Marseille

October 13, 2015
French Riviera – Part 5 (the grand finale)

One of the oldest towns in France, Marseille’s history goes back a whopping 2600 years. It’s definitely doing alright for being an oldie but goodie.

Once known only for being a gritty port town, Marseille is getting a new lease on life. The second largest city in France, this town is being polished with new museums and lots of cultural investment. It feels like Marseille is a John Hughes film; a city that is coming of age.

However, you don’t need to look far to find Marseille’s typical saltiness. One street may be nice; the next street over can be super dodgy.

I chose our AirBNB location carefully to make sure we weren’t hanging out in the shady part of town. Though further away from the action than I typically like, it proved to be a great choice since it was quiet at night and had great transit links.

We stayed in Vallon des Auffes, home to famous Cafe Fonfon. It’s a haven for celebs seeking fine fish food in Marseille. We didn’t spot anyone famous (other than our own reflection in the window).

This put us at about a 25 minute walk from the action in Vieux Port. The port is entertaining; full of restaurants, cafes, and pubs. It’s unapologetically touristy, but that’s ok – we are tourists, after all.

Visiting the MuCEM

MuCEM is one of the new museums in the old port. Like Marseille itself, it blends the old with the new – part in a fresh modern building, the other part in an old fort. Inside, the museum looks at the civilization of Europe along the Mediterranean

Though I wasn’t captivated by everything, two exhibits really made this museum for me. The first was about Jerusalem’s role in the three major ‘book’ religions – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. The second talked about the concept of citizenship and freedom. I’ll admit that citizenship isn’t something I think about – basically ever. I’m deeply thankful to be born in a first world country, and I try and reflect on that to maintain perspective but I’ve never thought about it in terms of citizenship.

When we went through the checkpoint before entering the royal castle in Monte-Carlo, the guard commented that ‘people kill for those passports’ and I laughed saying that I’d happily live in Monaco if she’d be open to a trade! The freedom that comes with a readily accepted passport is easy to take for granted – unless you don’t have it. Same with citizenship. I’m sure if I was struggling to gain entry into a country that offered a better life, citizenship would weigh heavily on my mind. Though not one and the same, citizenship and freedom share a unique link. Gawd, that was deep! Time to get back to the wine and lighten the mood.

Visiting the MAC

I love modern art, so a trip to the MAC (musée d’art contemporain) was on the list. Modern art is thought provoking and captivating. Sometimes beautiful, other times ugly. It may be unexpected and can even make you feel uncomfortable and confused. It’s ok. It’s all about your perspective and how it makes you feel.

It’s even ok to not get it – there’s lots of things I don’t get in the world. I think it’s good to see art, realize you don’t understand it, and realize that’s ok. In our Google-rific world we’re so desperate for answers and explanations that we forget it’s ok to not know some things. You didn’t know what the artist was trying to say?  S’alright. It’s safe to accept the mystery and move on.

We were lucky to see Alfredo Jaar’s exhibition at the MAC. Part of it included walking through rooms of crushed green glass – like walking on a sandy beach. It’s not every day you need to sign a waiver to see a museum exhibit, so when you do you know it’ll be good – and it was. This was a good museum trip, though it doesn’t hold a candle to one of my favourite modern art museums – Centre Pompidou in Paris. If you’re lucky enough to have a choice between the MAC and Pompidou, def choose the latter.

Seeking sugar

No trip to France would be complete without indulging in a killer dessert. We searched for days to find the ideal patisserie.

We found it.

“Toute une Histoire…” Is locate just back from Vieux Port at 4 cours Pierre Puget. We randomly picked a delish looking dessert and carefully brought it back with us to our suite.

After dinner, we unpacked the box from around the tiny cake. It had survived the half hour walk intact, looking in every bit as tempting as it had in the store. This small cake had bits of crushed hazelnuts peeking out from beneath a velvety chocolate layer, and was crowned with a perfectly petite macaron.

Expecting something dense and heavy, it was surprising to find it was as light as a cloud! Inside the chocolate was mousse resting on a slim slice of cake. As you move toward the centre, there’s a bit of jam nestled between the cake and mousse layer. The chocolate-hazelnut-salted caramel delight was just unbelievably perfect. Not heavy, not too sweet. Balanced and delicious. Near impossible to describe, this dessert is a game changer. I’d had all of these flavours together plenty of times, but never with such a harmonious perfection. I wanted an extraordinary dessert, and I got one. The only bad thing is it pushes other desserts down the scale of greatness – it’s that good.

Not your average cathedral

On our last day, we made our way up the steep winding streets to Marseille’s famous hilltop icon, Notre-Dame de la Gare. Having spent a few weeks in Europe we’ve seen our share of churches. We weren’t too hepped about seeing another one, but we had the time and needed the exercise.

This is no ordinary church. This is a worthwhile visit, my friends.

If you only go for the view alone, the incredible vantage point over the city makes it worthwhile. This church was once a beacon for sailors and it’s easy to see why. You can see all over the city, far out into the ocean until the water melts into the sky on the horizon line. It’s easy to spot.

Speaking of sailors, this is essentially a ‘theme’ church. That’s right. Everything is dedicated to safe passage on the sea. Strings of boats are suspended from the ceiling like over a baby’s crib, bows of boats are carved in wood, and paintings of boats dot the walls.

The gold-clad domed ceiling will awe the most church-weary European traveller, and the horizontal striped black and white exterior reminds me of a modern day church of sorts – France’s own Sephora, the holy grail of makeup.

Le Mistral

This last day was punctuated with the arrival of ‘Le Mistral.’ This bitingly cold and vicious wind whips through the city like a one-way tornado. Mr. S spent an hour researching the complicated weather patterns which breed the Mistral. The Coles Notes version: wind coming down the alps and combines with wind from the lowered jetstream. This wind is funnelled fiercely down the valley and also interacts with the Rhone river. (Don’t quote me on this – I was just trying to get the jist). What I can tell you for sure is the result: effing cold and strong gusty wind.

It truly comes in gusts – one moment the air will be still and you’re baking in the hot sun, the next you’ll barely be able to stand up straight as the icy winds pierce through every piece of clothing you’ve got.

In a weird way, I was happy to experience it. The Mistral is legendary and a trip to Marseille would feel somehow incomplete without it. This wind is also responsible for how grape vines are pruned in the south of France. The plants are kept extremely short, less than a meter or so off the ground, so they don’t get battered by the wind.

Marseille is like all of us – trying to find its new identity in a changing world.

It’s keenly aware of its seedy past, but is looking beyond that to establish itself as a modern Mecca for culture and food (or gastronomy as the cultured peeps would say). The Mistral blows the winds of change into this ol’ city, as it proves that a very old dog can certainly learn new tricks.

Thanks for coming along with me on my trip to the French Riviera + Provence!   Now it’s back to bid’ness as usual.

Ever been to Marseille?  What was your fav part?

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