When in Marseille…

MarseillesMarseille is one of those polarizing cities that people either love or hate, the French included…at least those I asked!  I don’t know what you’ve heard about it, if anything at all, but it’s reputation precedes it, and sadly, it’s not a very good one.  Marseille is not a city for the faint-hearted as its rough and tumble bad-boy reputation doesn’t come from nowhere.  Still it is surprising in many ways.

For example, did you know that Marseille is the 2nd largest city in France?  Did you know that Marseille is the 2013 Culture Capital of Europe?  Did you know that Paris’ football team Paris Saint Germain (PSG) and Marseille’s football team Olympique de Marseille (OM) DETEST each other?  I mean physically hate to the point that there are major fights and sometimes even deaths at those football matches!  Now did you know that Marseille may be more linked to Morocco, Tunis and Algeria than any non-African city?  Because of the city’s geographic proximity to North Africa and due to France’s colonial history there, about 120,000 to 150,000 people from those three countries — collectively known as the Maghreb — live in Marseille.  I hate to sound biased but I think it’s partly due to this huge immigrant population that the city is a thug.  Gangs, organized crime, theft and shootings are not unknown to the Marseillaise.  We were actually forewarned by the information counter at the train station not to “get lost” in certain neighborhoods because they are unsafe.

I must admit that this took away from our ability to fully enjoy the city because we were constantly on-guard, afraid to pull out the big Nikon D90 camera, afraid that I would be mugged in broad daylight or have my bag stolen.  Thankfully nothing happened and to be quite honest with you, perhaps because I had received so many warnings pre-going, it surprised me in very positive ways.  It’s a beautiful city (N will disagree) and extremely charming.  I wouldnt live there nor would I intentionally return but it was definitely worth seeing and I regret not having enough time to further explore it.  This bustling port city feels cultural in a je ne sais quoi kind of way and is splattered with art everywhere you go.

The port area with all the red-tiled roofs reminded me a little of Byblos and Beirut in Lebanon.  There is a sleepy feel about it and indeed, the pace of the city is slow and very relaxed despite its size and population.  We couldnt even find a place to have lunch at 3pm as all restaurant kitchens were already closed till dinner until eventually one tourist trap of a restaurant agreed to serve us!  Naturally we had fish which was ca va but not wow.

As this was the last leg of our little Easter weekend, we didn’t have much time before we had to catch a train back to Paris.  In what little time we did have, we tasted some unique macarons (very chewy and no cream/ganache filling) which I loved.  They had a choco-orange flavor which was to die for.  What a killer combo!  We also got to buy some savon as Marseille is famous for its soaps.  I took a bright pink passion fruit and a bright orange fleur d’oranger.  They are so beautiful to look at and the smell is divine, I want to bite into them every time I take a whiff!  We also walked around the panier or old town which was probably one of my favorite bits of the city.  Very tattered buildings, multi-colored houses with colorful shutters, laundry hanging from the windows, broken walls, graffiti ..what’s to like huh?  But this combination is so quaint this city certainly lacks no character.  It was also filled with eclectic and vintage boutique shops that I adored!

We walked along the port as well but unfortunately had no time to visit the Notre-Dame de la Garde cathedral, perched high up on a hill looking over the port and the city.  Who knows what new adventure may take us back… just a tip for the wise.  remember, when in Marseille, do as the Marseillaise… dont look rich, be flashy or draw any attention to yourself and your experience will be just dandy.  Mine was.   Although I would have preferred more sunshine and less rain!

Happy rest of the week everyone!

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