Magic in Marseille
13.03.2013 - 14.03.2013 5 °C
We'd been warned about Marseille. About it's air of danger and it being a home of criminal activity in France. First of all by Keri - who has watched a lot of tv shows based in the place and, most recently, by our chauffeur on Tuesday in Nice who warned us to be careful.
Duly warned we arrived here yesterday afternoon after a slightly stressful drive from Nice. Some bright spark - aka me - had suggested that we take the opportunity to experience the French Riviera and drive along the coast road. What I really didn't realise is that the coast road - at least from Nice to Cannes - is essentially a collection of towns and you spend your life on very narrow streets dodging the beautiful people. Along our trip, I saw every Riviera cliche from Belmondo wannabees to blond matrons in fur coats and carrying little dogs. Ghastly! The coup de grace was in Cannes where the place was overrun by 100s of men in dark suits, with mobile phones locked to their ears and id tags on who swarmed all over the Croisette and seemed to multiply as we looked. The town was full of signs welcoming the Russian Federation - what, we thought. all of it???? It appears that the Moscow City Council was having a conference. Why they had in Cannes and not Moscow in March is clear to me but I'd be less than impressed if the City of Frankston had their conference in Port Douglas.
At Cannes, we cracked it and found the freeway. We also found the car's in built GPS which proved to be a blessing and navigated us through the city to our hotel with a minimum of fuss. Tolls proved to be a challenge. Not paying them so much - although nearly 15 Euros seemed steep - but actually reaching the tollbooth (Hugh) to get the ticket and pay the money - must practise that. The bonus is that we managed to piss off a lot of Frenchmen in the process of driving across 4 lanes at the booths and then sitting there for a couple of minutes while we worked things out and Hugh contorted himself accessing the machine - so not all bad!
Our hotel here is the Sofitel Vieux Port and it is magnificent. Exceptionally welcoming and friendly. We've been upgraded to a Superior Port View room with a magnificent view of the port. Turn down service last night left us a friendly welcoming note which made us feel like we were more than just a number - had Tania's style which is unusual in a big hotel - also left us a bottle of lovely olive oil as a welcoming gift. Nothing has been too much trouble in the 24 hours we've been here and we'd gladly come back.
Now for Marseille. What can I say about it? We love it - that's the most important thing. It has a raffish charm and is rather like that slightly misbehaving uncle who has been a roux in his previous life and is still reliving those glory days. It's charming, lively - actually vibrant - and yes, slightly dangerous. It's also quite a challenge for the legs as it drops from the hills to the port area and is hard on the legs.
We had a gentle walk yesterday - down the hill to the Vieux Port and round to the other side. It was busy and lively - not unike Circular Quay in Sydney but with French subtitles. Back to the hotel and after a change and freshen up, we got a cab to L'Epuisette, a restaurant that we first discovered on a Rick Stein program. We'd done the research and decided that looked like a spot for a Bouillabaisse - and it didn't let us down. I've had versions of this dish back home and even tried cooking it myself but now that I know how it should be I know there is a long way to go. We were advised that we didn't need an entree` so sat back in the hands of the masters. First of all a couple of amuse bouche - a selection of little fishy treats and then some creme asparagus and foie gras - and then soup part of the bouillabaisse.
Tres tres bon!!! The flavour in that rich thick soup was amazing. We were given a plate of croutons and pots of aioli, rouille and grated cheese and we were off.
I had to tuck my napkin into my neck - no other way to eat it. When the soup was drunk, or at least that bowl, the fish from the stew were presented to us whole and identified - it was a bit like having a date with them - and then taken away and filleted and brought back along with saffron flavoured potatoes. More soup was ladelled on and more bread brought out. Delcious doesn't really say it all - but not sure what else to say. Dessert was raspberry macaroons filled with lychee and ro se creme and with fresh raspberries. Also delicious and made us realise that we're struggling with French portion size. Got a cab home but had to walk up steep stairs about the equivalent of two building floors as the restaurant is in a somewhat inaccsessible spot.
Home and straight to bed and asleep through to 7 this morning. The wind had come up last night and was howling this morning - rattling the windows and shaking the building. After a lovely breakfast in hotel we set off about 9 o'clock and battled the gale down toward the port. This time we deviated and started exploring the side streets and following our instincts. Despite the wind, we walked nearly 10 km up and down hills and with wind at up to 50mph and gusts much stronger than that. It's a very beautiful city and well worth the time just to look, listen and smell. Glorious residential areas with yellow stone, flat fronted buildings decorated with black lace metal work. We found a street market in the Arab quarter with fruit and vegetables grown locally and also in Tunisia which seems so much closer than other parts of France. We saw our first French butcher and were rubber suctioned to the window at the sight of the Bresse chicken and Maigret. A patissiere had us drooling! Hugh spotted an "interesting building" at the end of one street so we climbed toward it - to be rewarded by the sight of the Palais Longchamp - and the workmen who are currently restoring it. The search for a toilet took us off track and we made our way to the Gare Marseille which is huge and busy and friendly - and warm - and where a toilet could be found at the knock down price of 50 euro cents!
We got slightly lost when we left the station and headed down hill to what we thought was the Vieux Port. What we actually found was the international shipping terminal at the new port - and the sight where Colin Firth says goodbye to Aurelio in Love Actually! The best thing I can say about the walk along from the terminal is that it was flat. It was also phenomenally windy to the extent that even Hugh nearly took off! We found the Vieux Port at last and had lunch at a breezy establishment on the front before conceding that we could walk no further and finding a cab home - to the hotel.
We still have the views of the port to enjoy as we relax and we know that we have fallen in love with Magnificent Marseille - or wicked Uncle Willy!!