Marseille is France's second largest and most ancient city. It was founded by the Greeks in 600 BC and was later conquered by the Romans after becoming a thriving port and centre for trade. Today it is littered with ancient sites and artefacts, mostly Roman additions to the original Greek settlement.
Marseille is very down to earth and lacks the pretension of most other French cities. There are plenty of attractions to explore, including the colourful harbour and pedestrianised squares. The city is also divided into in the style of Paris, which makes it relatively easy to get around on the metro.
The Old Port area is filled with restaurants, bars, hotels, office blocks and a daily fish market at the Belgian Quay, giving it a lively and sophisticated air. There are also a number of decent museums, galleries, theatres and shops dotted about the city that are worth visiting. Marseille is also famed for its Opéra: an Art Deco opera house, situated in the heart of the city, which still hosts performances even though it was all but destroyed by fire in 1920. La Plaine is a trendy area filled with cafes, bookstores and fountains, with a bustling market on Thursdays and Saturdays, while Noailles' bazaar is a multi-ethnic area filled with Indo-Chinese and Arabic shops.
The outgoing, friendly inhabitants of Marseille are a cosmopolitan bunch, with diverse backgrounds including a number of Italian, Spanish, and North African communities. There is far less of the style and image consciousness evident in the rest of the Cote d'Azur, creating a more North African flavour and a vibrant atmosphere. Marseilles also acts as a good base for exploring the nearby natural beauty of the calanques (or Mediterranean fjords) and some excellent beaches.
One of Marseille's most scenic buildings is the Palais Longchamp. Built during the Second Empire, it is the grandiose conclusion of an aqueduct that once brought water from the Durance to the city. Although the aqueduct is no longer in use, water is still pumped into the centre of the colonnade connecting the two palatial wings. Below, a spectacular fountain features an enormous statue of three muscular women above four bulls wallowing in a pool from which a cascade drops four or five storeys to ground level. Marseille had a serious water problem (and attendant cholera problem) for centuries so this enormous tribute to water is historically fitting. In the palace's north wing is the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which displays a vast array of paintings from the 16th to the 19th centuries. They include works by Corot, Millet, Ingres, David, and Rubens as well as some 80 sculptures and objets d'art; particularly interesting is a gallery of Pierre Puget sculptures. The palace also houses the Natural History Museum, and there is a small Planetarium in the vast park. It is lovely to wander or picnic in the gardens and, every year in July, the huge park is the main venue for Marseille's prestigious Five Continents Jazz Festival.
Directly south of Marseille, and to the west of Cassis, is the wild coastline of the Massif des Calanques. Some of France's most beautiful and dramatic scenery can be found along this 12 mile (19km) stretch of coastline; the sea has cut gorges, up to a mile (2km) deep, into the limestone. Dazzling white limestone cliffs overhang the sea and attract rock climbers and deep-sea divers from all over the world. The mountains rise up 1,850 feet (564m) and are a haven for climbers. Walking tours and boat trips to explore the area can be organised via the tourist board, and visitors don't have to be experienced climbers to enjoy walking in the area. Those taking boat rides to the Calanques from Marseille, should take one of the longer trips because the scenery only gets more dramatic and more beautiful, and most people want to spend as much time as possible exploring. Travellers can also hire private boats, which is ideal because then one can stop and swim at will. The highlight of the Calanques is Sormiou, with its beach, seafood eateries and small harbour. Sormiou is separated from another small but enchanting settlement at Morgiou by Cap Morgiou, which offers a panoramic belvedere with splendid views of both the Calanques and the eastern side of the massif. At Morgiou there are tiny creeks which are great for swimming.
The most popular beach in Marseille, near the city centre, is the Plage des Catalans. This marks the beginning of Marseille's corniche which ends at the Plage du Prado, the city's main sand beach, where the water is remarkably clean. There is a nice walk along the corniche which takes visitors past the Anse des Auffes, a picturesque inlet with small fishing boats beached on the rocks, and then behind the Plage de Prado to the Parc Borély, which has a boating lake, rose gardens, palm trees and a botanical garden. The botanical garden is open daily from 8am to 9pm and entrance is free; a stroll here is a fun addition to promenading along the Marseille beachfront and a good chance to enjoy some shade. Along the Malmousque peninsula there are a number of tiny bays and beaches that are perfect for swimming when the mistral wind is not exciting the waves too much. The small beaches between La Pointe Rouge harbour and La Madrague harbour also tend to be clean and usually slightly less crowded than some of the more touristy beaches. There should be a beach to delight everyone in Marseille as there is quite a lot of variety and visitors can enjoy watersports, sun lounging, and fashionable strolling.
