Marseille is one of those cities that make you dream—the Vieux Port, the Mediterranean, the lifestyle. It has all the qualities of paradise.
A normal afternoon consists of a large terrace, a highball of chalk-yellow Pastis, a good book, salt water, sunshine, and maybe, the occasional rabble of passing tourists. C’est la base.
But trouble swam through paradise. Marseille earned a sorry reputation as maybe the only Mediterranean city with a fat red ❌.
Do not visit. An Immigration crisis, drug trafficking, and entanglement with the mafia created a melange more potent and lethal than your strongest Bouillabaisse. Each hit the city hard. Marseille and shootings are almost like, well, the U.S. and shootings.
The city fell into a state, which up until a few years ago, seemed unlikely to restore. Mars, they dub it up north.
Word around Paris now is that Mars is–out of this world 🤟🏾.
Good friends made the move southward last year, so we paid them a visit to verify this rumour.
A 3-and-a-50-cent-piece ride from Paris; our train pulls in to Gare St. Charles at 22h30.
The climate strikes first. Stark cold, and barren like a desert night.
Street lamps tacked high on buildings, they’re dim-lit, filtering down in an eery resonance. Boulevard d’Athenes is thick with fast food, mini-marts and bloated trash cans. Tram tracks slice through the gaping Boulevard, which for a Friday night, is lifeless.
The city changes.
From one block to the next, a brusque development, and by the time we arrive at our friend’s apartment on the impressive Boulevard de la Republique, the city resembles, what I know as France.
11h00 – 13h00
Colourful pots filled with dangling plants embellish windows. Striking alleyways, graffiti covers the facades of vibrant orange and yellow apartments. This is Le Panier–the most charming and picturesque quarter of Marseille. Located in the 2nd Arrondissement, (yes, Marseille also has them) it’s one of the cities oldest neighbourhoods.
After a winding flight of stairs that scales the Intercontinental Hotel grounds, we arrive at Place des Moulins, a small empty courtyard that serves as the gateway to the rest of Le Panier.
Translated into English, the basket is a rather lame name for an iconic quarter. The origins come from the 17th-century Inn Les Logis du Panier, which used to house beggars and homeless.
Located between the Vieux Port and a seaside promenade that hosts Cathedral La Major and MUCEM (two interesting, yet time-consuming experiences), Le Panier is known for its cafe’s, cantines and thrift shopping–in the original sense–antiques, not 90s streetwear. This area is perfect for a Saturday lunch and stroll.
@bardes13coins, 🥙a standard sit-down lunch with locals and aioli on a sunny terrace. @takosan🍜Japanese street cantine, specialising in Kansai regional Takoyaki. @ComptoirOHuiles 🥒a small olive oil dealer who serves superb local fair.
After Le Panier we walked along the water until we reached this massive brick and stone structure.
Built in 1856, Les Dockes serve as the storage space of the city for boat and marine equipment. At this point Le Vieux Port served as leisure marina, and trading had shifted to this area. It was the golden age for Marseille. The city had developed into an important trading port in the world.
In 2001, they renovated this historically impressive structure into an aesthetically pleasing one, and probably the closest thing that this city has to ‘posh.’ It’s a hybrid of office space, a covered market, and a food court. Think Chelsea Market. Only, it was near empty.
Notre Dame de la Garde
Perched at the apex of the Marseille is the Bonne Mere, Notre Dame de la Garde. Over 800 years old, constructed in a style not-at-all French, this immaculate and striking cathedral is another reason why Marseille seems bizarre in contrast to the rest of France. It’s also a mandatory visit.
If not for the Byzantine textiles, which I’m sure we all know and love, there is an Instagrammable panorama of the city.
You can get there on the 60 bus, scaling the hill on foot (approx. 15 min), or what I recommend, taking a Lime scooter.
A hilly, picturesque neighbourhood that connects the Bonne Mere to our next point of interest, Vallon des Auffes. I found this neighbourhood particularly stunning.
Clothes dry on high-wire. Small chemins (alleys) suddenly open onto cliffside vistas. No traffic, in fact, the alleys are unoccupied except the occasional lone cat traversing the road and climbing the fence of a house.
