Last year, I was lucky enough to be invited on a cruise by MSC Cruises, reporting for Cruise International magazine. It was MSC Armonia’s inaugural sail after its extensive refurbishment and lengthening, which took place in November 2014. The ship sailed from Genoa to the Canary Islands, although I disembarked at Cartegna, Spain.
You can read the full review of my trip over at Cruise International magazine, but one of the day trips I took, that I haven’t written about yet, was my visit to Marseille.
I have visited France several times in the last couple of years but have never been to Marseille before. In fact, I wasn’t really sure what, if anything, it had to offer, so it was a great opportunity to explore France’s oldest city for the day. This really highlights the beauty of cruising – waking up to a different country every day.
We took a taxi from the docked ship into the town of Marseille, which took 10 minutes and €20.
In 2013, Marseille was named the European city of culture, and you can see that it’s given the city a much needed boost. Over 1.3 million cruise passengers passed through the city in 2014 and you can see where the money has (and hasn’t) been spent.
The first thing we saw when we reached the old port, known as the Vieux-Port district, was the Big Wheel. Having now seen one in London, Manchester and Brighton, it made sense that Marseille would have one too. The harbour was full of pretty boats and tourists and had a nice feel to it. The restaurants and bars surrounding the harbour looked lovely and inviting, but we resisted the urge for an ice-cold beer as we only had a few hours before we had to get back to the ship.
We naïvely hadn’t done much research on the area, favouring the “let’s just wander” technique – I’m not sure that’s always a great idea. There is a main road that leads from the harbour to the top of a hill, so we meandered in and out of the side streets off this main road. The shops at the bottom of the hill, near the harbour, were definitely aimed at the tourist market. We visited the sweetest (pardon the pun) shop that sold all manner of sweets and meringues in beautifully packaged boxes … with a price tag to match. I was looking for something to buy Dexter, my 11-year-old son, but felt that the twee packaging was somewhat wasted on him! (As an aside, I ended up buying him several bags of Haribo at the airport which he was more than happy with!)
After we visited the sweetshop, we noticed a churros stand and made a beeline for it. We bought a bag each and spent a very happy ten minutes dunking them in Nutella! The stand was next to a carousel and several rows of Christmas market stalls, so we wandered around as we ate, admiring the miniature hand-made figurines, slabs of nougat and lace doilies.
The churros now demolished, we sat on a wall sipping ice-cold water and chatting. Considering we visited Maseille in November, the weather was absolutely glorious, warm enough just to wear a T-shirt and light cardigan.
In the spirit of offering you an honest review of Marseille, I have to say that the further up the hill we went, the more uncomfortable we felt. There were lots of groups of men around who seemed to take great interest in us walking around on our own. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t followed and didn’t feel in danger, but being stared at and wolf whistled at is never nice, especially when you’re in unfamiliar surroundings.
By the time we got to the top of the hill we saw the Porte d’Aix, a triumphal arch, which was rather reminiscent of L’arc de Triomphe, except on a much less grander scale. The arch marks the old entry point to the city on the road from Aix-en-Provence and we made sure we took some obligatory tourist photos, before making our way back down the hill.
We saw the most gorgeous sunset as we approached Marseille harbour and I could have easily stayed for another couple of hours sipping that longed for cold beer.
Marseille is nice to stroll around for an hour or two but if you want to spend more time there I would recommend doing your research to see if there are nicer places to visit in the town. Maybe we just didn’t know where to go? Would I choose to go back to Marseille as a city to visit? No. At least not on my own. Although there are architectural landmarks to admire, and I’m sure there are hotels, galleries and chic restaurants we just didn’t have time to see, Marseille lacks the charm of Paris.