If it’s Sunday it must be Marseille!
Not a lot of people know that one can take a Eurostar all the way from London to the South of France without changing trains!! The 07.15 from St Pancras arrives at Marseille St. Charles at 14.47 local time. I booked this train six months ahead and paid only £57 one way.
The third largest town in France has lots to offer and it’s worth exploring on foot to take in not only the obvious tourist sites but also to see the seedier side which reflects the reality of a port city which is said to have the highest unemployment rate in France and whose youth demonstrates its frustrations virtually everywhere in the form of graffiti as political comment and protest. Street art is tolerated by the locals and some of the artists are well-known and use the wall spaces in rotation, thereby creating a running commentary of the tensions in the city.
We were lucky to arrive on the first Sunday of the month, the very day that all museums in the city are free of charge. So having dropped off our bags, we headed straight out and visited the well-signposted Le Panier (the old quarter) just north from the Old Port and up a steep hill criss-crossed by cobbled streets. Much of it is closed to road traffic from 11.30am onwards, with the exception of the Petit Train which can deliver you there from the Old Port and back for a couple of Euros. It stops at the Vieille Charitée, which was originally a poorhouse built between 1671 and 1749 and is made up of of a three-floored gallery looking over an inner courtyard with the centrepiece of an imposing domed chapel.
It now functions as a museum and cultural centre and I was particularly taken by a mummified cat on display along with its sarcophagus in the Musée d’Archéologie Méditerranéenne!
There’s a café inside the complex but many more on the square just opposite.
We also visited Notre Dame de la Garde. Built in the 19th century, this Romanesque-Byzantine style basilica is one of Marseille’s top tourist attractions, and it is worth the effort. On the day of our visit we were greeted by hundreds of motorcyclists who attended an outdoor service while we were able to go inside the building undisturbed. The views over the old port and city and beyond are simply wonderful.
After collecting our hire car at the station we drove the twenty miles or so to ‘Aix’, although it would have been entirely possible to travel easily by bus or train.
We stayed at the Hôtel des Augustins, a converted 12th-century convent, which is centrally placed and just off the famous Cours Mirabeau. It was worth paying a bit extra for the convenience, although we did take the cheapest option – a small room at the top of the building. We left our car in an all-night car-park five minutes walk away. Having managed to get there in time to enjoy the market which takes over the town every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday we bought some Provençal soaps smelling of Rosemary and Verveine, for just a euro each, though there was ‘un embarrass de choix’ of other aromas. Rather pleased as I saw the same soaps later on in the trip selling for two euros in Nice and four euros in Cassis. I dread to think what they would have cost in over-priced St Tropez.
With time at a premium, we visited the Musée Granet and the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs, now housing the Jean Planque collection under the name ‘Granet XXe’, available under one ticket. Highlights include works by Cézanne, van Gogh, Giacometti, Rembrandt, Picasso and Bonnard, to name just a few.
We also saw the exceptionally beautiful Burning Bush Triptych of Nicolas Froment at the Saint Sauveur Cathedral. (I’m not showing my photo as it is so worth seeing fresh.)
Aix is great to stroll around – famed for its fountains and gastronomic delights including a huge range of nougat that can be purchased by the slab.
Next stop was 30 miles back to the coast. We left the car overnight in Des Gorguettes Park & Ride free of charge but had to pay 2.60 euros each for the bus (which runs between 9am and 8pm) into town. Cassis is charming and easily walkable.
It was a windy day so we were able to visit only three of the Calanques by boat due to the rough conditions at sea. These are fjord-like inlets carved into the white limestone which can be found along the ten-mile stretch of coast from Marseilles to Cassis. In 2012, most of them were declared a National Park. Many can be reached only by boat or by hiking in. Some have attractive beaches and are great sheltered swim-spots. (Note to self – a tempting future trip!).
I indulged myself in a genuine (and now quite rare) Bouillabaise at Chez Gilbert, which is a member of the ‘Charter of the Bouillabaisse Marseillaise’. On Quai des Baux, Chez Gilbert (+33 4 4201 7136) is one of only 11 restaurants in France that make their bouillabaisse according to the puritan Marseille charter. What you get in some places is fish added to fish soup which is still delicious but not authentic. The real thing includes rascasse, a bony rockfish which lives in the reefs close to shore. The broth is served first in a soup bowl with slices of bread and rouille (olive oil with garlic, saffron and cayenne pepper), then the fish is served separately on a large platter.
We were lucky that the road from Cassis to La Ciotat, known as the Routes des Crêtes et Cap Canaille, was open the next day as the wind had died down. Cap Canaille is the highest sea cliff in France and the route is a mere 9 circuitous miles with often 360-degree views. If it is is closed you can still drive up a mile or so to the telecommunications tower along a rough road which offers similarly stunning vistas. It’s well signposted from the town.
St Tropez was a swizz. None of the real glamour remains, just over-inflated prices. Worth an amble through the pretty village and port but I regretted paying roughly 10 Euros for an Orangina for the dubious privilege of watching other tourists watching me!
Our trip ended in Nice – see the next post.