chrispy thoughts

-the world as I see it

From one European culture capital to the next

After enjoying my much-needed vacation, I am back with my first post of 2013. I spent my Christmas break in the south of France. Wait, don’t give me that weird look which says “South of France in winter???” I know that the south of France is an incredibly good holiday destination in the summer, but trust me, I think it has its charm in the winter as well. So what if I couldn’t bathe in the beaches, I could go hiking on those gorgeous mountains and explore landscapes without getting too hot and sweaty. My trip lasted for twelve days and I spent most of my time in the Provence region before heading on to Grenoble and Saint Etienne, from where I had my return flight to Porto.

I began the trip from Marseille- Europe’s capital of culture for 2013. Coming from Guimaraes, which was the cultural capital for 2012, I was interested in knowing what Marseille was like and whether it would be anything similar. It was different, completely different. Marseille is a much bigger city, it has more tourists and the feel is more cosmopolitan. From the Marseille airport, my friend and I took the bus which dropped us at the St. Charles station which is right in the heart of the city. Our hostel was really close to the St. Charles station and this turned out to be very convenient during our stay. Once we had checked in and left our baggage in our room, we decided to take it light for that day and just go for a walk in the neighbourhood as it was past 5 p:m and the sun was quickly heading out of sight. After walking a couple of blocks, we spotted the arc de triomphe of the city. It is called the ‘Porte d’Aix’ and its construction was completed in the 19th century. In earlier times, this was the entry point into Marseille from Aix-en-Provence.

The Porte d'Aix

The Porte d’Aix

From here, the plan was to walk down to the port, but we ended up reading our map wrong and took a detour that led us to this area which was supposed to be some sort of open market-place. The locality looked way too sketchy. To me, Marseille didn’t feel like a European city, some of the streets were dirty (bordering on sordid) and the place didn’t seem safe. I did not like Marseille and I was regretting why I had booked a hostel for five nights in the city. My friend and I made our way out of there as quickly as possible and headed towards the port. We passed by the Marseille Cathedral, a massive striped basilica which looked impressive even in the dim light. I would’ve loved to go in but the church was closed. So I had to be happy with just taking a picture of the exterior. I liked the fact that the elements of Byzantine architecture that were used blended so well with the Romanesque style.

The Cathedral of  Saint-Marie-Majeure

The Cathedral of Saint-Marie-Majeure

From here, we proceeded to the port and then went on to the city centre where the Christmas market was in place. This section of the city seemed much nicer and put us more at ease. Tired and cold from all the walking around, we decided to get back to our hostel early and spend some time planning our itinerary for the next few days in Marseille. We were convinced that we didn’t want to spend that much time within the city itself, so we planned day trips to neighbouring cities and towns. We chose to visit Aix-en-Provence, Cassis, Martigues and Vitrolles and after visiting these places I can tell you that we chose well. I had an amazing time in each of these places, the details of which will feature in posts to follow.

As per our plans, we had set aside the 25th of December to explore the rest of Marseille. Christmas day in Europe isn’t the best when you’re away from your family. Everything is shut, public transport is less frequent and sometimes doesn’t even ply and to top it all, the sky that day was overcast. I didn’t let that dampen my spirit and I proceeded to visit the famous Notre-Dame cathedral.  Seated atop a rocky limestone hill, the striped church with a golden statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus that adorns its pinnacle, adds a distinct character to the skyline of Marseille. It is constructed using marble and porphyry. This church attracts far more tourists than the Cathedral de la Major, but personally I prefer the latter. The structure of the Marseille cathedral is more intricate and architecturally more appealing. Of course, from a spiritual point of view, to me all churches have the same importance, whether they are mammoth- or midget-sized. There were a lot of tourists as well as locals at the church as it was Christmas day.

The Notre-Dame Cathedral, Marseille

The Notre-Dame Cathedral, Marseille

If you want to get an overview of the city, this is an ideal spot. You can see the city nestled between the vast expanse of blue Mediterranean waters and the mountains in the North. I spotted some islands in the sea and wanted to visit them but that didn’t work out as they only do boat trips in good weather conditions.