Vallon Des Auffes
Les Vallon Des Auffes is a small picturesque viaduct, which used to be a common port for fisherman dating back to the 16th century. Now, it serves pretty much the same purpose, after a reconstruction in the ’60s to repair from its destruction during WW2.
A petit semi-circle of white fishing boats dipped in a rippled blue. The shadows of the viaduct and picturesque buildings distort over time, swallowing it in darkness. Twilight is the hour to view this stunning marina.
Like the rest of Marseille, the view is breathtaking, but lasts only a moment, before it’s taken away by loud traffic or a group of thugs kicking around.
Ah La Corniche, a lifestyle like none other. The Corniche is the winding road that leads along the Mediterranean coast. The goal is to get here while it’s HH, and finish a couple drinks and a planche before the sun sets.
In the summer La Corniche wild; in the winter it’s relaxing. If you’ve been trekking around, the promenade is the best place to stop and soak in the rest of the sunshine.
The freaks come out at night!
Ascend a long, dolled up staircase, weaving past potential crowds of smokers to reach Cours Ju. Around an asymmetric, man-made pond, terraces and bars convene to create this beloved district for partying.
Cours Ju is just the hippety-dippest place for a fete in all of France, they say! But mannnn, the weekend I went, it was dead. And being dead in Marseille means sketchville. I’ll have to give it a one-time pass.
That night, we ate at @LaCantinetta, an Italian restaurant on the short-list of several blogs and guides, however, the food doesn’t touch anything from the Big Mamma group.
My short-list for dinner:
@ElPicoteo 🌶 Spanish style
@L’Oléas 🍤Provincial with a nightly menu.
If you’re not up for all that Coursju-ness, I strongly recommend Palais de Justice area for cocktails.
@Copperbay, ⚓️🍸one of my favorites! This nautical themed, lux-cocktail den opened a Marseille silo.
@Gaspard🍹🥘Thoughtful tapas paired with cocktails
@CarryNation– 🤫🗝 Speakeasy style
The proof is at the port, Marseille is the oldest surviving city in France.
800 B.C. founded by the Phocaea Greeks, a small civilisation from modern-day western Turkey, who were the pioneers of Greek naval exploration. They were the first Greeks documented to reach the kingdom of Spain in that epoch–and they were the Settlers of Massalia or Marseille.
They did the hard work, so you wouldn’t have to. The easiest move on a Sunday morning is the port. Sunny terraces, mediocre coffee, and tourists. Take a book. If you get bored of reading, there’s a market where local items are sold (perfect for gifts).
Try a Navette, an oddly shaped sweet-biscuit from the region.
Then, drop what you’re doing and head to @LaBoiteàPanisse for another regional staple, the Panisse. This chickpea/fish fritter is remarkable. There’s a reason Alice Waters named her institution Chez Panisse. And if the rest of the United States wises up, it’s an optimal replacement for the sweet potato fry.
Frankly, Sundays in France are awkward. Everything is closed because of the church, or ‘family time’ yet you walk outside and everyone’s waddling around like they’re searching for something to do. In Paris, the neighbourhood is waiting in line at the one Boulangerie that’s open. You’ll see people curb on benches and crack a beer at 11h30 for fear of boredom.
Cliffs and blue waters that rival Greece or the Caribbean.
Marseille has the fortune of having a national park in their backyard. Designated as such in 2012, Les Calanques is a collection of limestone precipices with green vegetation sprouting directly from the stone.
Trekkers and small boats convene during the day and disperse at night.
It’s worth every second of the perilous terrain that you take to get there. We went for 2-hours, and I consider it a highlight.
There are dozens of tour offices who will get you there and back within the day, but c’mon, live a little, explore for yourself.
For late trains: Kick around Opera. It’s close enough to Gare St. Charles.
Pretty much everything will be closed, except a Beer House called @LesBerthom, where you can get a good (and surprisingly local) beer and some finger food for a real unproductive and out of it return to wherever. Other options include fast food and tourist traps…but you’ve avoided them so far, so why start now?
All photos are originals