You see the church atop the hill in the distance above? That is Notre Dame de la Garde, and as I am told by the locals in Marseilles, she watches over the city to keep everyone safe. Throughout Marseilles, almost anywhere you look up, you can see her. So that is where I will begin sharing my travels. Atop Marseilles with this whole historic city below us. Marseille is the second largest city in France actually, but it has largely been overlooked by tourists and the French themselves in the last century. From what I have seen now, that is a shame. Marseille is a cultural gem forged over a millennium if not more at a crossroad of culture and nature, and it is a diamond still rough around the edges after all its years . Some might argue a little polishing could do it some good, and others wonder if it will rob this place of its charm, myself included. With a culture more raw and eclectic than perhaps anywhere in France, you can taste it in its food and see it in the faces of the Marseillaise. It is a port city that has long been importing the cultures of the world fresh off the boats that enter its harbor, and thus there is no one color or one way of dress that defines these people. Pride is their common trait, one that means you never root for other team and are each a self appointed ambassador of this city on the sea. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by several of these amazing Marseillais on my trip to show me what this place is about. Talking to them and new acquaintances around the city, I think Marseilles is at a new kind of crossroads in recent years. Since its declaration as the European Capital of Culture for 2013, a huge influx of funding, reform, and new commerce has come trickling in. It is changing, of that they are sure. But the Marseillaise are brave, they don’t fear change, as they historically embarked on the march to Paris to set the French Revolution in motion. A story that has since become France’s nation anthem. This time, I can only hope such change does not involve the New York style burger joints, coffee shops, and chain stores that have inundated Paris in recent years. If that is what we call gentrification then I think Marseilles can do without. As far as I’m concerned Paris can keep the chic, that kind of “trendy cool”, all that shiny polish. It suits the French capital. But if you come to Marseilles like me, let it be in search of something else. Like the blue sea, the amazing food, and the mistral wind in your hair. And of course, authenticity. I think that is Marseilles’ best trait of all.
Notre Dame de la Garde
A top a hill at the edge of Marseilles you will find Notre Dame de la Garde surrounded sweeping views of the city. Within the church little boats dangle from the ceiling, symbols of the frail boat with neither rudder nor mast that many Roman Catholics believe landed at the place called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer near Arles. Carrying Mary Magdalene evidently, who is believed to have then come to Marseille to convert the whole of Provence. Magdalene is said to have retired to a cave on a hill by Marseille, La Sainte-Baume (“holy cave” baumo in Provençal), where she gave herself up to a life of penance for thirty years. When the time of her death arrived they say she was carried by angels to Aix and into the oratory of Maximinus. These stories seem a bit wild if you ask me, but it is fun to suspend belief from time to time and indulge in the history of this place that is dear to many Marseillaise.
Le Four des Navettes
It’s truly incredible just how long this bakery has been around. Over two hundred years as you can see from the sign, making their speciality, the navettes in the same exact oven since its opening. The navette is a long thin biscuit like cookie, rather firm and chalky in texture, best eaten warm fresh from their ovens. Their flavor is fleur d’oranger, and biting into one the aromas permeate your senses. Its truly incredible, just thinking of it now I can taste them again in my mouth. The navette shape and name takes after the boat of Mary Magdalene mentioned in the story above. 136 Rue Sainte, 13007 Marseille
Once you’ve arrived in Marseille, one of the first stops you should make is Le Panier district not far from the Old Port. Le Panier in French means “basket” and the neigborhood takes its name from its tiny streets tightly woven in and out of this historic area. Here you’ll find local artisans, concept stores, cute cafés, and all the charms of local commerce that will be a nice introduction to the city. The architecture is colorful with quirkly façades like most of the South of France, punctuated by Marseillaise graffiti here and there.
