Marseille, France, is shaking off its gritty reputation, but at all costs it wants to avoid oversaturation while being attractive enough to bring in tourists.
I was in Marseille for a few days last week, a destination I have not been to before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Warnings were voiced to me before I arrived. That the people from the city were gritty, tough and curt was the principal one. Maybe I was not there long enough, but that concern did not transpire in any form.
I woke up one morning for a run, and my plan was to go from new hotel Nhow Marseille, my host, to the impressive, iconic Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica high on the city’s highest point.
My tourist map clearly showed a route, but once along it I found myself trapped in a lost world of apartments called La Cadenelle. Roads curled uphill and ended 100 feet above where they started; other roads ended in neat gardens or at wall on top of which were more gardens and other roads leading to nowhere.
So labyrinthine were things, there is a shuttle bus that presumably makes sure the residents do not get lost either, and the driver, after I asked him how to escape, took pity on me and drove to a gate, an escape hatch. It was locked, but a resident appeared with a key, and freedom was mine.
In hindsight, I quite enjoyed my residential perambulation.
The resident was off for a coffee, and he invited me. Communication was in his faltering English and my pretty much non-existent French, but it was his kindness, and the shuttle driver’s, too, that shone through.
Maybe this friendliness derives from a Marseille not yet becoming disgruntled by tourism.
That is a concern in several cities in Europe. Amsterdam, Barcelona, Dubrovnik and Venice are nightmarishly weighed down with the generally carbon-copy demands and expectations of the visiting horde.
These cities’ residents have fought back of late with demonstrations.
Marseille, which has seen its visitor numbers increase since it was awarded status as European Capital of Culture in 2013, bans tour groups from certain areas, and I believe this is to stop the inevitable hand-held umbrellas and their entourages from snaking through the cobbled streets. Yes, I know I am being elitist, but I praise the city elders for their visionary stance.
The reason hoteliers, residents and cities do well from tourism is that they are places tourists want to visit, but I am one tourist who does not want to follow if all I see are huge groups the members of which all are wearing identical cruise ship-line jackets.
Time to find some new tourism musts and then protect them somehow from oversaturation, if that is possible. I select Marseille’s upscale residential housing complex La Cadenelle as my first choice of new must-go tourism sites.
I’ll let travel website Far & Wide do my griping for me as to the places to avoid at all costs, and I have no real disagreements with their choices. Then again, if hundreds of thousands of tourists are all queuing up to see the Mona Lisa then they will not be in La Cadenelle or my other new favorite spots (see below) in Marseille.
What four things did I most enjoy in Marseille?
The Anse de Malmousque is a small harbor hidden at the end of a narrow street where residents swim, fish and relax below a line of simple, summer homes. Just across the main road—the Corniche Kennedy that borders the Mediterranean Sea—is another harbor, the more chic Vallon des Auffes where the outdoor chairs and tables of the Pizzeria Chez Jeannot fill up very quickly and the “simple” fisherfolk cottages now sell in the hundreds of thousands of Euros.
The Maison de la Boule, just behind the city’s cathedral, is a small museum opened in 2015 chronicling the history of the game known as pétanque, boules or bocce, depending on where one derives and slight variations in the rules. The museum has a pétanque court to one side, which is great fun. I saw that the highest-grade metal boules themselves cost almost €250 ($295), and I think each players needs three of them. To play pétanque one has to keep ones feet together, so that probably disbars all those tour groups.
The streets of the Vauban and Roucas-Blanc districts to the southeast of Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica are full of interesting shops and businesses, and occasionally glimpses of the basilica appear up steep streets. The basilica is the most-visited site (that makes me a tourist pure and simple) in the city, and it is cool, too, for its stained glass windows of a ship in danger of being sunk by tempestuous waves and howling winds, its mobiles of replica ships and yachts presented by their owners to be blessed and collection of paintings of shipwrecks and drowned mariners.
The village of Les Goudes, almost as far along the Corniche as it will go to the east, is delightful. People from Marseille come here at the weekend, and parking is probably fraught at times, but it all feels hundreds of miles from the city. It is in a national park that features rocky limestone inlets called calanques, and the walk out of the village across a rocky hillock leads to the minute Baie des Singes where it is possible to swim.
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