I’m finally getting around to writing about my February holidays (vacances d’hiver) this year. This time around, I didn’t do the full two weeks as I’d done last year with a whirlwind of a time in Spain and Portugal, but all the same, I still headed to warmer climates to escape the dreaded cold in the north of France.
So where did I head off to? Marseille, France!
Located in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, Marseille is a port city that’s actually the largest city in France, area-wise (Paris actually is the largest in terms of population, around 2 million people to Marseille’s 850,000). It’s situated in the south of France and is a popular tourist destination for foreigners and French people alike, who also come to bask in the reputably-warm, Mediterranean weather (myself included).
Although I was in Marseille last year in March during my first year as an assistante, I’d been meaning to go back soon, especially when I enjoyed it last time around. I’d also been a bit unsure on where to go for this February vacation, considering that I couldn’t afford to be gone for a full two weeks because of my Master’s, so when an assistant had posted something on my académie’s Facebook group about going to the south of France, I couldn’t resist jumping on-board! That said, I was going to Marseille!
The day after Valentine’s Day, I woke up super early to catch the 6h30 train over to Paris, arriving there around 7h30 where I waited a little while for the other assistant(e)s to arrive. In total, there were six of us going to the south of France, and I have to say, we were quite an eclectic, multicultural bunch: three English assistantes (me from the U.S., a British, and a South African), two Spanish assistantes (a Costa Rican and an El Salvadoran), and one German assistant. Although we all came from the same Normandy académie and saw each other at stage/formation from time to time, we hadn’t known each other that well until we met up that day in Paris to head to Marseille. Any case, we made brief introductions before catching the metro to Gare de Lyon, where we would board the TGV to Marseille at 9h30. We’d booked our train tickets a month in advance, and we got really lucky with very reasonably-priced tickets for 30 euros one-way: normally, they would’ve been double, even triple, the cost! Not only that, but also we were taking the TGV, which is France’s high-speed railway system: instead of taking six hours to get to Marseille, it would only take three and a half hours. Certainly not complaining about that!
We boarded our train at 9h30 and soon after, we were off! The train was wide and spacious, quite comfortable, and I found myself dozing on and off on the ride over. Plus, the more south we went, the warmer and sunnier it got- I was getting excited!
At 13h00, we made it to Marseille’s gare Saint-Charles and from there we headed to our hotel, located halfway between the station and Vieux Port, the touristy port area. We checked in and were split up into two rooms: I took one room with the British, South African, and Costa Rican assistantes while the German assistant and El Salvadoran assistante took the other. It turned out to be an aparto-suite, with a kitchen, living room, dining table, and everything! Definitely was a good steal for about 58 euros per person.
After dropping off our belongings and settling in for a bit, we all decided to go out and explore a bit on our first day. We headed down to Vieux Port, where it was bustling with tourists and locals alike. There were so many boats in the harbor, lined up right after the other like a packed parking lot (…water lot? Who knows.). We strolled along the quay for a bit, hitting both sides of the harbor before ruminating about what to do next. There was the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde located on the hill, and at first we didn’t want to strain ourselves with a hike up, especially after a long half-day of traveling. However, after some more ruminating, we decided to go up, anyway.
…and off we went! We set out on foot up to the top, passing by St. Victor’s Abbey and winding through some narrow streets before getting to the base of what seemed like a thousand steps: in the distance, we could see the basilica, our end-goal. We were already huffing and puffing a bit just from the gradual incline up, but nevertheless, we powered through those steps and finally made it to the top!
The views of the city were rewarding from up top, although it was rather overcast that day, so lots of clouds in my photos. In any case, we also explored the inside of the basilica, where I got to see again the incredible nave decked out in gold and Byzantine architecture. The basilica’s history can be traced all the way back to the 13th century; it was a big pilgrimage site and today it remains one of the most-visited sites in Marseille.
Around 16h30, it was starting to get chilly, so we decided to head down and back to our hotel. Along the way, we stopped at a Super U for groceries for dinner and made our way back where we relaxed for the night.
