Marseilles, the iconic port city on the French Mediterranean coast, can truly be described by that overworked cliché, ‘a melting pot’. Ever since the Phoenicians sailed in to the city’s wonderful natural harbor in 600 BC, generations of travelers from all over the world have been drawn to the city. Greeks, Romans, and Arabs from North Africa were all drawn to the city over the centuries.
Blessed with a natural harbor, sheltered by a scattering of offshore islands out to sea and with ranges of mountains behind, and bathed in a warm sunny climate, it is hardly surprising that generations of travelers over the last 2500 years chose to settle here, all adding their little contribution to the cultural melting pot that the city is today.
Marseilles is famous for its seafood and regional cuisine, which are always high priorities in a food-loving country like France
There is no better place to start exploring Marseilles than at the old harbor, known in French as le Vieux Port. The entrance to the harbor is guarded by Fort St Jean and Fort St Nicholas, and it is surrounded by tall elegant buildings.
Nowadays, the harbor is mainly used for pleasure craft, and the ferries and containers leave from newly constructed harbors a little further down the coast. As the masts of the yachts sway and jingle on the tide, all around the harborside are bars and restaurants, many of them serving such traditional local dishes as Bouillabaisse.
To call such a delicious, garlic laden dish, “fish stew” is an understatement, but that is essentially what it is – fish and seafood and garlic sauce and toasted croutons. Washed down with a glass of local rosé wine, watching the sunset over the harbor, is one of life’s serious pleasures.
Out to sea, visible from the city, there is a scattering of very small islands. On one of the islands there is a sixteenth-century castle, boasting the improbable name of the Chateau d’If. This chateau was made famous (or rather infamous) by the writer Alexandre Dumas, who made the fort that imprisoned the Count of Monte Cristo.
Watching over the old fort, high on a hill, is the nineteenth-century Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, built on the site of an original thirteenth-century chapel. It is quite a hike to get up the steep hill to the basilica, and although we tackled it in our younger days, last time we took a little tourist train from the old port.
The train wound its way up and around the city, passing a bride and groom just emerging from church with all the bells ringing, and deposited us at the bottom of the steps leading up to the Basilica. The 360-degree view from the church is breathtaking: the whole of Marseilles is spread below you. Out to sea are the offshore islands, the bays and the beaches, and to the other side, the peaks of the mountains that surround the city.
History hasn’t recorded whether or not those first Phoenician visitors, there more than 2,500 years ago, made it to the top of the hill to admire the view, but they certainly chose one of the most beautiful places on the Mediterranean to drop anchor.