Many travellers had told me Marseille is dangerous. They had told me they don’t like Marseille.
As the train approached the French port city, I stared out at the decrepit buildings that had pieces of furniture and colourful clothing dangling from windows.
From the Marseille Saint Charles train station to the Old Port, the taxi driver drove through the streets like through an obstacle course at high speed; he swerved so not to hit pedestrians and then yelled obscenities at them.
I closed my eyes multiple times, wondering if this might be my last trip. But when my eyes were open, I was intrigued by the colourful mix of people walking the streets. There were many people dressed in traditional African clothing; women wearing hijabs carried babies; young girls in short skirts sang songs together; crinkled-faced men smoked cigarettes.
The colour. The characters. The chaos.
Amongst the chaos, I found an oasis in the Beauveau Hotel looking out to the glittered waters of the Old Port. As I looked down on the Old Port, I felt as though I had stepped back in time because the Old Port still resembled a place where travellers came to exchange goods, though now it was mostly seafood and the savon de Marseille (the famous soaps of Marseille).
Boats were moored along the port, creating a cascade of white light until the sun set so low, its ruby rays encircled the city creating a surreal, ‘end of the world’ feeling. But for the people of Marseille, it was an ordinary sunset as they positioned blackboards outside the restaurants to advertise Bouillabaisse, the traditional fish stew from Marseille.
During the day, the Mistral—the infamous wind that blows down the Rhône to the Mediterranean—blew, carrying rubbish with it, bringing down market stalls. I had seen the Mistral’s effects in Luberon, where large tree trunks sloped on an angle. I’d also heard that the Mistral can reach 90 kilometres an hour; but it wasn’t until I felt the Mistral in Marseille that I believed this could be so. (Apparently the Mistral drives people crazy–that is something I can believe.)
Trying to escape the Mistral, I took cover in the deli section of Galleries Lafayette, which sold fresh seafood, copious bottles of rosé and had a good array of traditional Greek foods. In fact Greek culture has a long history in Marseille and the people of Marseille like to tell the story that their city was founded on a love story: The Ligurian princess had to choose her husband by offering him a glass of water at a party. Greek sailors invaded the party and she chose a Greek adventurer for her husband, resulting in a peaceful city.
Marseille, which is France’s oldest city, is photogenic and the coastal road is refreshing. The architecture of the grand houses perched on the hill is spectacular as is the view from the basilica, Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Just outside of Marseille is the quaint, colourful fishing port of Cassis, and on the drive down to the port, the road winds through vineyards that make white wine. Also from the port you can see the vineyards of Domaine Clos de Magdalene on the hill.
The Calanques near Cassis—the white cliffs that protrude from the inlets of turquoise water—are humbling and the sound of laughter from teenagers sitting on the cliffs echoes through the Calanques.
From the highest sea cliff in France, you can look down on Cassis and smell the garrigue, which is the low, green vegetation that grows on the limestone mountains in the area and is made up of dwarf oak trees, thyme, rosemary, and lavender.
As I left Marseille for Paris (which is only a 3.5 hour train ride), I realised I had found a place in my heart for Marseille. Although teenage boys loitered which made me feel uneasy, gypsies tried to put their hands into the pockets of male tourists at the markets, and the outskirts of Marseille revealed a poorer side of France, I enjoyed the diversity of the city. I also tasted Pastis there and enjoyed a bottle of white wine from Cassis with another wine lover.
Marseille changed me, it enlightened me; and for that, I’ll forgive its flaws. It is a real, dynamic city, after all.
Feature photo: The Old Port, with a view to Notre-Dame de la Garde