Melting Pot in Provence
Marseille doesn’t need a metaphor, it is one in itself. And any traveler who still insists on hearing one before touching this fabulous and vibrant city will agree immediately after arrival that ‘melting pot’ would be spot on.
(Today, in 2017, with their new president in place it seems somewhat ironic to realise that the term “Melting Pot” came into use for the very first time in the United States after it appeared in 1908 in a theatre play with the same name).
BUT once you are here be aware that this city can be a challenge and read our impressions and tips of the city to make the most of Marseille.
The position as the main port city in the south of France has been the motor of Marseille’s economy and naturally made it the main entrance into France for lots of immigrants and travelers over the last centuries. And personally, I would never have guessed that still, one-third of Marseille’s inhabitants has Italian roots.
One thing is very clear: Marseille is unlike the rest of France and has developed its very own style since antiquity when it was already one of the most important trading ports.
At times it can be as rough as the sea that nurtures it and throughout the city’s street culture, food, major sporting events, entertainment, and music from opera to hip-hop, presented outdoors and at its numerous theatres and arts centers, filters that sense of difference and character that is unique to Marseille. And one way or the other you will be totally impressed by it.
Wherever you are in the city, everyone seems to be drawn towards the Vieux Port (the Old Port), the city marina with lots of restaurants, bars, and hotels, that are spread out widely in all directions to the areas of Opera and Hotel de Ville and further.
Eating and drinking are mega important in Marseille, just think of the famous fish soup Bouillabaisse, Pastis, and the local super tasty beer La Cagole.
Today the port is located just north of the Old Port, past the fabulous new area of the museum MuCEM, and is the arrival point for 2,4 million people per year from North Africa, Corsica and many other destinations, which helps Marseille getting yearly more than 4 million visitors and make it one of the most popular cities in France.
So what about the beaches of Marseille and where are they today?
The good news is that when you are in Marseille, you are so close to one of the most impressive natural areas you will ever come across, the Calanques massif which is south of the city.
This stunning and completely unique vast region is filled with remote rocky beach hamlets, great for hiking that can be reached by water too.
The shocking reward once you get to the pebble beaches, take off the hiking boots or sports shoes, close your eyes and think of… whatever your country of origin is to overcome the shock of ice cold water on your skin the moment you dive in, remains a special experience.
Marseille’s city beaches are located south of the Vieux Port.
The bad news was Marseille didn’t have any easy access to the sea (or maybe a few at Plage des Catalans and Plage Borély) at its 42 kilometers long coast until 1975. True, that is a long time back and luckily has changed since with the creation of Prado beach and Corbière beach in the north.
The Plage des Catalans is a real city beach full of atmosphere just south of the Vieux Port and a real gem with cafés and bars opposite the busy road. Since a couple of years, the city has set a limit of 1,000 visitors at a time in high season.
A story probably coming from the locals goes that Plage Borély was as vibrant a resort in the roaring 1920′ s as was Ibiza at the time and highly in fashion.
It is hard to find any real evidence of that, but let’s admit that even in spite of globalization, today we still can’t do other than seeing ourselves as the center of the universe, no matter which city we stroll around or on what beach we let the sun caress our bodies.
The quite large stretch of beaches starts just south of the Pullman hotel, in front of the Parc Balnéaire du Prado, Parc Borély and continues to Bonneveine quarter. It has 2 kilometers of sandy beaches, starting with Plage du Prado, which are supervised in summer, well developed with bars, sporting facilities, and easy access. Also in summer, a large stadium is erected on the beach boasting international sporting competitions and sports training for all levels.
Further south is the Plage de la Vieille Chapelle, just before the Yachting Club Pointe Rouge.
Even more south following the Avenue de Montredon you get to Plage le Mont Rose,
which isn’t a real beach but a stretch of rocks, renown as a nudist beach and a long time running and the most famous and the busiest gay beach in the south of France.
Pretty rare is, that Marseille’s official tourist website has a whole chapter on LGBT life.
A great thing about getting to Marseille’s beaches is the public transport system that makes it easy to experience a lot of beaches without the nervous driving and parking hassle through the city.
The city facilitates a boat shuttle from the Old Port to Pointe Rouge and the blue coast train to the beaches north of Marseille.
Plage de Corbière in the district of L’Estaque in the north has three more artificial beaches.
L’Estaque is seen as the native place of modern painting, as this fishing village with its fantastic light was the main attraction and escape in the South of France for impressionist, fauvist and cubist painters, like Cézanne, Dufy, Renoir, and others for more than 60 years.
The views of the Bay of Marseille are magnificent and a very nice way to get to the old fishing port is by shuttle from Marseille’s Vieux Port.
Marseille not to miss and be aware of
For the real Marseille walk, drink, eat and enjoy the Panier, Marseille’s old quarter north of the Old Port, named after the once hotel “Logis du Panier”, with stunning views.
The city has been supported by the European Union since 1983 in restoring the old area with major success without taking out the real, sometimes rough, feel of Marseille’s street life.
La Canebière (the name comes from cannabis, hemp), the famous main drag in the city running east of the old harbour, or can-o-beer as English sailors still call the avenue since the beginning of 20th century, because of its numerous drinking holes.
Cours Julien (“Cours Ju”) in the city center is the renown artists old warehouse quarter, full of little art shops and very impressive graffiti.
The Opéra quarter just south of the old Port, full of cafes, bars, restaurants and nightlife.
A reminder instead of a warning
The charm of any city has another side to it: there is always report of small crimes and dislike, also about Marseille.
So BE aware wherever you go, take care of your surrounding, check out the area and remember to make the most of Marseille.
La Cagole is a very popular beer known for its sexy taste and glass
La Plaine is a microbrewery in Cours Julien that opened in 2014 and does great beer tastings.
You can do tours and tasting also at the Pastis factory, Marseille’s proudly own Ricard so to speak (but of course of better quality…)
Don’t taste the Savon de Marseille, but this amazingly soft on your skin soap, is manufactured for over 600 years by mixing Mediterranean seawater with olive oil and high in alkaline, is a treat. More varieties are produced today, with palm and coconut kernel.
A lot of the Savon de Marseille on the market is fake, but when in Marseille, try to get the real product from one of these 3 factories: Savonnerie le Sérail, Savonnerie le Fer à Cheval or Savonnerie Marius Fabre.
Or buy them online to get a taste of Marseille in your house.
DON’T miss the Calanques.
Whether you go hiking or prefer to go by boat if hiking is no option, as I mentioned before that the view of this fabulous region south of Marseille is unforgettable, if only it were for its blue and green clear colours of the sea that change all the time depending on the light of the day.
Marseille marathons are famous in the Runnersworld, the 4th annual Run de Marseille is coming up in March 2017 and the classic Marseille – Cassis marathon is held since 1979.
The Sailing Race in the Vieux port if you happen to be there in June is fab to watch.
Of course, Marseille makes a great starting or departure point for your visit to anywhere in the Provence region.
Cassis and La Ciotat are great small towns to relax at the beaches and enjoy wine and la Cuisine Régionale.
Or visit Arles, the Unesco heritage city at the river Rhône, one hour from Marseille, that was so hospitable to Vincent van Gogh who lived there for over a year and that hasn’t changed much since.
It is possible you won’t come back to Marseille, maybe even because you didn’t like it that much, that is what people say a lot when you read the reviews on Tripadvisor etc.
I don’t believe them.
But whatever way, you WILL always remember Marseille, so better make the most of it.