Arriving late, arriving early and a lesson in Boullaibaise!
8/9/12 - 8/11/12 90 °F
2013! That's when we should have come here. That's the year that appears all over Marseilles -- on signs and billboards and construction project signs. The entire city seems under re-construction.
First, though, our rental car. Turns out we were only 8 minutes late arriving at the rental place. The agent was very pleasant and had all our paperwork ready, so it was a very quick transaction. Alas, they did not have the Audi that we had ordered, but instead we got a brand new (only about 200 miles on the odometer) Citroen DS3. No matter. With its red body and white roof, it was cute and oh so French. Tres chic!
As we left the rental place, we tried following some maps and directions I had printed out, but after our first turn, err... roundabout - Europeans LOVE their roundabouts -- we realized we were going in the exact opposite direction. Oops! I guess we needed to turn on our iPad's GPS. On to Marseilles.
On first entering Marseilles, you are keenly aware that this is a working class city. First off, it is huge with 1.5 million people, and so, as every large city, does not exactly exude charm. Urban sprawl and graffiti is prevalent, as are the warnings about theft appearing in our guide books.
As you arrive in the Vieux Port (Old Harbor), however, you realize that this city is trying to reinvent itself. All along the waterfront, which is a long U-shaped harbor, the entire street and sidewalk is under reconstruction, with a new street and wide pedestrian promenade being paved in fresh cobblestone. When this area completes its latest incarnation (how many after 2600 years?!?!?), it will be a stroller's paradise. But for now, it makes it a nightmare to navigate by car, and cuts off the waterfront completely from the many "waterfront" hotels and restaurants. I guess we are a year too early.
When we first arrive, we are struck by the way the reality of experiencing a place in person does not quite compare to the photographs one has seen. The apartment buildings that you didn't notice in the background now seem so much closer. However, our hotel, La Residence du Vieux Port, and our room are directly on the waterfront, and as we get settled, we begin to feel the ambiance of the area rise in direct opposite correlation to the setting of the sun.
At night, Marseille's harbor becomes beautiful, with the church on the hill in the background all lit up, including it's enormous golden statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus, along with the uplighting of the twin forts and ramparts guarding the two sides of the entrance to the harbor, and all the buildings along the waterfront.
We go only 2 doors down from our hotel and have an incredible meal at Miramar. It is the only restaurant with white tablecloths on their outdoor tables. That, along with its prices, should have been our first clue that this was going to be a special meal. The next clue was when they brought out two good-sized canapés with sliced truffles on top, before we had ordered anything. I thought they were delicious, and even Jim, who hates mushrooms, thought they were "not bad". Next up was an "amuse-bouche" of cool and creamy pea soup - again, not ordered. Our entrees were tres delicieux - filet de boeuf (amazingly good!) and daurade (fish) la Provençal. Then came a pre-dessert, again on the house, a pistachio creme with a brown sugar top crust. Dessert was, of course, fantastique - a citrus soufflé and a molten chocolate cake with strawberry confiture and vanilla ice cream, which was almost too pretty to eat! Overall, one of our best meals - ever!
The next morning we walked along the fish market: a few stalls set up every day at the end of the harbor with the fishermen's wives peddling every creature from the sea that their husband's had caught overnight and brought in first thing in the morning: all kinds of fish, octopus, cuttlefish, eels, lobsters, varying mollusks, even starfish and seahorses.
We did the touristy thing and took the Petit Train, a small "train" (like the Conch Train in Key West) along the harbor and the fort and the beaches, then up some winding and steep roads all the way to the top of the hill and the church, La Notre Dame. From up here you get great views of the city and the sea and the nearby Frioul islands. You can also get a better sense of the enormity of the statue of the Madonna. Inside the church, the baroque ornamentation is stunning juxtaposed with all sorts of sailing paraphernalia and pictures, along with little wooden model ships strung up one over the other and hung from the ceiling - all a testament to the long history of fishing in this port city.
In the afternoon, we took a drive out of the city and travelled the coastal roads to nearby Cassis, where we found a fun road called La Route des Crete, which takes you to the next town of La Ciotat. This road is a twisting, turning roller-coaster of a road that winds its way high up in the hills, with overlooks atop sheer cliffs that drop straight-down, a thousand feet into the sea. The views over the coastal towns and the Med are breathtaking. Jim got a little nervous as we took pictures and I stood near the cliff's edge (no guard rails, of course). The route was fun to drive in our little Citroen. As we returned to Marseilles, we commented on how surprised we both were at how arid this area of France is. We expected lush green, but instead were greeted with a landscape more reminiscent of Arizona, and in some areas, there are large red-rock formations, like in Utah. Actually, it's nice to go somewhere and have your preconceived notions and expectations wiped clean.
As the sun set and we watched the "golden hour" begin from our hotel balcony, the soft pastel hues of the buildings intensified and the water started to turn shimmering gold. We couldn't think of a better place to be (certainly better than a crowded sidewalk restaurant overlooking a construction project), and so, ordered room service -- cheese platter, the city's famous Boullaibaise, and dessert -- to enjoy right there on the balcony.
[Side note: Boullaibaise is the famous fish stew that originates from this city. On most menus, there is typically "Boullaibaise" and "the real Boullaibaise". I had to ask: what's the difference? Boullaibaise is made with at least 5, and as many as 12, different fish, and never shellfish. The "plain" Boullaibaise is made with fish chunks and costs between 28-35 Euros. The "real" Boullaibaise is made with whole fish, is for a minimum of 2 people, costs as much as 70 Euros per person, and must be ordered 24-48 hours in advance. Who knew? ]
We decided that we were glad we came to Marseilles, and that the location of our hotel and the sunsets over the harbor were enough to wipe away the grit of this big city. However, we did feel that 2 nights were plenty, and so, cancelled our 3rd night, and headed on to the Cote d'Azur.