Marseille – the Mediterranean by train
Our latest guest blog is from Lucy Bywater with a focus on green travel and the city of Marseille.
We’ve been travelling in France for family holidays for years – Brittany coast, the Dordogne, Alsace, Pyrenees, camping, cheap gites, a bit of cycling, kayaking. About six years ago we discovered Marseille which seemed to offer something a bit different for a family with teenagers. A bustling multi-cultural port with a distinctive north African influence and the oldest city in France, Marseille is really not like the rest of the country, and we keep going back. We were on the cusp of booking the train again in February for a summer trip until COVID put a swift halt to that discussion. I don’t fly – haven’t done for many years (for environmental reasons and the fact that planes and airports feature somewhere in the seventh circle of hell for me). The direct summer Eurostar train from St Pancras to Marseille is easy and inexpensive – less than £100 return and 6 hours travel in total with only a half-hour check-ins, no changes, no waiting for baggage reclaim.
As the very useful Man in Seat 61 says, ‘It’s the first scheduled train in history ever to link the Thames directly with the Mediterranean’.
From St Pancras that’s a very attractive option indeed. And Lyon and Avignon are brief stops en route if you want to hop off there instead. The train journey is not wildly exciting scenery wise – north and central France is mostly flat farmland, not to dismiss large swathes of the landscape but at around 180mph it passes in a green/brown flash. But things get more interesting for me the further south you go, as you glimpse snow-capped Alps to the east and race by the massif central and fields full of sunflowers in summer. And anyway you have a comfy seat, wifi, you can stretch your legs, go to the buffet car. Approaching Marseille, the Mediterranean lies ahead, the wide bay with its ferries and islands including the fortress Chateau d’If (inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo), and landmark of Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral on the far hilltop.
Marseille Saint-Charles station is situated on a hill and so you walk outside straight off the train, onto a wide terrace with brilliant views of the city and the sea, invariably to dazzling sun and azure skies. Descending the wide steps you’re soon in the hum of traffic, fumes and grimy pavements. This city has a bit of an edge, it’s perhaps not for the faint hearted (and perhaps not so much fun in summer for young children). We’ve rented various inexpensive old apartments of faded elegance (some literally crumbling) within a 15 minute walk of the station, in quiet back streets with a balcony, usually on the fourth of fifth floor and a little balcony with huge windows so the sun floods in and you can’t hear street noise.
I think Marseille really rewards those without too much of a plan for the day, and anyway the heat in summer recommends a relaxed schedule. The city has relatively few tourists once you get just a few blocks from the old port and the flaneur/flaneuse will stumble on a friendly café, atmospheric bar, gallery, flea market, African food markets, tiny (often almost empty) museums and some pretty impressive large ones too. This is France’s second city after all.
But we can’t resist the sea for long and the port and its boats and restaurants make it a magnet for many. We sit in a little upstairs bar with a tiny terrace and watch boats come in and out, including regular day ferries to the islands. And decide on a day boat to Isles de Frioul archipelago. We make an early start the next morning to beat the hottest part of the day and get off on little more than a large arid rock with little vegetation. Walking to find a little inlet 20 minutes away, we find the perfect place to snorkel pretty much to ourselves and move around the rocks to read in a little shade..
Back in the city we often walk down to the Vieille Charité (old poor house) which houses an art gallery, huge elegant courtyard and café.
And for pretty much all visitors there’s the nearby MUCEM, a striking modern gallery and exhibition space which richly celebrates the Mediterranean. It’s housed in a remarkable lacy black cube right on the water and is linked by a vertigo inducing walkway above the water. Down below we watch, almost between our fingers, as fearless youths show off by running full pelt and hurl themselves again and again from the sea wall over the rocks into the water. Over on the other side of the port we walk, passing streets of designer shops and of antique shops, up the hill to Notre Dame. It feels like a steep walk in over 30 degree heat but rewards you with wonderful views of the city and coast. We also take the bus to the southern suburbs to visit Le Corbusier’s modernist housing Unité d’Habitation. It’s a simply elegant vertical city with amazing views from the crisp primary colours painted concrete roof terrace. The model for many other modern developments. Likely as most visitors, we imagine living there in our cool 50s furnished apartment.
Evening strolls from our apartment will offer endless interesting bars with staff that are both cooler and friendlier than you could ever imagine serving you in Paris. Our daughters love it and eye up the cocktail menus.
I usually have an ice cold pastis though. Saint-Julien well away from the old Port is good for a drink or meal. A little edgy with a younger demographic, though apparently becoming more popular with tourists, it has interesting little shops and endless colourful street art. You won’t find a wall or even front door that hasn’t had lavish attention from spray cans in one style or another.
If you tire of the city – and I do, not generally being too much of a city person despite my affection for this one! – Marseille is an excellent springboard for exploring the islands for the day but especially for heading head out to the many ‘calanques’ (creeks) that form the National Park.
Trains from Saint-Charles station or buses will take you south east to attractive seaside towns such as pretty Cassis or larger down-to-earth La Ciotat (both busy in mid-summer) from where you walk or cycle to the beautiful calanques.
There you can swim off the rocks in turquoise waters surrounded by the warm smell of the pine trees (forest fires allowing in the heat of the summer). You’re in the Med without having set foot on a plane. The brilliant buzzing city you’ve left behind underscores the tranquillity. You can’t believe how blue that sky is. And you want to freeze time.
We have long dreamt about a trip to Marseille to try its world famous Bouillabaise; a hearty fish based stew/soup. A bowl or two of this in the old port, will be top of our agenda. As will a mooch around the African food markets.
Lucy mentions pastis; an aniseed based aperitif commonly mixed with ice cold water and it turns out the most famous brand Ricard is distilled here, in the city. It’s not something we know much about.
This looks like a good place to start our research….
The region of Provence is also famed for its fine rose wine and the nearby vineyards of Cassis and Bandol are no doubt worth a visit. As are the microbreweries that Lucy informs me are springing up around the city.
There is also a curious rumour that pizza may have been invented here, (there certainly seem to be a lot of pizza places & a strong neopolitan influence). This is a rumour which warrants further investigation as we are big pizza fans…
Reading the above, i realise we already have our itinerary, so roll on the day when we can travel safely again – will report back on all of the above as soon as we can…!!