By Danny DeVegan

Le Panier: The Old Town

My first stop was Le Panier, Marseille’s historic district. Just like Amsterdam’s Jordaan, Le Panier was once a working-class neighborhood that has now been gentrified into an artistic enclave. The narrow, winding streets opened into sunny squares filled with lively cafés and boutiques. Here, I discovered a local art gallery showcasing one-line drawings. Though far from my style, the pieces spoke volumes about the Marseille art scene’s versatility. I couldn’t help but make sketches in my journal, drawing parallels between Le Panier’s colorful graffiti and the equally dynamic street art in Rotterdam.

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Cathédrale La Major

The towering La Major Cathedral was an irresistible next stop. An amalgamation of Romanesque and Byzantine styles, the cathedral seemed like an architectural symphony. It was hard not to be drawn into the detailed mosaics that adorned its interior. As an artist, I was particularly impressed by the fine craftsmanship—reminiscent of the attention to detail in Dutch Golden Age art. I spent some moments in quiet reflection, seated beneath a stunning stained glass window.

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Calanques National Park

Craving an escape from the urban sprawl, I made my way to the Calanques National Park. This was an emotional journey for me. The rugged limestone cliffs and azure Mediterranean Sea created an awe-inspiring backdrop for personal introspection. Each turn in the trail seemed to reveal yet another secret cove or stunning vista. Here, I felt a strange sense of déjà vu, as if the endless water was a much warmer, more turquoise version of the North Sea. It was as though nature had conspired to create a southern parallel to my Dutch homeland.

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Palais Longchamp

This monumental edifice, designed to celebrate the arrival of water in Marseille, was more than just a palace; it was a testament to human ingenuity. Flanked by the Musée des Beaux-Arts and Muséum d’histoire naturelle, the setting was an intellectual feast. Though I was far from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, I felt the same sense of awe and respect for human achievement and artistry.

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MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations)

Here, I explored exhibitions that delved into the Mediterranean’s rich history. As I walked through the museum, I reflected on how the narratives interwove strands of culture, much like the intricate mosaics in La Major. It was an enlightening experience, serving as a powerful reminder of the interconnectedness of European and Mediterranean civilizations.

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Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations

An Evening at Cours Julien

I wrapped up my evenings at Cours Julien, a square teeming with young locals, street art, and live music. The atmosphere was electric, mirroring the creative freedom that defines Amsterdam’s most bohemian corners. Here, I found myself drawn to a small jazz band playing covers of classic chansons. Their music, much like the city itself, was a harmonious blend of old and new.

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Vallon des Auffes

Before leaving Marseille, I visited the Vallon des Auffes, a tiny fishing port that seemed untouched by time. The small boats and fishing nets contrasted with the modern city I had been exploring, offering a nostalgic glimpse into Marseille’s roots. This was the city’s quiet heartbeat, a place where time seemed to slow down, a rare treasure I often seek but seldom find.

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What I Ate

Adhering to my vegan lifestyle, my gastronomic exploration in Marseille initially seemed limited. However, a local tipped me off about ‘Les Tendances Éphémères,’ an organic farmer’s market. Not only did it offer seasonal fruits and vegetables, but I also found vegan cheese and bread. Buying an assortment of these, I relished a picnic in Parc Borély, my taste buds dancing to a Provençal tune as the wind whispered through the trees.

At ‘Daily Syrien,’ a small family-run eatery that had vegan options, I discovered a completely different world of flavors. The vegan falafel plate was a myriad of taste and texture—crisp falafels, smooth hummus, and a spicy pepper dip. I had to applaud how the typically Middle-Eastern flavors melded seamlessly into the Marseillais culinary tapestry.

What I Didn’t Like

As much as I wanted to lose myself in the labyrinthine beauty of Marseille’s Old Port or admire the regal architecture that adorned its cityscape, there was an underbelly that I couldn’t ignore. Like the stark contrasts I’ve observed in Rotterdam, Marseille too grapples with glaring inequalities. The fringes of the city are glaring reminders that prosperity is not evenly distributed here. Dilapidated buildings stand in jarring juxtaposition to high-end boutiques and waterfront cafes. Children play on streets that bear the weight of poverty, their laughter overshadowed by the foreboding atmosphere. It’s a social paradox that creates a jarring dissonance in the visitor’s soul, challenging the idyllic perception that travel brochures peddle.

While it’s the social inequities that irk my conscience, there’s a more immediate annoyance that greeted me at nearly every corner: cigarette smoke. Having traveled across cities with strict anti-smoking regulations, the pervasive fog of tobacco in Marseille felt like a punch to the gut. I found myself dodging these aromatic clouds as I explored, the scent lingering on my clothes long after I’d returned to my accommodation. Coming from a culture that is increasingly smoke-averse, this was a jarring experience. In the Netherlands, the war against cigarette smoke is waged with fervor, making the ubiquity of it in Marseille feel like a relic from an era I was glad we’d moved past.

Where I Stayed

For my Marseille adventure, I broke away from my usual low-budget digs and settled for something a tad more extravagant—Hotel La Résidence du Vieux-Port. Recommended by a seasoned traveler, this moderate-budget hotel promised panoramic views of Marseille’s historic Vieux-Port, which was the main selling point for me.

Entering the hotel, I was greeted by a riot of colors—reds, blues, yellows—everywhere I looked. It was as if a Crayola box had exploded in the lobby, something that both charmed and overwhelmed me. The art that graced the walls ranged from intriguing to outright gaudy, a mixed bag that both excited and somewhat confused my artistic sensibilities. I couldn’t help but think of Amsterdam’s more subdued and harmonious art scenes, particularly the ones in Jordaan, which have a consistent character that was lacking here.

The room was spacious and offered those much-talked-about harbor views. But I should mention, the large windows, while providing a grand vista, failed to adequately block out the harbor noise. You’d have to make peace with the cacophony of boat horns and distant chatter if you’re looking for a serene getaway. The bed was comfortable, but the linens, while clean, showed signs of wear—little threads coming out and some minor stains. The amenities were generally up to par, except for the “organic toiletries,” which honestly didn’t live up to their name; they had a synthetic scent that I found a bit off-putting.

Yet despite these drawbacks, I can’t overlook the exceptional location. It’s hard to beat the joy of waking up to a shimmering sunrise over the harbor. Additionally, the Wi-Fi was fast and reliable, a godsend for a digital nomad like myself. And although not perfect, the hotel’s shortcomings didn’t ruin my stay. It’s a decent choice if you’re willing to compromise a bit for the sake of a great view and prime location. Would I stay here again? Perhaps, but with adjusted expectations.

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