
As gorgeous as the basilica was, the view was even more inspiring. Atop the hill, one can see the entire city. . .
. . .and the sea.
After a bumpy descent, the train dropped us at the old port, where we enjoyed a late afternoon stroll. Then it was on to dinner at Ekume, whose bouillabaise tasting menu we’d chosen as a treat for Phil. We arrived to find that one must pre-order that menu, so we chose a different tasting menu with wine pairings (of course). It was good, but a bit fishy for me. I prefer fish that doesn’t really taste like fish–but Phil enjoyed the meal. I mostly loved the dessert.
This photo doesn’t do justice to the magnificent Escalier de la Gare Saint Charles
The next morning we met our guide for a real treat: a 5 1/2 hour walking tour, Beyond Bouillabaise. To call this merely a culinary tour would be a disservice! We met our guide, Corinne (Coco), at the top of the magnificent train station staircase, where she greeted us (no one else on the tour; lucky Roamers!) with pastries to munch as we strolled.
Just one of the many sculptures on the staircase
We wandered a while, with Coco pointing out historical sites and telling stories about each neighborhood. After stopping for coffee and more treats at a popular square, we continued on to the stunning Palais Longchamp, which is not a palace. You can read about it here.
Palais Longchamp; we’ll definitely return for the museum!
A random hilarious thing happened en route, when we “stumbled” upon a dog’s comment about a right-wing politician (the heir apparent to Marie le Pen, according to Coco).
Doo-doo to the right wing
As we strolled, Coco knocked on a shuttered door, which opened to reveal a crossant maker at work! I was fascinated watching him place a giant sheet of butter atop the dough, folding it and then running it through the machine. And his croissants were among the best I’ve ever tasted!
This delightful gentleman allowed me to take his picture!
We had visited several family-owned shops, tasted multiple treats, and walked quite a bit when Coco announced that it was time for a pre-lunch apératif. We stopped at a 1930s bar for a glass of wine and a bowl of panisses, which are chickpea frites served with a mustardy aoli.
The bar, with original 1930s décor
Then, of course, it was time for lunch. Coco took us to a tiny restaurant serving delicious Algerian food. Nadia, the owner and chef, was charming and passionate about her cuisine. We shared a salad followed by crunchy fried sardines. I’d never tasted sardines before and was surprised at how tasty they were! Nadia insisted we return to try her couscous, and we definitely plan to do that!
La Saveur, chez Nadia
After lunch we walked through a wonderful outdoor market where people can buy fresh fish and produce at very low prices. This was a welcome contrast to U.S. food deserts, where it’s hard to find fresh food. We stopped in several more places to sample treats before heading to my favorite stop of the entire tour: a hardware store!
Maison Empereur is not just any hardware store. Covering most of a city block, this 200-year-old institution offers hardware, yes, but so much more: an entire roomful of kitchen knives, a huge kitchenware section, toys, clothing, housewares–even a perfume shop offering the oldes perfumes of France.
By this time we were loaded with purchases–spices, tapenades, fragrance, gifts, etc. We headed with Coco to our final stop, La Caravelle, a sailors’ bar from the ’20s. There we had a glass of pastis and enjoyed the fabulous view of the port before bidding farewell to our wonderful guide and walking off the tour treats before dinner.
Dinner. That was weird. I’d promised Phil bouillabaise, and Coco had pointed out the best place to get the authentic dish, a pricey white tablecloth place overlooking the port. Once seated, we were informed that the minimum bouillabaise order was for two people–at 80 euros each! We made our usual excuse (“this is the last XX we’ll ever buy!”) and ordered the dish, along with wine and dessert.
First we were served several delicious amuses bouches. Then the waiter brought large bowls of broth, along with toasted baguette slices, raw garlic, and rouille (a garlicky sauce). We were instructed to rub the bread with garlic, top it with rouille, and drop it into the broth (think of French onion soup). It was delicious!
First course bouillabaisse
While we were enjoying this, the waiter brought an enormous bowl of raw fish–six different types of fish!–to show us what was coming. We then were served ANOTHER large bowl of broth, this time stuffed with tons of whole or almost-whole fish! It was easily enough for eight people. We hardly made a dent in it, especially since I don’t enjoy oily, fishy fish. We gave up, but then DESSERT came! My lemon souffle was good, and Phil enjoyed his chocolate concoction. But honestly? Once was definitely enough.
So. Much. Fish.
We waddled back to the hotel, and the next morning we enjoyed another special treat. The Cosquer Mediterranée is an amazing duplication of 30,000-year-old cave paintings discovered by speleologist Henri Cosquer in the ’90s. The cave paintings, 35 meters below sea level, are being destroyed by water, so they have been meticulously recreated; seated in 6-person modules, we glided through the water in this underground experience that felt as if we were actually in the caves. Highly recommended!
After our tour we headed to Saisons, a Michelin-starred restaurant offering a reduced-price lunch, where we enjoyed a delicious three-course meal with wine for less than half of the bouillabaise experience. Finally, it was time to check out of the hotel and head for home.
We could not have enjoyed Marseille more, and we will definitely return. We loved the diversity, the fascinating neighborhoods, and the friendly people, and we always felt safe. If you have the opportunity, go! You won’t regret it.
Nighttime view from our hotel