On the sparsely vegetated island of If is the infamous prison, Château d'If, which is best known as the penal setting for Alexandre Dumas' famous book François I built the fortress here to defend Marseille and its port in the 16th century, and the site later housed a state prison which was notorious for incarcerating enemies of the royalty. The cells are horribly well-preserved; carvings by Huguenot prisoners can still be seen inside some of them. On a lighter note, the views back towards Marseille and the mountains beyond are wonderful to behold and the trip over in a boat is enjoyable. The ferry to the island will not run if the weather is bad and opening and closing times can change in accordance with the ferry schedule.
Cassis is a beautiful resort town just west of Marseille. Hemmed in by high white cliffs, its modern development has been carefully limited and it retains much of the charm lost by its more high-profile neighbours. Built on the side of a hill, the old village is centred around a shady square where the inhabitants come to cool off and play 'pétanque' on summer nights. Portside posing and drinking aside, there's not much to do except sunbathe and look up at the ruins of the town's medieval castle, built in 1381.
A popular excursion is to take a boat trip to the calanques - long, narrow, deep, fjord-like inlets that have cut into the limestone cliffs. Those feeling energetic can take the well-marked footpath from the Route des Calanques behind the western beach; it's about a 90-minute walk to the furthest and best calanque, En Vau, where one can climb down rocks to the shore. Intrepid pine trees, and sunbathers, manage to find ledges on the chaotic white cliffs. The water is deep blue and swimming between the vertical cliffs is an experience not to be missed. A holiday in Cassis is peaceful and sun-drenched and the natural surroundings are truly spectacular.
Marseille has a Mediterranean climate, meaning hot, dry summers and cool, humid winters. Winter weather is affected by the cold Mistral winds from the Rhone Valley, with temperatures averaging around 54°F (12°C) during the day and 39°F (4°C) at night from December to February. Conditions warm to around 63°F (17°C) by mid-May. Summers are usually warm and pleasant, with peak temperatures in July and August ranging from 75°F (24°C) up to as high as 84°F (29°C). The average rainfall is low, and though winter is the wettest part of the year there are only around five days of rain per month during this period. The best time to visit Marseille is between May and October.
The main way to get around in Marseille is via the extensive public transport system, which include bus, metro and tram services around all parts of the city centre and the suburbs. Tickets are transferable across all three modes of transport and can be bought from metros or all shops displaying the official 'RTM' signage. Most buses run until 9pm, with a few continuing until about 12.30am. Travel after dark is best accomplished in taxis, which can be found at most large hotels or on the street. Driving in Marseille is not recommended, as the city centre is full of narrow, one-way streets and parking is limited.
A city that is sometimes tragically overlooked in a country so full of popular destinations, Marseille has a lot to offer tourists. The city is well situated as a base for glorious excursions along the coast but there are also plenty of things to see and do in Marseille which is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city.
Perhaps the most famous attraction of Marseille is the imposing Chateau d'If, the infamous setting for Alexander Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo. The island is just off the coast and can be quickly reached by ferry; the prison is disturbingly well-preserved. Other attractions in Marseille include the Basilique de Notre Dame de la Garde, which is a magnificent cathedral with wonderful views of the city and a richly decorated interior as impressive as its facade, and the Parc Borely, a lovely open area with a botanical garden and boating lake. The ornate Palais Longchamp is also definitely worth a visit. The palace now houses the Musee des Beaux Arts and the Natural History Museum and it also features an enormous fountain and extensive grounds which are a joy to explore.
One of the most popular attractions in Marseille is the beachfront. The city has some lovely beaches, including the popular Plage des Catalans near the city centre. The corniche, or promenade, makes for a nice stroll as it winds past several beaches and inlets. Just south of Marseille are the famous Massif des Calanques, deep limestone fjords which make for a dramatic and spectacularly beautiful coastline that attracts climbers, divers and hikers. Visitors can take a boat cruise out from Marseille to explore the area and are sure to find some exceptional swimming spots. The picturesque resort town of Cassis, hemmed in by white cliffs, is also a popular excursion from Marseille.
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