Marseilles (revised)

Marseilles, despite its attractive location in southern France, is not the type of place you choose for the idyllic vacation spot – especially if you don’t speak a lick of French.

The adventure begins at the airport, Marseille Provence Airport. It’s already noon. With two main terminals, the airport is simple to navigate. Follow the other frantic-looking tourists to the buses. Take caution, though, as some tourists have organized transportation. Men and women in neon orange vests will set you in the right direction to buy tickets and board the correct bus.

After a 30 minute ride, the bus will deposit you at a two floor train station. Step outside, and on a good day, the view will be breathtaking.

Though the city’s buildings are obscured with graffiti, the sun will peek out in greeting. That elation felt when taking in the city for the first time seems to slowly disappear as you realize just how many steps there are to ground level. To sum it up: too many.

Take a breath or two at the bottom of the steps and make your way to the accommodation. For a college student on a budget, a dingy (read: cozy) hostel will suffice. This humble student suggests Vertigo Centre, the one located next to the train station. Traveling is a breeze, and it’s a short 15 minute walk from Vieux Port.

Ah, Vieux Port.

Make your way there as soon as possible. You’ll be walking down a street with a view of the ocean. However, once you hit the end of the street, you will realize why Marseilles is known for being a city of trade.

Kids are running, laughing and playing in the way schoolchildren do. Fishmongers are displaying their fine catches, ready to swindle you out of a pretty euro. Families gather in line to take a ride on the enormous Ferris Wheel, a treat on a fine spring day.

The people are loud, rowdy even. Shrewd as they are, they know the stench of tourist and seem to gravitate away from it. Even so, make an effort to learn about the fish being sold at the bazaar-like markets.

Take the next boat to Chateau D’If. As you leave the port, the surrounding ripples in the turquoise water and the jagged rock formations seem to transport you to somewhere entirely different. Maybe that’s the point – after all, Chateau D’If is the backdrop to Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo”.

D’If is a spit of an island. Originally, it was a fortress built in the early 1500s. Almost two centuries later, the fortress was converted into a prison. Today, nature reigns supreme on the island. Grass grows in every crevice while seagulls serve as watchdogs of the former prison.

Once you’ve had your fill, take the next ferry back to the mainland. Take a moment to decompress with a steaming shot of expresso – the rich flavors are unlike any other.

As the sun begins to set, you’ll begin the return to the hostel. Marseilles in the dark is not a particular palatable place, but you can’t help but dwell on how much more there is so much more to see. The Calanques offer you the chance of a lifetime to walk into a postcard of views. The Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde boasts killer views of the city – if you’re willing to make the uphill journey.

You will realize that it is not these landmarks that make the city.

Rather, it’s the gritty people. Graffiti-covered buildings. Trash-filled streets. There is a certain resilience about Marseilles that is fascinating.

Marseilles is not the type of place you choose for a vacation spot. Marseilles is the type of place you choose to see what life is like outside of your own realm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Marseilles: Leave the Tourist in You Behind

Marseilles, despite its attractive location in southern France, is not the type of place you choose for idyllic vacation spot – especially if you can’t speak a lick of French.

The city’s buildings are obscured with graffiti while the streets are littered with trash. The people are loud, rowdy even. Shrewd as they are, they know the stench of tourist and seem to gravitate away from it.

Not all is as it seems.

Make the effort of a simple greeting – “bonjour” – and you’ll quite literally see a frown turn upside down. There’s nothing like a tourist willing to make an effort and blend in to the locals. This effort is not unrewarded. The graffiti, previously seen as filth, holds more meaning than you thought possible.

If you’re willing to truly live like the locals and “brave” the public transportation, even more surprises await.

An hour out of the heart of Marseilles resides the Calanques – their equivalent of a national park. It’s really a game of “pick your own adventure”. You’ll choose Sugiton, no doubt. It’s the path of least resistance with the greatest reward.

Prepare yourself: you’re going to be walking into a literal postcard.

Any dread at the thought of having an uphill hike on the way back dissipates as you take in the sheer beauty of the Calanque de Sugiton. The rock formations create a small inlet leading to a small natural beach, perfect for a picnic lunch. A packed meal of chicken salad becomes five star cuisine because with this scenery, how could it not be?

Later, back in the heart of the city, you reflect on Marseilles. It still is not the ideal vacation spot. When night falls, the city feels unsafe. The people blend into the poorly-lit streets and your heart pounds because you are a tourist in a relatively unknown city – a woman at that. Still, even as you buzz into the hostel that you call home for the weekend, you feel a sense of respect for the resilience the city has.

Marseilles commands you to shed your comfort – Yelp only gave this restaurant three stars…let’s keep walking? – in exchange for experiencing the city like a local, even if it’s only for a day or two.