Keeping with my current plan during Winter to only travel south of London, I decided to go check out Marseille in the south of France over the weekend. It’s a melting pot of different cultures, partly because it’s the first port of call in France for immigrants coming from North Africa. The amazing azure ocean in the old port in Marseille with the huge overlooking forts and old churches make it an interesting place to visit on a weekend and fascinating fuse of French, Algerian and Moroccan culture.
Things to See and Do
The amazing Vieux Port (old port) dominates the centre of Marseille. It was used as the main port of call for North African immigrants into France in the last few hundred years. Today it’s mostly a leisure marina, filled with expensive yachts and catamarans.
The ad-hoc fish market that gets setup at the end of the port is worth checking out as watching all the fisherman auction off their catch is pretty cool. Just walk around both sides of it and take in the culture
St Josephs Fort
Situated on the boulevard on the south side of the old port, this is a huge old port built to protect Marseille. It’s free to enter and you can just walk straight up into it and check out the ramparts and everything inside. Provides awesome views of Marseille.
Located on the north side of the port, this is the walkway surrounding the other fort built to protect the port. It’s a good easy stroll around the fort and you can see locals fishing, swimming, playing local French/Arabic traditional music and discussing whatever it is people in Marseille talk about.
Continue around the Corniche and you’ll find yourself staring straight at the next stop.
I know, there is always at least one in almost all European cities, it’s a cathedral. This one looks pretty rad from the outside though and it is quite different inside as well. Mind the beggar out the front but waltz inside and check it out. You also might see someone roll starting their Peugeot out the front and then letting it roll back towards the sea (they didn’t seem concerned!?) and some people playing Petanque as well like i did.
Palais de Longchamp
When I visited it, it was being restored so all the magnificent water features and fountain out the front was dry. Kids were playing football in the fountain and it all looks pretty shit right now (February 2010) but it’s still worth checking out because it’s a really cool building. It’s at the end of Boulevard Longchamp in the north east end of town, just up from St Charles station.
Side trip to Aix-en-Provence
If you find yourself at a loose end on day 2 after checking out most of the worthwhile things in Marseille, you could get a TER train to Aix-en-Provence. It’s about 40 min up the road and the return train ticket will cost you about €13. It’s more of a quintessentially French town and this is reflected with the cafes, fountains, broad boulevards and tiny laneways and amazing patisseries. Make sure you take the TER train from St Charles station and NOT the TGV. The TGV goes to a dedicated TGV station on the other side of town whereas the regular TER train stops at the SNCF station closest to town.
Aix is a pretty well off town and this serves as a contrast to the diverse and somewhat working class atmosphere of Marseille.
The people here are quite cheery and friendly also. I met a French guy at the train station who spoke about as much English as I spoke French and we talked haphazardly about Australia and where he was from on the train ride back to Marseille. Pity he got a fine from inspectors on the train for not buying a ticket.
Being in France, pastries are the total win, order of the day here. Croissants, pain-au-chocolat and other such tasty items are in abundance and are cheap (€0.80 usually). Marseille is absolutely FULL of kebab places which also do decent pizzas (which are sold by the slice). I bought a kebab and a can of Coke for €6 from a place along La Canbiere (the main drag of Marseille), good value. They put chips in their kebabs here and then toast them for 30-45 seconds, bit of a different spin on your usual kebab. I love how much kebabs vary throughout Europe.
That’s all the cheap food covered, now if you have a few more Euros to spend, you could check out one of the 29304903 cafes along the Vieux Port. The token dish of Marseille is Bouillabaisse and it’s kind of like a steamed fish soup. I didn’t try it because everywhere it was on the menu was €30 a serve but if you have the cash, go for it, it’s probably awesome.
There is also an area called Cours Julien which has a number of bars and restaurants. A guy I met in my hostel and I had a few Kronenbourgs in a cool wine bar that was playing tech house called e-wine and then wandered into a bar further down the street that was more like someone’s lounge room where random dogs were walking around inside and everyone was spilled out onto the sidewalk.
How to get there
Ryanair fly from London Stansted and easyJet from London Gatwick to Marseille Provence Airport (Terminal 2). The usual, full cost suspects also fly to Marseille, but operate from Terminal 1 (Air France et al).
My flight cost £67.98 return including all fees, so it’s a pretty cheap destination to get to.
Shuttle buses leave from the front of halls 3/4 (Terminal 1) to Marseille St Charles train station every 20 minutes and the journey takes about 30-40 minutes. There is a ticket booth out the front where you can buy single trip tickets, which cost €8.50 (one is also located in Marseille St Charles train station for the ride back).
Where to Stay
There isn’t a massive selection of hostels in Marseille. I stayed at the Vertigo Hostel, which is located down a side street across the road from St Charles train station, making it pretty well situated for getting to and from, and for getting to most things worth seeing in Marseille. It wasn’t bursting at the seams with social people wanting to have a big one but the staff were friendly and they have a bar, kitchen for preparing your own meals, a few PCs for internet use and free wifi throughout the hostel. All the staff speak English. Beers at the bar are €2 and they have a few snacks (chips, nuts etc).
You can get a map here and the cute friendly blonde French girl (she only works in the mornings so time your inquiries well) will gladly point out the attractions I’ll mention below on your map.
Typically budget for €100 including the cost of the night/s in your hostel, transfer costs, food, beer, etc. Beers in most bars are around €3 each and you shouldn’t have to pay more than €5-€6 per meal.
Get around in Marseille
Most attractions are accessible on foot but if you start to get a bit weary of it all, the trams and buses will sort you out. Marseille does have a metro system as well if you need to get from one side of the city to the other quickly.
Marseille is a very blue collar French city. It’s the second largest city in France and doesn’t burst with awesome things to see and do, but it’s cool just to walk around and soak up the atmosphere and culture. If you are travelling through the south of France it is worth a visit, but it’s certainly nothing amazing. You’re better off spending more time east in Cannes, Nice and Monaco.