The next on our to-see list was the Palais Longchamp. The walk up to there was pretty long but we decided to make a pit stop for lunch somewhere along the way. As most of the restaurants were closed and the only ones that were open were kebab places (which neither of us were in the mood for), we lowered our expectations a couple of notches and settled for a lunch at McDonald’s in the St. Charles station. Yes, it was Christmas and I was having a McDonald’s menu. As we were talking over lunch, a really nice French lady who was seated at the table next to us noticed that we were international and began a conversation with us. When she found out we were tourists and we hadn’t really gone around much of Marseille, she took it upon herself to convince us that Marseille was not all that bad and there were plenty of things to do. She told us a little about the history of Marseille and gave us the nicest piece of travel advice which I will share with you. If you’re in Marseille, do not leave without taking a walk along the Corniche. The road runs along the coastline and is frequented by runners and cyclists. If you’re too tired to walk, you can take the bus number 83 from Vieux Port as it follows a route along the Corniche. You can hop off the bus when you get to a spot that you’d like to sit at or walk from. There are some monuments along the way dedicated to different causes – one of them is in memory of the French people who fought overseas and another one is in honour of French people who live in foreign territories. I ended up not going to the Palais Longchamp due to lack of time but I really enjoyed my walk along the corniche.

Walking along La Corniche

Walking along La Corniche

The view at sunset from the Corniche

The view at sunset from the Corniche

We had initially thought of going to the Calanques near Marseille but after researching on the internet (read ‘checking out some blogs’) we thought it best to hike in the Calanques near Cassis, which turned out to be the highlight of our trip. When you’re in Marseille and if you want to travel to places around, your stay will definitely revolve around the St. Charles station. The station itself is a monument from the 19th century and one of the entrances has a grand staircase leading up to it.

The staircase of the St. Charles Railway station, Marseille

The staircase of the St. Charles Railway station, Marseille

You also get a nice view of the city from the terrace at the station.

St. Charles - view of Marseille

Marseille is the capital of culture for this year and you must find it strange that I didn’t visit any of its museums nor do any artsy stuff. I must let you know that I am not a museum person, I only visit museums if their themes interest me, or if it’s really cold outside or if the place has little else to offer in terms of nature hikes and architectural wonders. But museum enthusiasts will not be disappointed in this city. On the street art and graffiti front too, Marseille has a lot happening.
Well, after painting a not-so-nice picture of Marseille, I am going to end my post on a positive note by telling you why you should visit Marseille.

  •  It is a great place to travel from – very well connected to other cities by buses and trains.
  • It is relatively cheaper compared to other touristic cities in the vicinity.
  • There is an interesting mix of cultures and the city is quite diverse. There is wide variety of cuisines that you can choose from.
  • Although I grumbled about how unsafe the city felt, I have to admit that I met some very nice people locals who were eager to give us tips on what to do in Marseille and made us feel welcome in the city.

So on the whole, if you’re in the Provence region, you could consider visiting Marseille. 🙂

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5 comments on “From one European culture capital to the next

  1. shovonc
    January 8, 2013

    In fact, we did go to Provence, and we skipped Marseille. Aargh!

    • C.
      January 9, 2013

      Well, I was just being nice to Marseille in my post. It’s no big deal if you skipped the city 😛

  2. Sosha
    January 9, 2013

    Winter in south of France isn’t that bad.. I was there too! I stayed three nights in Aix and took a day trip to Marseille. And, I missed La Corniche 😦

    • C.
      January 9, 2013

      The la corniche is nice but I think the corniches in the Cote D’Azur (Nice-Monaco region) are way better. You didn’t miss much, no worries 🙂

  3. Pingback: Cassis rocks! « chrispy thoughts

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This entry was posted on January 5, 2013 by in Travel and tagged , , , , , , .

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