Arriving at the main train station, the first thing you see is the view over the whole city. Sea, sun, music and people. You immediately feel the spirit of a marine capital. Climbing down the massive renaissance stairs of Saint-Charles railway station, makes you more and more certain that you don’t want to leave before you have seen everything the place can offer.
I travelled from Germany to Marseille in June. The warm mediterranean climate is a blest after the long winter days spent in the northern part of the continent. Although it is already hot at the beginning of the summer, the air remains fresh. You could smell the beach, the sea food, the wine, the limetrees and the mulberries. The hills and the water give a perfect balance for those who want to enjoy the seaside, but still have a chance to go up and spend time in a green and cool environment.
The oldest European port has been influenced by many cultures and nowadays it is one of the most multicultural places in France. You can spot people from everywhere bringing their own world at one place. The word to describe it is colorful. There is so much to learn about the city just from observing the people. I got the chance to do that by sitting on the street and sketching what I see. I spotted strangers dressed funny, who were wandering without obvious purpose. I saw rich people, old men, children, walking alone. A lot of stories happened in front of my eyes during my stay, some of them sad, some beautiful and inspiring.
Although there is a big social variety, one thing unites the people of Marseille and that is their great respect for the artists and their pride in their culture. One of the things I remember from the first days is a little boy on the street. It was early in the morning and me and my friend had just started the first sketches for that day. He walked by, starring at us and disappeared around the corner. After a while he came back, this time he looked at our drawings with understanding eyes and said something in French. We couldn’t figure out what he meant, but at the end he gave both of us a little piece of candy. For me this was an example for the priorities of the locals.
To express yourself through the arts seems to be something of main importance for the character of the city. From beautiful antic architecture to modern graffiti art, the streets are full of pieces you could just stop and admire. Musicians and street performers are there to help you not forget your experience. Marseille was chosen for the cultural capital of Europe of 2013 for a reason. There are lots of festivals and events, especially during the summer, which makes an important contribution to the tourism.
Le Vieux Port or where everything is happening
Something typical for the port cities is the importance of the old seaport as a meeting point for the citizens. The structure of the capital is built around the seaside and there is no doubt that here is the epicenter of the life in Marseille. The traffic is removed which, in combination with the beautiful mirror pavilion, gives open space for performances and the people don’t hesitate to take advantage of that opportunity thus every day you can see dancers, musicians, acrobats and all kind of artists gathered at the square.
Another thing at the old port are the markets. From beautiful jewellery to all kinds of food, here you can find some really interesting presents. Usually, in the morning there is also a fish market with fresh fish, caught earlier that day, so it is interesting to see from where do the restaurants buy their delicacy.
But the best part are the evenings. The hot day is gone, people sit around the water and enjoy the sunset. Everyone is here and if you are looking to meet new friends, that is the right place to do it.
What to see
Marseille is full of things to see, but there are some main landmarks that you don’t have to miss.
Notre Dame de la Garde
The catholic basilica is located on the highest hill in the city and it can be seen from almost everywhere. It is built on the foundations of an ancient fort. Its architecture is remarkable and impressive and the statue of the Madonna and Child on the top of the church is said to be the protector of the city. Climbing up to the hill is a hard work, but the view over Marseille is the greatest award.
Have you read The Count of Monte Cristo, one of the greatest works Alexandre Dumas’? A novel about adventure, love and revenge. Chateau d’if is the prison, were the main character has spent years of exile. It is located on the smallest island in the Mediterranean Sea, just around one kilometer offshore in the Bay of Marseille. The fiction story, related to the place, made visiting this fortress an extraordinary trip for me and I definitely recommend it.
You will walk by the beautiful fortification from the time of Louis XIV every day, because it is located close to the Old Port. Perfect place to check out more than once in the late lazy afternoon. It is connected with a bridge to the national French museum. Great example of combining old and modern architecture.
Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations
If you are excited about architecture you will definitely be impressed by the building of the first national French museum outside Paris. It was opened in June, on the occasion of the announcement of Marseille for European capital of Culture for 2013.
La Vieille Charité
Another beautiful baroque building in the old Panier quarter of Marseille, which was an almshouse for the poor and nowadays is a museum center.
Something for all the architects out there, Unité d’Habitation is the modernist residential housing principle, developed by Le Corbusier and Cité radieuse is the most famous building of these developments. It is outside the city, so if you are not exactly an enthusiast about the French modernist’s work you may not be able to enjoy this trip as much as me, but it is always interesting to see his idea of a modern utopia, where everything you need is on one place.
What to eat
When it comes to food, there are hundreds of choices in Marseille. Whatever you chose, you won’t be disappointed. However, this is a marine city, so I would recommend you to try the fish. It may be a bit expensive, but it is worth to sit once or twice in a restaurant next to the sea and enjoy the French cuisine and wine.
Where to stay
We stayed at an amazing hostel, just few meters away from the port. The staff and the atmosphere were wonderful and the prices reasonable. If you have the opportunity, don’t hesitate to choose this kind of accommodation.
‘Wait and hope’
This is what Monte Cristo said and this is what I was thinking living Marseille. I will be waiting to come here again, because it is clearly a place that got into me. Place where you feel free, inspired and welcomed.