Last Christmas, my uncle invited us to spend the holidays at his house in Goult, a lovely village in the Luberon, located halfway between Aix-en-Provence and Avignon. My uncle is my mother’s brother and they both grew up in Marseille, France’s second largest city. Rather than take the train to Avignon and get picked up by my uncle there, we decided to spend a day and a half in Marseille and rent a car to drive to Goult. I have very little childhood memories of Marseille, and my husband had never been so I was excited to discover the city, especially with my favourite Marseillaise – my mom – as our guide!
FIRST THINGS FIRST: LUNCH AT CHEZ ETIENNE
The trip from Paris Gare-de-Lyon to Marseille-Saint-Charles is just over 3 hours. After dropping our bags at our hotel near the vieux port, we quickly headed off to lunch at Chez Etienne, a no-thrills pizzaria in Le Panier. My mom used to go there when she visited friends and family back in the city, so it’s been around for a while, and other than adding a second room across the street from the original location to accommodate demand, very little has changed over the years. Service and ambiance are not the reason to go to Chez Etienne. You go there for the best pizza in Marseille, which here is served as a starter, not a main course, and only comes with two options, cheese or no cheese. The anchovies and olives come automatically as toppings 😉 You also go there for the pavé de boeuf, which is excellent, and the supions, small squids lightly pan-fried with garlic and parsley. Warning: there’s no phone to make reservations and it gets very crowded so if go, you might have to wait (in the street) for a table to become available. They also only accept cash and as I mentioned, service is, well, let’s say it’s very French.
STROLLING THROUGH THE PANIER
The core of Marseille, the old port, is surrounded by hills and starting our tour through the city at Chez Etienne was a smart move because we then weaved our way down to the Vieux Port through the neighbourhood known as Le Panier. If La Canebière, Marseille’s main boulevard in the old quarters, is the city’s answer to the Champs Elysées, Le Panier is its Montmartre. The neighbourhood, once rather dodgy and filled with sailors from across the globe looking for a good time, has become quite trendy recently. With its hilly narrow cobbled streets and pastel coloured houses covered in street art, it’s in the midst of a bit of gentrification and there’s been quite the influx of hipsters and artists lately (as well as public funds from the city.) From Le Panier, we made our way to the Maison Diamantée, one of the oldest house in town, and the 17th century City Hall, where my parents got married, before landing on the Quai du Port.
OH MARIUS! THE OLD PORT OF MARSEILLE
Life in Marseille has revolved around the vieux port ever since the trading post of Massalia was founded by Phocaean greeks in 600 BC. In the 1840s (after Algeria became a French department) the commercial docks were transferred to La Joliette but the colourful Old Port remained the emotional heart of the city, crammed with fishing boats, pleasure yachts and visitors. You can get from the quai du port to the Quai de Rive Neuve on the other side by foot (or even those public bikes, known as Le Velo in Marseille)… or you can take the free ferry boat like we did! It’ll probably take you just as long, but if you only have one opportunity to get on the water in Marseille, you should seize it! For me, it was extra fun because I’ve read and re-read Marcel Pagnol’s Triologie Marseillaise, and I couldn’t help but think of Felix Escartefigue, capitaine of the ferry boite, as we made a quick pastis stop on the other side of the port at Le Bar de la Marine, where the author/director filmed the famous “tu me fends le coeur” scene from Marius. If you have NO idea what I’m referring to, may I recommend watching Daniel Auteuil’s version of Marius and Fanny, which are currently streaming on Netflix.
There’s lots of great stuff on that side of the port… a block away from the Bar de Marine, you’ll notice La Criée, a former fish market and now one of France’s edgiest theaters. We continued on quai de rive neuve until rue Robert on our way to the Musée du Santon (also known as Les Ateliers Carbonel) before making our way to Le Four des Navettes, THE place in Marseille to get the city’s iconic boat-shaped, orange-flower flavoured navette biscuits. I’ll warn you if you’re going to try them (which you should!): their nickname is casse-dent (teethbreaker) so don’t bite too hard into them 😉 We actually grabbed about 4 kilos worth for everyone to enjoy at the Christmas table… A few streets away from the bakery is the stunning Abbaye Saint Victor. We didn’t linger too much there because our ultimate goal for the end of the day was catching the sunset at another famous Marseille church, Notre Dame de la Garde, which was a quick but steep 20 minutes
walk climb away.
