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The Deep South – French Style

Marseille, France

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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 region.

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.

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