The laid-back charm of Marseilles

France’s oldest city is undergoing a major revitalization ahead of its year in the spotlight as the 2013 European Capital of Culture.

View of Marseilles from Notre Dame de la Gard 311 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
View of Marseilles from Notre Dame de la Gard 311
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
MARSEILLES – Soccer fans were the first outsiders to discover the charm of Marseilles, France’s oldest city, en masse.
Stretched along 57 miles of rock Mediterranean coast, the sun-drenched seaside city had few visitors until Olympique de Marseille had a surprising and dramatic second-place finish in the EuroCup in 1999 and went on to become France’s most successful soccer franchise.
As the team’s growing and devoted fan base started making pilgrimages to the city to watch their team play at home at the famed Velodrome stadium, they brought back stories of the charming old port and sumptuous sea food, prompting a steep upsurge in tourism and introducing Marseilles to the world.
Today, the city hosts four million tourists per year who come to wander the narrow alleyways of the old Le Pannier district and enjoy the traditional bouillabaisse fish soup at small gourmet restaurants with views of the water.
The soccer team continues to rack up championships, and tours of the Velodrome are among the city’s most popular attractions. But these days the city is focused more on culture than soccer: The entire downtown is undergoing a massive 660-million-euro revitalization project in preparation for 2013, when Marseilles will take its turn as the European Capital of Culture.
Cranes, lit up at night with “Marseilles 2013,” dot the landscape as the city races to finish a hoard of new museums – including the Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain (Regional Contemporary Art Fund or FRAC) and the MuCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations – as well as three major luxury hotels before their year in the spotlight begins.
Located in the heart of the Provence region, the city absorbed a large wave of immigration from Italy in the 18th century, bringing an influx of pizzerias with a local twist – sweet tomato sauce and brousse, a locally made, fresh soft cheese derived from sheep’s milk, similar to ricotta.
In the late 19th century, impressionist painters like Paul Cezanne, Georges Braque, and Auguste Renoir were drawn to the pastoral landscapes of Provence and the pure light of Marseilles, spending time on the jagged, rocky coast in L’Estaque.
The “Artist’s Trail” there allows visitors to trace the paths of the artists by standing in the same places and comparing the serene landscapes of today with the ones painted at the turn of the century.
L’Estaque area is next to the newly developed cruise port. Cruise passengers account for 25 percent of the tourists in the city, or more than a million visitors each year.
Springtime and summer are the best times to travel to Marseilles. Lavender season is from early June to late July. But the flowers aren’t limited to the perfectly manicured public park around the Palais Longchamp fountain or the wildflowers reaching out of cracks in the seaside cliffs.
Even the highways through industrial areas explode with color and blossoms in the springtime.
ANY TRIP to Marseilles should start with a visit to Notre Dame de la Gard, a majestic cathedral overlooking the port from high atop a small mountain. The interior of the cathedral is a mixture of sacred and kitsch, with the requisite religious mosaics mixed in with dozens of mobiles featuring small wooden boats and mariner memorabilia.
Originally built as a fort in 1524, the monument became a church in 1853.
Over the centuries, sailors have left knickknacks like boat replicas, bouys and wooden carvings as prayers for protection during their journeys or tokens of gratitude after storms and accidents. These items now hang from the ceiling.
The immobile stones and dark cells of the prison and fortress on the Chateu d’If Island, one of the city’s most visited attractions, is especially popular among literary aficionados, though any tourist can appreciate the postcard-perfect panorama of the city as viewed from the series of rocky islands.
This prison was the setting of the world’s first best-seller, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, the daring story of revenge in which protagonist Edmond Dantes tunnels to freedom after more than 14 years’ incarceration on the island. A mock tunnel has been carved into the cell that belonged to Dantes in the book.
On the second floor, visitors will find the cell where the Three Musketeers – also created by Dumas – staged a dramatic rescue of imprisoned royalty. Ferries run frequently from Port Vieux, the Old Port, in the center of old Marseilles, and the 20- minute boat ride across the windy bay is refreshing.
While a visitor could spend days running from historical site to historical site, cramming in as many of the city’s cultural offerings as possible, the allure of Marseilles lies more in slowing down and enjoying the city’s laid-back charm.
Lounge for hours with an espresso and croissant next to the old port, where with so many sailboats, the water looks like a forest of masts. Stroll along the Kennedy Corniche – a promenade home to the world’s longest bench, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Just off the Corniche, poke your head into small fishing enclaves, painted in bright colors with small fishing boats jostling for a spot.
The city rises late, and no one seems to move very fast, especially when it’s so pleasant and relaxing to sit in the copious cafes tucked into the plazas and listen to the murmur of conversations over the quiet gurgling of fountains.
The smell of chocolate in the small boutiques is heavenly, but your nose will be even more intrigued when you duck into the traditional soap shops. Marseille is famous for natural soaps, merging the European soap-making traditions with exotic palm oil brought from Africa.
Marseilles has sometimes lost visitors to the quaint Aix-en-Provence, Nice, or Cannes, though its location in south-central Provence makes it a logical place to explore the rest of the region as well. The ideal visit is at least four days, with two days in Marseilles itself and two days for day trips to the countryside.
The city is home to roughly 80,000 Jews and a staggering 58 synagogues, due to the largely traditional nature of the Jewish community and a large haredi population.
At the beginning of April, El Al celebrated 40 years of direct service from Tel Aviv to Marseilles. Currently there are four weekly flights, with a fifth added during the height of the summer travel season.
Whether you go to walk in the footsteps of famous impressionist painters or modern soccer superheroes, the city’s charm, history and culinary offerings will captivate you from the moment you step into the Provence sunshine.
The writer visited Marseilles as a guest of El Al in honor of its 40th anniversary of direct flights.