Whilst touring across the westerly coast of Provence last Summer (2013), I spent 24 pleasant hours in the second largest city in France: Marseille (or Marseilles if one wants to translate it into English). Because I arrived at my hotel along the quay of Vieux Port quite late in the evening, it wasn’t until the next morning that I got my first true view and taste of Marseille from my bed (see photo below). It’s a city of bling old and new, from the multi-million Euro yachts moored in the white-washed port, to the elegant, gilded splendor of the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde sitting at the top of the highest point in the city.
One cannot avoid seeing Notre Dame de la Garde from almost any part of Marseille, so it was only right to use the best part of my one day in the city to go and visit it. With both a limited amount of time and stamina to spare, I chose not to walk up the steep 162m hilltop to it. Instead, I followed the crowd (literally) and opted to take the Petit Train Touristique de Marseille there.
Don’t be fooled by its garish toy-train appearance. This little train is arguably the most reliable and scenic (although not the cheapest) mode of transport around the city. There are two routes one can take: route ‘number 2’ does a circuit around the Panier Quarter, and the more popular route ‘number 1’ which chugs along the coastline before climbing the hill up to the basilica. Between April and November trains depart opposite the Hotel de Ville on the northern side of Vieux Port, approximately every 20 minutes (40 minutes in the Winter months) from 10am to 12.20pm and again from 1.40pm to 6.20pm. The latter route is very popular with tourists. Queues start to build up for the train from 9am so waiting times can be long. As the trains can only seat around forty squashed passengers at a time, I had to let two full trains pass before I could board.
Although packed in like sardines and nothing but a small, plastic chain loosely hooked across the gapes of the carriages in an attempt to keep us safely in our seats whilst we sped through the city, the journey was rather enjoyable. The route went around Vieux Port, past the forts, along the Corniche President John F Kennedy then snaked up the hill giving its passengers breath-taking views over the city (and a peep into wealthy town villas), before reaching its destination forty minutes later. It was a shame though that there were no stops along the way and as the train can and did go surprisingly fast, all the major tourist sights along the route passed us by in a blur. The recorded bi-lingual tourist guide (that spoke in what I can only describe as a rather strong helium-induced Chinese accent) could barely keep up. I tried to take the odd photo along the way but with little success.
The basilica is beautiful, and vast! Only close up can one truly appreciate its scale. The bell tower is topped by a 10m-tall gilded statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, standing on a further 12m high pedestal.
Back at Vieux Port, I wandered around the surrounding area and came across an abundance of sculpture and art.
Last Summer Marseille was celebrating its status as European City of Culture for 2013 by filling its streets and squares with as much art and sculpture as it could possibly hold, regardless of theme, style or taste. One set of pieces vying for the affections of the locals and tourists was the Funny Zoo series of comical animal sculptures, which the above ‘Rhinoceros de Cour Royale’ was a typical example. The ‘Rhino of the Royal Court’ apparently represents the rhinoceros that was sent to Pope Leon X in 1516 as a present from the first King of Portugal, Manuel I. Before the animal was sent from King Manuel’s court, the French King Francis I who was visiting the Portugese King at the time, took a shine to the creature and wanted to buy it. He was refused and the rhino was swiftly sent to the Vatican before King Francis could protest. Sadly, in the rush to send him on his way, the poor creature apparently died in transit. A moving story, but why on earth was the artist compelled to recreate this animal in the style of Julian Clary circa 1989?
Much as the Funny Zoo animals raised a smile, and passing children absolutely loved them, I did feel those responsible for placing these pieces around the city were probably not aware or didn’t take into consideration how more serious pieces like Bruno Catalano’s works would fair standing next to a multi-coloured gazelle in high heels.
A more considered celebration of Marseille’s cultural heritage last Summer was a trail around the city’s historical monuments and buildings…
…where the route was helpfully marked out on the pavements.
The receptionist at my hotel had told me of a similar tourist trail marked out as a continuous line around the streets of the Old Town, the Panier Quarter and suggested that I look out for it. So when I spotted a pink line running through the area I decided to follow it to see where it would lead me.
I persevered and followed the pink line for about an hour, and it took me right around the Panier Quarter, bringing me safely back to where I first picked the line up from. Out of curiosity I then followed the red line which brought me a little further afield to the more historical monuments in the city.
All in all, it was a rather enjoyable day in Marseille. Before I travelled there I asked a fellow lady friend of French extraction what she thought of Marseille and whether it was worth visiting. “It’s the French Essex,” she snorted. “There is a great taste for wealth there, but it lacks a wealth of taste”. I gathered she wasn’t a great fan of the place.
The city has had a bad reputation in the past with the problem of organised crime operating around the port area, but it has been cleaned up a great deal in recent years and feels relatively safe to explore. So, for somewhere to wander around on a sunny day and maybe have an overpriced cocktail or two by the quay side at La Samaritaine, Marseille is certainly not a bad city to do such leisurely activities in. White stilettos optional.
Useful website references:
Notre Dame de la Garde (most of the site can be seen and read in English)
The Train Touristique de Marseille (sadly this website doesn’t appear to be available in English, but holds useful timetables and tariffs)
The official website of artist Bruno Catalano (no endorsements, just included here for reference)
Be bemused by more photos of cross-dressing animals from the Funny Zoo collection by fellow travellers to the city
Plains, trains and auto-tuned popstar lookalikes along the Marseille-Toulon coast
… and all the other things one can see and do in Marseille if one has more time than I did to explore it, by those that did: Tripadvisor