Two gypsies on bicycles with attached carriages that are brimming over with stuffed plastic bags, are traversing Marseille’s pedestrian-only seafront promenade, zigzagging through the camera-clicking crowd of tourists. This is against the law but who will tell these ladies on bikes? Four dogs follow them – one barking loudly and another limping badly, trying to catch up. Yet another has decided to unload his poop right next to a queue of visitors waiting to board an island-hopping boat.
Suddenly a brunette in a green tank top and figure-hugging jeans darts at top speed after this ragtag entourage and admonishes the gypsy women: “Your dog is injured, don’t you know you could be punished for cruelty to animals, you bitches?” Her choice of words in patois French is rather apt I reflect, watching fascinatedly how this will play out. The only response the animal lover gets is a raised middle finger and a smirk.
On the other side of the beautifully restored promenade that embraces the harbour in a perfect three-sided rectangle, sit East European-looking vagrants at strategically spaced distances, a study in contrast to the well-dressed Marseillais on their way to their quotidian jobs. The historic Mediterranean port, which is also the second largest in city in France famous for Bouillabaisse, the legendary fish soup that originated here, and for Pastis, the famed anise-based local tipple, has changed much in recent times. The drugs and crime reputation has given way to an image of a city that is now very keen to attract tourists. While earlier people would come here just to change planes or trains on their way to prettier nearby towns on the French Riviera, now it is a destination on its own.
Today Marseille is everything that Mumbai (also a port ) could have been. An attractive coastline, sunny climate (warm sun and clear blue skies on nearly 320 out of 365 days vs Paris’ only 110 out of 365), sumptuous seafood, a multi-racial, multi-lingual population that is taught tolerance towards each other. Not least is the large police force that zealously guards touristic areas. Combine all of the above and a figure of over two million tourists, who averaged a minimum of four nights spend in 2012 is easy to understand why Marseille is picking up as a tourist destination.
And let’s not forget the stunning view of the Mediterranean in all its azure glory. My fifth floor balcony in the comfortable four star Beauvau hotel commands an incomparable vision of the Old Port (Vieux Port). Formerly as chaotic as our Gateway Of India, the Vieux Port is now a hassle-free, broad walking zone with modernistic sculptures and orderly berthing spaces for tourist boats. In this buzzing area, car lanes have been reduced from the original six lanes to just two in exchange of more walking space for pedestrians.
I wake up every morning to the sound of seagulls darting past my hotel balcony. I sip my tea and admire the seascape of deep blue waters over which white boats and larger ships glide away as far as the eye can see. To the left, a gentle hill rises, crowned by the magnificent Basilica of Notre Dame, one of Marseille’s main tourist attractions. When I get there later in the day, I discover that though the current structure is from the 19th century, the original church was built in the 13th century as a devotional centre for sailors. This emblematic monument of Marseille `the Good Mother’ is dear to all its citizens. The lofty church is decorated with mosaics and numerous ex-votos, eloquent testimonials of people’s faith. Inside the Campanile (bell tower) is the gold leafed monumental statue of the Virgin.
A short walk along the harbour front takes me to the city’s brand new attraction, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM). Inagurated only last year, the façade of the striking complex has been designed by the renowned Italian architect Rudy Riciotti. It looks like a giant brownie wrapped in transparent stiff lace and seems to float like a mirage on the blue Mediterranean. Inside the building is a multi-disciplinary arena where anthropology, history and contemporary art coalesce perfectly to represent modern Marseille with its 26 centuries of colourful history.
Marseille is as much about its food as it is about monument. The Bouillabaisse was born here. Traditionally cooked by families of fishermen from the leftover catch of the day, it has now been ennobled by fish such as monkfish or shell fish. Aioli is another tasty fish dish from the region made from cod, potatoes, French beans, haricot beans and seasoned with garlic flavored mayonnaise. A flood of Italian immigrants from across the Mediterranean over the years has meant that the city also serves some of the best pizzas in Europe. And the city’s strong ties with North African countries over the centuries has made Marseille a great place for food from countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. And then there is the Pastis, the local brew made from star anise, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, licorice, etc. which became hugely popular across France starting in the 1930s when Absinthe was banned.
I had three memorable lunches in the city with three different friends who not just regaled me with anecdotes but also led me to Marseille’s most delicious discoveries. Julie Huyge took me to Restaurant Maddie les Gallinettes (128 Quai du Port), just one of scores of eateries that flank both sides of the remodeled Vieux Port. This friendly, bustling establishment is a point of reference for Provençal specialities of fish and meat. There’s contemporary art on the walls, a terrace out front and the best of Marseille on your plate – my Cabillaude fish was grilled to perfection. Best of all, the prices were so very cheap. Lunch for two cost us just 40 Euros.
The next day Lauranne Gurlinger escorted me to La Boite A Sardine (Sardine Tin), which she terms as the most eclectic restaurant in France. The walls are lined with (unopened) sardine tins, around 400 of them, from all over the world. The nautical theme is everywhere. For example, some tables have life jackets as cushions. You make your way to the toilets through a drapery of fishing nets. Monsieur Pierre sings out the menu to us “Poisson, poissonet encore poisson” (Fish, fish and more fish). No Bouillabaisse here but the blackboard offers a choice of superbly fresh fish to choose from, plus oysters (opened to order) and shellfish, including more unusual types such as couteaux (razor fish) or oursins (sea urchins).
Let’s take a leap of imagination from food to literature. Let’s take a 20 minute boat ride to the island of Chateau d’If. Back in 1516, King Francois I was the first to gauge the strategic importance of this tiny island and ordered a fortress to be built on it. The castle with its three towers guarded access to Marseille harbour, since the city then was a magnet for North African immigrants in search of work, as well as invaders. Later this castle became a prison and its most famous prisoner was the Count of Monte Cristo, written by the very imaginative Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers and The Man in The Iron Mask, being his other famous works). The novel was such a success that visitors still come to see the hole dug by Edmond Dantes in the book.
No trip to Marseille is complete without a visit to the magnificent Calanques (fjords) that rise across the Mediterranean coast. They are found all over southern Provence, but Marseille is the best place to admire this spectacular series of looming white limestone rocks punctuated with deep valleys. The three hour boat trip takes us on a mini odyssey of this unique ecosystem, offering a memorable view of colourful fishing villages, peaceful creeks with intense, clear turquoise water and a wide range of sporting activities. Sail past tiny islands inhabited by squealing seabirds who dive into the azure waters like determined arrows. Turn a corner and voila, snuggled in the folds of this mountain range are peaceful coves where villas and villages bask in the morning sun. Wealthy millionaires sip martinis on luxury yachts and smile at us gawking tourists.