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.