Thanks, Bonnie, for hosting!
Standing at the mouth of Vieux Port, I couldn’t believe that I had almost canceled my train ticket to Marvelous Marseille simply because people told me it was dangerous there. As the day progressed, Marseille captured more and more of my heart with its fusion of North African and French cultures. The boat tour around the Calanques just cemented my newfound adoration for this city.
Exploring Marseille in a day is hard. Honestly, I should’ve prepared more—I spent a lot of time wandering around, trying to decide which boat tour to go on and spending down time trying to work out where I could spend the 1.5 hours that I had before the boat left.
But let’s start from the beginning.
Leaving Avignon Centre at 10:15, I headed towards Marseille excitedly. There was almost no reason for my excitement—two days ago Arnaud said Marseille was a really dangerous place; hearing that, I considered canceling my train tickets and head to Aix-en-Provence instead. But, as the scenery running past my train window became increasingly Mediterranean, I got excited instead of nervous. Maybe I was tiring of the same French architectural and urban designs; maybe I was yearning for something more exotic.
First of all, the view as you exit Marseille’s main station, St. Charles, is GORGEOUS. The station stands on the top of a hill with a panoramic view. As you walk towards the steps, you’re gifted with this overarching view of the city; its straight roads peppered with the uniquely mediterranean-european architecture is amazing. Second, it was hot. Although I knew from weather forecasts that this weekend would be warmer than most, it was high-70s here rather than the high-60s that Grenoble would’ve experience. I would’ve been a good blogger and taken pictures but I’m not sure it would’ve been smart to immediately whip out the huge tourist sign—the DSLR. Instead of giving you guys some eye candy, I headed down the stairs to look for a sign towards Vieux Port.
The walk there was a little like walking through No-Woman’s-Land. Fortunately, there are a lot of signs pointing you towards the old port so I didn’t look lost (I swear, as long as you walk with purpose, people usually don’t bother you). I should’ve looked into the metro first because the neighborhood between the station and the port is a little sketchy, littered with solely men lingering around. Honestly, though, I never really felt unsafe. Just a little more cautious, watchful of my surroundings, and fully armed with my best bitch face. I did get shouted at once from a group of guys sitting across the road; I didn’t hear what they said, but I did hear “baise,” which is a French equivalent of “fuck.”
Once I reached Vieux Port, however, it was like I reached a warm bubble of safety. By now, I know a tourist area when I see one, and this area is completely touristy.
But first, some food. Having already dropped a fortune and a half on the dinner at Fou de Fafa the day before, I opted for street food rather than a sit-down. Strangely enough, there were very few take-away places. I think it’s because it was a tourist area. But thankfully, I spotted a kebab place across the street. Kebab! I love kebabs and döners so I hurried over to place an order.
As I sat at the table beside the stand, waiting for him to finish making it, I drew a lot of curious faces. A lot of people came up to me to ask how I was, a lot of people came up to the owner to ask what was going on, which, frankly, made me question my food decisions; was this place so bad that people are shocked when he gets business? Skeeved out a bit, I hurriedly stood to pay and was roped into conversation with him. He wanted to know where I was from—as usual the answer “United States” did not suffice and we took a trip down origin lane. So hungry and cautious, I was almost unable to properly thank the owner when he added a can of ice tea for free.
“Just for you,” he said, winking.
If this happened every time I’m forced to recount my heritage, I wouldn’t mind!
I perched on one of the blocks in the square and ate lunch with newfound faith in humanity, faith which was quickly taken away by an angry hobo-backpacker hybrid that made rounds, lecturing people on… something.
The next few hours was spent frantically—god forbid I ever go on a trip where everything goes smoothly—between opposite sides of the port, trying to decide which boat to take: the Chateau d’If tour or the tour of the Calanques. The Chateau d’If tour is the fort on a little island off of the main coast, made famous by Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. This was the tour I decided to skip because I really wanted to see the Calanques. However, if you’re really interested in touring the castle, the company on the left side of port (if you’re facing the port) has better deals.
It was a pretty frustrating internal struggle, actually. I knew that by taking a combination of metro, buses, and a 45 minute walk at Luminy, I could reach the Calanques by foot and potentially hike them. My watch told me I had about 5 hours left in Marseille before I was either whisked back to Avignon or stuck here trying to find accommodation for the night.
