Like a Local: Marseille
The unspoiled heart of the French Riviera
By Lisa Gerard-Sharp
“There are only two kinds of people in the world — the Marseillais, and those who wish they were.”
I first fell in love with the French Riviera as a child when exploring the wild creeks and secret islands stretching from Cannes to Marseille. As a student of French culture, I later realized the light and art were legendary, too. As a travel writer, I made my home here 10 years ago because I love the landscape and lifestyle. From my desk, I espy yachts moored off Cap d’Antibes, cruise ships in the Bay of Cannes, and an island where Cistercian monks still make wine according to a mystical recipe.
But the Cote d’Azur can be tainted by its own success — from celebrity culture to crazy restaurant bills and the standoffishness of Riviera residents. That’s why I adore Marseille — it has remained refreshingly real, slightly rough around the edges but reeling you in with its stories. And, after a year in the spotlight as a European Capital of Culture, Marseille has never looked more ravishing, with a revamped port but the same indomitable spirit.
France’s oldest city, founded 2,600 years ago, has had a sensitive makeover — a transformed waterfront and new, world-class museums — but the people are delightfully unreconstructed. The two harbour forts were designed by Louis XIV with the cannons facing the city, a sign the Sun King never trusted his rebellious subjects. Ethnically diverse, with big-city firepower of its own, contemporary Marseille continues to go its own way.
The recently redesigned Vieux Port, founded by Greek colonists in 600 BC, has been the heart of city life for two and a half millennia. It’s a place for bobbing boats, noisy fishermen and you. It’s only by the sea that you sense a city whose light inspired Impressionists such as Paul Cézanne.
Stacked above the port is Le Panier, a district riddled by steep alleys and artisans’ cottages, the quaintest also serving as craft shops and cafes. The loveliest spot is the Vieille Charité, a 17th-century hostel for orphans and the homeless – now a sunlit museum complex graced by a domed Italianate chapel.
Whenever you look up, there’s the lofty city symbol, Notre-Dame de la Garde. Better known as La Bonne Mère, this “Good Mother” brings salvation to her people. The local joke is that the basilica hill is so steep that the she will see you safely up, but can’t protect you on the way down.
Off the Beaten Path
If you only visit one museum, make it the newly redone History Museum, built on the site of the original Greek and Roman cities. Ancient vestiges (discovered while building a shopping center) are on view in the gardens, including a Greek necropolis and ramparts and a Roman road and quayside. This is not just France’s biggest history museum, but the one possessing the oldest road in France — which you can follow down to the Vieux Port.
If It’s Free, It’s For Me
Hop on the free ferryboat on the east bank of the Vieux Port and lap up the bustling quaysides, the harbor entrance framed by two ancient forts. Minutes later, you’re on the west bank, strolling along the promenade toward Fort Saint-Jean. The ancient waterfront fort is home to the new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization, which also boasts a striking new structure, a moated block clad in mysterious mesh. Also on the waterfront is the vast Byzantine cathedral and Fort Saint-Nicolas….
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