STUNNING VIEWS FROM NOTRE DAME DE LA GARDE
The Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, or La Bonne Mère (the good mother) as it is familiarly known towers over Marseille and offers amazing 360 views of the city below, which are particularly striking at sunset. Topped by a massive golden statue of the Virgin Mary and Child, the Byzantine-style interior features anchor and sailing ship motifs. Since around the Mediterranean there’s a religious tradition of ex-votos to express gratitude for a wish granted, you’ll also see boat models hanging from the ceiling or displayed in glass cases to express thanks for a loved one having returned from the sea. There’s also an Olympique de Marseille flag which was brought by the team after a victory so it’s not all sailing related (though l’OM is quite the religion in Marseille too…)
DINNER TIME !
Since it was before right before Christmas, a marché de Noel and the Foire Aux Santons were in full swing at the old port and nearby Place Saint Charles respectively and we spent a little bit of time shopping at both before heading to diner at La Kahena, one of Marseille’s best Tunisian restaurant. I don’t get to eat a lot of North African food here in DC and Marseille happens to have very large Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisien communities, both muslims and jewish like my mother’s maternal side of the family. The fish couscous was excellent, as well as my brik au thon, and since we didn’t get a chance to swing by Les Delices Patisserie d’Aix, a famed oriental pastry shop, during the day we took full advantage of the dessert buffet to indulge our sweet tooth with some cornes de gazelles and makroud.
DAY TWO: MIXING THE OLD WITH THE NEW
Marseille is known as the gateway to the Mediterranean, so it was time for us to set sail! Well, or at least take a small boat trip 😉 First, we got up early to enjoy the small fish market that still takes place on the Quai des Belges around 8AM every morning. From there, we grabbed the Frioul If Express to the island fortress of If, where Alexandre Dumas imprisoned his fictional count of Monte Christo. Had it been summer or even spring, we may have extended the journey to the Frioul Island but instead we headed back to shore to explore the NEW Marseille. We didn’t realize how far the new Docks at La Joliette were so we only made it as far as la Cathédrale La Major before heading back to the brand new MuCEM where we had plans to meet my DC-based friend Laure, who was in town for the holidays visiting her family in Marseille. Inaugurated in 2013, the MuCEM offers perspective on mediterranean civilizations and mixes the old with the new by adding a modern building designed by Rudy Ricciotti to the 12th century Fort St. Jean. The two buildings are linked by a footbridge known as J4 (for Joliette 4.)
We didn’t actually visit the museum, focusing instead on exploring its architecture and enjoyed a sun soaked lunch with stunning views of the turquoise sea at Le Môlé Passédat, a restaurant on the top floor of the museum from Michelin-starred chef Gerard Passédat. The meal was amazing, but not cheap, so if you’re looking for a more affordable option, La Cuisine (Le Mole’s sister restaurant) offers a great lunch as well, minus the view. Following lunch, we headed back to the vieux port to pick up a bottle of pastis at La Maison du Pastis, a shop that allows you to try any pastis from a selection of 75 different ones before you purchase the one of your choice. We also stopped at the brand new Galerie Lafayette Gourmet to do some last minute Christmas food shopping and then set out. On our way out of the city, we drove through an old industrial neighbourhood called la Belle de Mai. The area grew from the arrival of the railway and a former tobacco factory there has now become a thriving cultural center called La Friche la Belle de Mai, with lots of awesome street art nearby. We didn’t get to stop in this time but it was the perfect send-off to a quick stay at the once gritty, now thriving Marseille. Besides, I have a feeling I’ll be back soon enough!