The tour companies didn’t make it easy on me either. When I approached the kiosk, the lady told me that they were uncertain if there would even be tour to the Calanques because of how strong the waves were and to check back in an hour, around 2:30 PM. My mind raced: if I waited until 2:30 PM only to discover that they weren’t heading out today, I wouldn’t have time to get there by foot and I’d lose out on seeing the Calanques at all. Maybe I should walk all the way back to the other side and take the cheaper Chateau d’If tour—that way I won’t have walked away from Marseille having accomplished nothing.
Once on the other side, however, I realized that no matter what, I would always regret not seeing the Calanques if there was even a slightest chance of getting on the other tour. My watch read an hour until 2:30. Great, now I couldn’t even hike it up to Notre Dame de la Garde before needing to come back down. Maybe I could try the “panoramic tourist train,” which promised around an hour of sightseeing, including Notre Dame de la Garde. I was halfway through the line when I realized the tourist train was dumb and completely not worth it. Why would you have a train lug you and a bunch of tourists in a clearly-marked tourist display? Sure, you don’t have to walk all the way up on foot, which would take hours, but bus 60 picks you up right there and costs only 1,50€ one way.
Seriously, this gave me more of a headache than I’m proud to admit. While I was figuratively crying on the side of the road at my handicap of being a traveler, I was able to look past all the headache and companies to see a fort. Fort Saint Jean, now known as the fort that save me in Marseille. Here! Here was activity that offered some of my favorite things: a really tall spot AND it was an activity that I could check off within my hour. Finally, back on track.
With that, I was able to somewhat capture the beauty of Marseille and restore the bounce in my deflated traveler spirit. Happily, I walked back to the tour company wishing for the best.
Score! We were off!
The journey out to the Calanques was one of the most beautiful things I’ve done yet here in Europe. The colors were so blue and the air was so fresh. I love any water activities and riding a boat takes the cake, especially when I’m sitting at the front! It did get a little rocky during the ride. At one point, I glanced back where all the other passengers were sitting only to stare blankly at an empty deck. During the moments where I pretended to be Rose, I guess I failed to notice that the water was coming in from the sides, soaking everyone behind me! I just had to think about Titanic, didn’t I?
Each time the captain pulled us into one of the little coves formed by the Calanques, I couldn’t help but wish I had come earlier, maybe during summer, so I could’ve spent hours swimming in these nature-made private beaches. In addition to these little coves, we would see hikers of all different degrees of adrenaline-junkies climbing the huge mammoth rocks.
Halfway during the journey, while being flung into the air like some sautéed mushrooms by some Teppanyaki chef, three girls had snuck up and glued themselves to my back. I really really could’ve done without this portion of the trip. Everything they said was shouted, as if a baseball field were between them rather than 2 inches of salty air, and they kept screaming things like “THIS IS THE LIFE!” “I’M SO HAPPY!” Good. Awesome that you’re happy. But could you, you know, not make other people miserable as you experience your private happy moments? To make things worse, each time we hit a rocky wave, they would SCREAM. I guess I can’t complain too much, though, since the cute guy sitting across and I bonded over exasperated glances.
Although a little on the pricey end for my student budget, I have no regrets for going on the tour. Yes, it cost me 20€, but in exchange for being able to see the Calanques within 2 hours, it was completely worth it. Had I been there for more than just a day trip however, I definitely would’ve chosen to dedicate an entire day hiking the Calanques on foot rather than through a boat tour. It’s a great way to see Marseille from the outskirts, you get to control the pace of your tour through the rock giants, and, for a nature-lover like me, hiking is one of the best things in the world.
Afterwards, with an hour left on the clock, I caught bus 60 and headed up for one last sight to see: Notre Dame de la Garde, the ultimate high point of the city. Ending on a high note, pun intended.
Marseille, the 2nd largest city in France, although busy and bustling, didn’t give off the vibe of such a large city. Perhaps it was the beautiful urban structure of the city or the charming mélange of the two cultures coming together in perfect harmony. One of the benefits of being the 2nd largest city in this location is the number of activities you can find to occupy yourself during your stay; you can chill on one of its many beaches, take a day to hike the Calanques, or view the various historical sites splashed throughout the city. In short, Marseille had spunk and a grunge vibe that I couldn’t resist. My only regret is that I didn’t spend more time discovering it. Before I left, I already planned to come back to its balmy temperatures, rich history, and most of all, to finally dedicate enough time to exploring the Calanques correctly.