If there’s one major advantage to working in the education field, it’s the holidays – scattered throughout the year, they’re a breather from the continual chaos of term time and an ideal travel opportunity. Let’s rewind to the end of October when, after five weeks of teaching/ lecturing/ adult-sitting, I headed south to Marseille for the Vacances de la Toussaint and some unexpected sunshine.
After an early alarm (but by no means as early as Laurence’s) and a brisk walk to the station, I caught the 07:00 TGV to Marseille; the Nice-bound train was packed with travellers heading south for the holidays. When Laurence arrived a couple of hours later, we set off for the Vieux-Port. Neither of us could believe our luck with the weather – it was 24°C and there wasn’t a cloud in sight!
Marseille’s lively main thoroughfare, La Canebière, led us straight to the quayside, where fishermen were selling their catch of the day – octopus, mackerel, red mullet, sea bream and more. Festooned with fishing nets and multi-coloured buckets, their boats were moored alongside their stalls.
Hundreds of vessels – from rustic boats to flashy yachts – filled the port, bobbing gently in the light breeze.
Passing Marseille’s Town Hall, we ventured up to Le Panier to explore Marseille’s roots; this historic neighbourhood with its pastel-coloured buildings and boutique shops is perched on a hill overlooking the Vieux-Port. Wandering the streets (and climbing the steps!) of Le Panier took us past cafés filled with people drinking pastis – a cloudy-coloured anise-flavoured liqueur which is typical of the region – and shops selling hand-crafted soaps. Emerging from Le Panier with a baguette and a packet of ham, we enjoyed our sandwiches by the port (whilst doing a bit of people-watching, bien sûr).
Next on our self-guided walking tour of Marseille was Fort St. Jean, a citadel which overlooks Marseille’s Vieux-Port and the Mediterranean. Serving as a German munitions depot during WW2, the seventeenth-century military complex was severely damaged by an accidental explosion in 1944; it was recently restored prior to the opening of the neighbouring state-of-the-art museum.
We whiled away a couple of hours exploring the gardens, towers and sculptures in the complex before checking out MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Mediterranée) up close. MuCEM’s contemporary façade contrasts the stonework of Fort St. Jean, seamlessly blending old and new, past and present.
MuCEM is located just across from Cathédrale de la Major, a Byzantine-Roman styled masterpiece and one of the largest cathedrals in France. Sadly, scaffolding was gracing the front façade on our visit, but that didn’t detract from the interior’s splendour.
Strolling uphill through Le Panier once again, we sought out a refreshing mango sorbet from Vanille Noire. Choosing just one flavour from their extensive range of artisan ice creams and sorbets was a challenge!
After dropping our belongings off at our hotel, we wound our way up the hill towards Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. This hilltop basilica commands a spectacular view of the Mediterranean, Marseille itself and the mountains to the north. As there was a service in progress, we weren’t able to wander round the basilica but we poked our noses in and stayed respectfully silent at the back.
Wandering back towards the Vieux-Port, we stopped off at Abbaye Saint-Victor. Two monasteries were originally built on the site in around AD 415; both were destroyed three centuries later by the Saracens. The abbey was rebuilt, but began to decline in the 16th century. A few decades after its dissolution in 1739, the abbey was stripped of its treasures and converted into a prison and barracks. Today, the church of St. Victor is all that remains.
After assessing the (extortionately-priced) restaurant scene, we opted for reasonably-priced Breton fare at La Crêpe au Carré, a small crêperie a few streets back from the port. Delicious galettes were followed up by tarte tatin (me) and a banana split with an absurd amount of cream (Laurence).
- The entire Fort St. Jean complex is free to enter; access is via the two footways connecting the fort with MuCEM. Click here for more details.
- We stayed at Hotel Moderne (30 Rue Breteuil), which contrary to its name was a rather garish abode (think neon pink wallpaper and you’ll get the idea). However, to its credit, it was a delightfully cheap hotel (working out at €204.80 for four nights) in a convenient location and the staff were friendly – though we never did understand why they insisted on leaving our bedroom window open after they’d cleaned the room.