The city of Marseille has intrigued me since 1971, when I first ventured to France’s Mediterranean coast. Coincidentally, it was the same year that The French Connection was released.
William Friedkin’s true-life crime thriller won the 1972 Oscar for best picture. Its star, Gene Hackman, was honored as best actor for his role as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle — a New York police detective in pursuit of a heroin smuggler in France.
Back in the 1960s and early ‘70s, Marseille (pronounced mar-SAY) was indeed a major point of origin for drug shipments across the Atlantic. France’s most important seaport, and the country’s second largest city, was therefore not a safe place for a young backpacker to wander. I was directed toward Nice, instead. Gang violence and other organized-crime activity made Marseille a place where tourists had to exercise extreme caution.
Gratefully, that is no longer the case. A major cleanup effort around the turn of the millennium made this a much safer place to visit (although pickpockets still abound!). When Windstar Cruises’ Wind Star made an all-day port call in Marseille as part of its “Hidden Harbors of the Côte d’Azur” itinerary, we felt safe in exploring this city of more than 850,000 people on foot.
The Vieux Port
The focus of downtown Marseille is the Vieux (Old) Port, where Greek mariners found harbor as early as the 6th Century B.C. No longer a major cargo port — docks are now in the heavily industrialized La Joliette district to the north — it remains the heart of the city.
Extending about a mile east from the Bay of Marseille, this tongue of water is home to as many as 3,000 boats, from fishing vessels to luxury yachts. Its promenade, redesigned five years ago for mostly pedestrian traffic, is flanked by the historic Hotel de Ville (city hall) and numerous seafood restaurants and bars. Tour boats offer offshore excursions to the Ile Ratonneau and its Château d’If prison, home to author Alexandre Dumas’ legendary “Count of Monte Cristo.”
Around the east end of the Vieux Port, at the start of the broad shopping-district boulevard called La Carbinière, vendors gather to hawk colorful if forgettable souvenirs to tourists. The indistinguishable buzz of voices here is a cacophony of western and eastern European, Arabic and African languages.
Because we visited on a Sunday, the stores were mostly closed but there was street life aplenty. We could have hiked the 2.5 kilometers to the colonnaded, 1860s Palais de Longchamp, flanked by fine-arts and natural-history museums (but itself a mere water-pumping station with allusions of Versailles’ grandeur).
Instead, we stayed close to the urban hub, welcoming distractions from an open-air culinary-school competition and a troup of colorful dancers offering a flamboyant street-corner demonstration. Bizet’s flowing melodies and staccato rhythms lent a gypsy element to the swirling movements, ecstatic in one moment, plaintive in the next.
Museum and cathedral
The Vieux Port is framed at its narrow entrance by two fortresses, Fort Saint-Jean and Fort Saint-Nicolas, built in the 1660s by Louis XIV. They are now an integral part of the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM), France’s only national museum outside of Paris. Focused on ethnology and cultural history of the region, this beautiful new facility was a cornerstone of the 2013 Vieux Port development.
It sits beside a broad plaza that welcomes special events, including — during our Wind Star visit — a salute to Grand Prix auto racing. A Provençal art museum overlooks the same plaza, which at its north end is framed by the grand Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure. Rebuilt in Byzantine-Roman Revival style during the last half of the 19th Century, this huge cathedral actually dates from the 12th Century.
We were in awe at its acoustics, enabling remarkable resonance for a chamber that welcomes as many as 3,000 worshippers. And we hadn’t even made it to the majestic hilltop Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, a couple of miles east at the highest point of the city.
Just uphill from the cathedral and fort is Marseille’s oldest neighborhood, Le Panier. I could imagine that, only a few decades ago, meandering through its narrow alleys could have meant taking one’s life in one’s hands. Even now, we felt a certain trepidation as we stared down cobbled lanes like the Rue des Moulins and the Rue du Refuge, graffiti spray-painted on the sides of homes, residents peering from windows and standing vagrant-like in doorways.
But many of the graffiti were random works of art in vibrant hues, giving distinction to crumbling walls. Others marked entrances to tidy galleries or craft shops. We had to look a little harder to find a discreet bakery, a soap manufacturer and a music shop.
Then, suddenly, we were in a public square with a set of open-air cafes. Facing it, on the north, is the Centre de la Vieille Charité, a circa-1700 almshouse now containing museums of archeology and primitive art. On this date, it had a special exhibit of works by Picasso. To many observers, I imagine, his paintings might also be considered somewhat primitive.
It had been suggested to us that Marseille would be a perfect city to enjoy a bowl of bouillabaisse, a traditional fisherman’s stew with a variety of fish and shellfish. Cooked in a tomato-rich broth with onions, garlic, herbs and spices, it’s one of my favorites of French cuisine.
For two reasons, I didn’t have my bouillabaisse here. First, because a good stew is one that should simmer for hours, any reputable restaurant requested that it be ordered hours, or even days, ahead. But second, it was paella night on the Wind Star. And that was one sunset meal that I didn’t want to miss.