Visiting Marseille on the French Riviera reminded me of why I fell in love with Mediterranean Europe many years ago: for its simple but delightful old world charm. Laundry hanging out to dry from lines on city balconies, modern businesses housed in crumbling old buildings, the smell of the fish market along the harbor, wandering narrow streets through cobblestone squares of relaxed outdoor cafés, yanking open the heavy metal door of the dingy subway car, and figuring out how to communicate everywhere without a common language. In short, it was a lovely place to spend our second anniversary.
James and I were tossed into the oldest and second largest city in France on one of its violent Mistral (“master”) winds. Known for driving away clouds and drying up rain to give this area its friendly blue skies, the wind is no joke for a flight. I’ve literally never seen so many people throw up on an airplane. Fortunately, after this treacherous entrance the rest of our long weekend was smooth sailing.
As you would imagine for a coastal city, Marseille is made up of a clearly international population as it has been throughout its history. A thriving port city since around 400 BC, it was originally founded by Phoenicians from Asia Minor (then Greece, now Turkey) who arrived there to encounter the people of Gaul (once of Northern Europe). In the Marseille History Museum, on whose site many historic artifacts were uncovered when a parking lot project for the shopping center began there, we learned about many interesting changes in the history of this city at the crossroads of the trading world.
In addition to many international cuisines, seafood is, of course, a specialty in this area. Bouillabaisse, being the most famous Marseille dish, is a seafood stew made with rockfish and, in its origins, anything else the fisherman was unable to sell at the market. We had an excellent version of this provincial dish-turned modern delicacy at a restaurant called Alcyone, in a dining room lined with glossy wooden bookcases. I have to say, true to my preconceptions, every meal we had on this trip was served with what can only be described as a flourish. Even in the most casual cafés, the correct presentation of artfully prepared food is held to a high standard.
Amid the culture and general ambience of Marseille, the highlight of this trip for me was our visit to the Frioul Archipelago. We had first passed it during a boat tour of the beautiful Calanques, or rocky inlets (the French version of fjords). Our plans to take another small boat later to visit Château d’If, the castle fortress setting of Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, turned out to be impossible due to wind. We were able, however, to visit the nearby Frioul islands with the idea that we would hike for an hour or so and then return to the port. Instead we spent the entire day there – hiking trails that wound up and down the hilly landscape and along the turquoise sea, surrounded by warm sun and windy sea air, taking pictures of seagulls and the ridiculous sun hat I bought on one of the islands, eating ice cream, and eventually having a late dinner (normal in France is at least 8 p.m.) outside of a seaside café before taking a boat back around 10. Au revoir Marseille et bon anniversaire à nous!