The Deep South – French Style
Marseille is one of the major destination ports for Mediterranean cruises – not
only because it’s a particularly beautiful or spectacular place in itself, but
also because of the some of the nearby attractions.
Even the proudest local would struggle to argue that Marseille
is a beautiful or graceful city. The regional, heavily accented and inflected
version of French seems to reflect the place’s appearance: drab, low-lying and
built for use rather than ornament, Marseille looks like what it is – the
economic powerhouse of the south of France. But that’s not to say it’s entirely
without its attractive features: the Old Port, in particular, is worth a brief
exploration, as it offers a valuable insight into the city’s past.
Marseille has a number of claims to fame, and one of them is
that its past goes back a very long way indeed. Sited at the mouth of the Rhone
river – which is wide enough to take goods barges deep into the heart of France
– the site has been occupied since way before the Romans. When Julius Caesar
and his friends finally did turn up in the first century AD they quickly saw
that Marseille – or ‘Massilia’ as it was then – was so situated as to be both
an excellent military base and a center for trade in the western Mediterranean
to rival Rome itself. In every sense, it had the capacity to dominate the
But Marseille’s influence spreads northwards, too. In a country
where conservative non-Parisians are often skeptical about the doings of their
city-dwelling brethren, Marseille has often been a revolutionary city. In fact,
France’s national anthem, the Marseillaise, was originally a marching song
written for troops from the city that helped fight in the revolutionary wars of
the 1790s. The city was a major center of support for Napoleon. To this day,
the people of Marseille retain a fiercely rebellious spirit that is not at all
dissimilar to the traditionally radical outlook of Parisians.
While you’re in the city, there are one or two great sites to
check out. The first is the Musée des Beaux Arts, which has a great collection
of painting and sculpture dating back to Marseille’s classical Roman past. You
will also probably enjoy a visit to the Chåteau d’If. This island fortress was
built centuries ago, but it has become famous as the setting for Alexandre
Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo – which has in turn been the subject of
many movies, the most recent being released in 2002, starring James Caviezel.
The island fortress itself - which can be reached by a short boat ride from the
Old Port – is a museum these days, and an afternoon exploring its sea-facing
battlements and dark dungeons can be great fun, especially for kids.
A little further out from Marseille one of the most popular
tourist attractions is the Calanques. There’s a good chance that your cruise
line will either run a trip to see these by road from the city, or even that
your ship will weigh anchor immediately offshore and take you out to explore
the area by boat. It’s not often that a geological feature becomes a major
attraction in its own right, but the spectacular beauty of the Calanques
definitely merits its reputation. In geological terms, a calanque is a
limestone valley that lies at an angle and is partially submerged by the sea at
one end. The eponymous Calanques of Marseille are very spectacular indeed: a
coastal range of mini-mountains, complete with spires and pinnacles, and steep
precipices plunging straight down into the cool blue waters of the
Mediterranean. This is a great area to explore by boat. Equally, if you feel
the need to stretch your legs after a few days at sea, the Calanques are
covered by a network of pathways. Some of these are a little precipitous, so
take care and remember to get local advice on the best routes to take.
Marseille is also a great – and typically Mediterranean – place
to eat. Strangely enough, this is one of the very best places in the world to
eat pizza. Although nobody denies that Naples, Italy, is the true home of the
world’s favorite food, the Marseille version has to be sampled: the French city
is the home of the ‘thin ‘n’ crispy’ variant of the dish. Locally-cooked pizza,
prepared in wood ovens, is delicious: thin, floury bases topped with rich
tomato sauce and (more often than not) delicious freshly-caught seafood,
including Mediterranean anchovies.
If you get a chance to stop over in Marseille during your
cruise, take it. Although this is in many ways a city apart, it’s also a place
where you can enjoy some of the best cuisine and the liveliest atmosphere in
the whole of France.