Making Savon de Marseille
La Grande Savonnerie – Of course one of the things that Marseille has come to be known for is its soaps. There is only one way to get real Savon de Marseille, and that is utilising olive oil. Mixed with sodium carbonate and lye of course. It’s a rather simple process but it actually takes several days. Once the soap material is ready it is heated and pressed into solid bricks via a machine like the one above and then stamped to look like the traditional soap. It’s rather pure and can also be used to wash your clothes in addition to showering etc. We got to make our own in this La Grande Savonerie in the Panier which is actually quite a small little atelier! It was very cool! 36 Grand Rue, 13002 Marseille
Hotel Dieu Intercontinental
Generally speaking, the Hotel Intercontinental is always a nice play to stay. But the Hotel Dieu Intercontinental is really unlike any other. This spectacular new addition to Marseille arrived just two years ago. They’ve taken one of the most historic buildings in the city, once used as a hospital but left all but abandoned for too long, and poured in millions of euros for renovations to make it the most luxurious place to stay in Marseille. Just a stone’s throw from the port, the hotel is beautiful inside and out. With several restaurants complete with a Michelin star chef, and a gorgeous terrace to enjoy a cocktail or a more modern take on bouillabaisse, you do not have to book a room at the hotel to enjoy it. Exploring its large stairwells and peaking into the Presidential Suite at the top floor, it has a modern touch while preserving the incredible integrity of the original building that does justice to Marseille. 1 Daviel Square, 13002 Marseille
Bouillabaisse at Miramar
If you go to Marseilles you must absolutely eat an authentic bouillabaisse, and there is no better place than Miramar. This is one of Marseilles’ local specialties, a salty and flavorful fish soup filled with tons of seafood. In Marseille it is tradition to show you all of the fish and crustaceans they will put in your bouillabaisse before shelling, filleting, cooking, and serving it to you. They take this art very seriously and it usually involves two waiters, a gigantic platter, and at Miramar maybe even some sparklers and singing. This mix is the essence of the bouillabaisse, which is a traditional fisherman’s soup. You can see its origins if you go and watch the fish market along the port just in front of Miramar. The fisherman never know what they will catch each day, and once at the market they set aside a mixed bag of their daily catch to take home and cook up themselves. Anything from scallops, to mussels, to lobster, seabass and more. The chef at Miramar even shares his bouillabaisse recipe for you to try here! 12 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille
With ferries leaving from the harbor regularly, visiting the famous Chateau d’If just off the coast of Marseilles is very easy. This island, once a prison, was made famous in Alexandre Dumas’ famous The Count of Monte Cristo. It is filled with the history of Dumas whose influence reached much farther than the literary realm. In Dumas’ day, literature was reserved for the elite. Books and printing were too expensive for the majority of the population, and thus knowledge was also made less accessible to them. Dumas’ fictional stories were laced with important history and political thinking to empower those who were not members of the financial elite. He published his works in local papers instead of books so that all people could read for entertainment and education.
On our last day in Marseilles we tagged along on a boat of the cutest older Marseillaise couple. We headed towards the Calanques, a rocky range just south east of Marseilles, lining the sea and protected as a National Park. They are home to the beautiful turquoise coves you see boaters enjoying when you google “summer in the South of France.” You know me, always chasing a good cliché. Their wooden sail boat was so darling, and they told me about how they take it out all the time together, sometimes even camping out overnight in the belly of the boat parked in the coves. Leah and I explored once we arrived, and we spent the rest of the afternoon watching the Fall For France team prep for a beautiful photoshoot out on the cove, and then the photographer, Braden, work to get the perfect shot! It was so dreamy. We left the Calanques with the sun sunsetting over the cove behind us, and I was so sad to leave. They were magical and I’m dying to go back in the summer time with new friends.
Atout France for organising this beautiful trip and to the entire Fall For France photo team as we followed them around photographing the behind the scenes of the new Fall For France campaign (a later post to come!). Especially to Sophie for being our Atout companion in Marseilles!
Marseille Tourisme (@OTCM13) and all of their welcoming team for being our hosts and guides in the city and showing us the best it has to offer. They are the definition of hospitality and incredibly knowledgable and passionate about their home.
Rail Europe for getting us to and around the south safely and comfortably with the generosity of their Rail Pass which is a great way to travel in Europe by the way if you are moving around frequently and want to keep your travel affordable.