The last few days I found myself in Marseille, France. No, I didn’t happen to wake up there after having my apertivo spiked at an Italian bar, I assure you. It was a planned detour, by train on the way back to Italy, after having delivered my son for a 2-week holiday with his father in the UK.
I was lured by the southern Mediterranean delights as laid out by my fellow traveler and blogger Tanja Bulatovic, enthusiastic advocate for the unsung arias of this notorious port city. The French government has been pumping money into Marseille’s regeneration as the city was chosen as the “European Capital of Culture” for 2013. Consequently, the famous Vieux Port is being dug up and a wide pedestrian plaza installed and facelift construction seems to be happening everywhere.
The grittiness of the city is still apparent but along with it comes an eclectic, diverse and funky vibe, no doubt a result of the mix of Arab, African, and French cultures co-existing. It reminded me a bit of New York in the 1980’s and early 90’s, before it was sanitized by the arrival of megastores like Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Gap, and Disney. And when there was the throb of anything can happen here and it was still a livable home for artists, actors, and the creative classes that could afford to live within the city limits. That said, Marseille has of course not completed escaped McDonalds and Starbucks, but here can still buy an apartment near the center of things for €100,000. If the government has its way, next year will change all that – or not.
I walked extensively around the Vieux Port, into the African market area, and the Panier, or painter’s, district with its hilly, narrow and windy streets full of craft and local artisan shops. I stopped in at the Moment Fish Spa for a ‘fish pedicure’, a slightly bizarre experience I’d always wanted to try. First, I had to wash my feet and legs thoroughly before I went to sit on a comfortable settee and settled my lower legs into a blue lit tank while dozens of Garra Rufa fish swarmed and began eating the dead skin off my feet. I resisted the first impulse to shriek loudly and kick the squirmy things off of me, and instead closed my eyes and tried to settle into the oddly tickling sensation of the fish nibbling. 15 minutes and 15 euros later my time was up and my feet were presumably softer and smoother. I’m slightly dubious though. The fish seemed to spend an awful lot of time feeding on the tops of my feet and not the heels or bottom that I wanted to kindly point them to as in need of much more attention.
I stayed at the low budget chain, Hotel B&B, which I learned had just built this brand new outpost within a 10 minute walk from the port. It was quite a deal and well worth it. Gleaming, modern rooms with air conditioning that actually worked and free wi-fi throughout the hotel, all for the online price of €39 a night. The rooms aren’t huge and there is nary a minibar in sight, but with good beds, down pillows, and helpful staff, I was not complaining.
I had really wanted to sample the famed Bouillabaisse while there, but I was informed it was more of a winter dish and at about €40 a pop, beyond my budget for this trip. I did manage to have a divine Salade de la Mer for lunch one day which consisted of smoked salmon, shrimp, octopus, sautéed fennel and green beans on a mixed of mixed greens, finished with a vinaigrette dressing. Heaven.
Best of all really was experiencing the wonderful French and Serbo-Australian hospitality of my friend Tanja and her husband. Copious amounts of dry rose on ice, the preferred Marseillaise summer drink, salads, bread, and cheeses were consumed. One evening we were joined by their friends Roger and Cathy, An Australian and French husband-wife team owner of an image bank that includes Roger’s incredible aquatic artwork. He is a well known painter of marine life in Australia, literally spending most of his life underwater. Lively discussions took place all evening as the bottles of rose accumulated. They vacillated from French to English and back again. I at least was able to keep up with my half of it.
Two days was hardly enough time to dig deep into what Marseille has to offer but I loved what I did find and plan to go back. And with swimming in the sea an option until late October and quick boat trips available to the outlying islands, I’m hoping that will be sooner than later. And my son L will no doubt be anxious to check out the Go-Karting, Ziplining, and kayaking available very near Marseille.
If you go:
Marseille Tourism Office
Moment Fish Spa
actor-writer-director, improviser, mother, traveler, general renegade and rabblerouser.