We spent the entire following day hiking at the calanques, which I’ll save for another post. The day after, we spent it in the city proper again, this time heading north to Palais Longchamp, located in the 4th arrondissment and is a grand Roman, inspired monument built back in the 19th century for welcoming water into Marseille from the Durance River- today, it houses two museums: the Beaux-Arts and the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle. Didn’t go inside either of them, and instead just hung outside, taking photos of the Palais Longchamp and wandering its lovely marble-pillared corridors.
Next, we went all the way back to Vieux Port, where we hung out around the souvenir shops until lunchtime. Although restaurants along Vieux Port are, naturally, pricier than elsewhere, it was pretty much the only part of town where we could actually have a higher chance of finding a seafood dish, including its signature bouillabaisse (a saffron-infused fish stew). We eventually came across an “all-you-can-eat” buffet for 23 euros that served bouillabaisse, so we popped in there for lunch. It actually turned out to be a good deal, especially since it was AYCE! Not only did they serve bouillabaisse, but also moules frites, boeuf bourguignon, and other French dishes. There were also extensive charcuterie and cheese platters, along with a small dessert bar.
…and I have to say that not only was it great for being AYCE, but also the quality was surprisingly top-notch! Usually, I’m skeptical when it comes to buffet food taste, but I was absolutely blown away by the boeuf bourguignon: the meat was so tender, not dry, and I could actually taste the intensity of the red wine cooked in there. Probably the best boeuf bourguignon I’d ever had- I even went for seconds! The bouillabaisse and moules frites were pretty good, but the next star of the show had to be the tiramisu for dessert: it was actually made fresh, topped with a thick layer of light, airy cream and espresso-soaked sponge cake underneath. I love tiramisu, and that one certainly satisfied my taste buds! Along with a pastis (an anise-flavored alcoholic drink local to the region. I hate the taste of anise/licorice, but when in Marseille, I had to get it!), my lunch was complete.
Stomachs full, we headed out to the Fort Saint-Jean, a 17th-century fort which houses the MuCEM, or the museum of European civilization. Admission to visit the fort is free (just a bag check), so we wandered around the fortified walls, even climbing up the Tour du Roi René to get views of the harbor from below. It was quite foggy that day, so sadly the photos weren’t ideal, but all the same, the sheer number of boats that we saw in the port were astonishing.
We climbed down the tower, exited the fort, and headed over to le Panier, the historic quarter of Marseille filled with winding, narrow streets, pastel-colored buildings, and the Vieille Charité, which is a former hospice from the 17th century that once housed the poor and the homeless- today, it’s home to several cultural museums. We had a short tour around the courtyard, even climbing up to the second and third floors, before we decided to call it a day and return to our hotel in the late afternoon. However, I headed back out with the German assistant and South African assistante about half-an-hour later to Vieux Port (always back to Vieux Port!) to catch the sunset over the harbor. Got in my photos where the German assistant, who’s actually a semi-professional photographer, ran all over the harbor to capture that picture-perfect shot. The dark-orange glow in contrast with the blue sky was absolutely lovely, and we watched as it changed to pink and violet, changing more colors until it was over.
Headed back to the hotel where we hung out with the others for the rest of the night. It would be our last night in Marseille before we had to check out the following day at 8h30. After we checked out, I split off from the others since they would be spending another few more days in Nice while I had to return to the north to start my Master’s courses again. We parted ways that morning, and I spent the day just wandering around Marseille before I needed to catch the overnight bus in the evening back to Paris. I revisited the Notre Dame de la Garde, the Fort Saint-Jean, and le Panier. Weather turned out to be very good that day, sunny with blue skies. Considering that the other days spent in the city were overcast, it was great to *finally* experience the weather that I’d escaped down south for this February vacation! That said, it made my photos of the same places I’d visited much more worth it.
Around 17h00, I headed to Gare Saint-Charles where I caught the 18h15 overnight bus back to Paris, once again saying goodbye to Marseille.
Second-time around, and I still find Marseille absolutely gorgeous. Not only are the people friendlier, but also the Mediterranean atmosphere makes me feel like I’m back at home in Los Angeles. It was a pleasure to have spent it with company, too, as we did end up bonding more over the course of our three nights in the city. Although I think I’ve already seen what I want to see this time, I’d love to return someday to explore more of the surrounding towns and cities. We shall see!
Stay tuned for my post on my day trip to the calanques of Marseille!