Marseille, Mon Ami
I have to come clean: the headline isn’t mine (it’s the opening line from French chansonnier Charles Aznavour’s classic song “Allez vai Marseille“), but I used it because I cannot agree more. I visited France’s second largest city earlier this summer and all I can say is that this beautiful, historic city went straight to my heart.
Marseille is often cited as France’s oldest city, and its port — France’s largest — on the Mediterranean has played an enormous role in shaping its history and cuisine.
A lot has changed in the 40 years since the Oscar-sweeping movie, The French Connection, brought Marseille into the pop culture limelight as a heroin smuggling mecca. Though the city hasn’t lost all of its grit, its burgeoning art scene, fabulous seafood, and intriguing fusion of Provençal and North African cultures make it a truly unique destination. The number of visitors is bound to increase now that it has been named a European Capital of Culture for 2013, so plan your trip now. Here are a few tips to get you going:
If you’re visiting Marseille for the first time, get to know the city by taking in the view from the Notre-Dame de la Garde, a beautiful basilica built in 1864 that has come to symbolize its skyline.
Witness the clamor of hundreds of fishing boats in the Vieux Port (old port) from the highest point in the city. But don’t spend too much time watching: there is too much to explore on ground level — including the beach!
Marseille is where bouillabaisse was born, invented out of necessity by hungry fishermen returning from port. From its humble origins,
the classic Provençal fish stew has taken on new levels of sophistication, and can be found in thousands of iterations around town accompanied by toasted bread and rouille.
I challenge you to find a more suitable place to have a bouillabaisse than in one of the many restaurants located in the Vieux Port. Try Restaurant Miramar.
Savon de Marseille is exported all over the world, and with good reason. You won’t believe how smooth and gentle it will leave your skin. No wonder, since it’s made of a minimum of 72 percent olive and vegetable oil. You can find it in shops all over the city, but I
would recommend taking a tour of the family-owned soap factory, La Savonnerie de la Licorne (34 Cours Julien) to see how the soap is made.
If soap isn’t your thing, check out the handmade santons, small terra cotta figurines that date back to the 1700s. Jean-Louis Lagnel made the first santons in Marseille during the French Revolution, and they have long been popular Christmas decorations throughout the Provence region. Stop by Santons Escoffier, a little store located at 96 Quai du Port, to buy the perfect souvenir — a beloved memory from your newfound friend, Marseille.