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Travel: Ancient port still colourful but not so stormy

Marseille’s reputation for gritty ruffians and Free-French spies is outdated

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An out-dated image of grittiness, even danger, clings to Marseille. Because this oldest of ports - founded in 600 BC by the Greeks - is no longer filled with sea-faring ruffians, Free-French spies and Algerian refugees.

Today Marseille is as safe as any other European city. And while the door to the Hotel Grillon was always locked, and the desk staffed exclusively by males, I never felt threatened on the Rue Curiol or anywhere else in this sprawling metropolis of 1.5 million.

Well, but for the aggressive gypsy who, when I swerved to avoid her, tried to trip me. But even around the Vieux Port, famed for its seafood market and (increasingly upscale) restaurants serving mussels and bouillabaisse, you're as likely to encounter a gaggle of German tourists as a couple of pickpockets.

In late May the air was hot and dry and the sea winds strong and steady. On a boat excursion eastward along the rugged limestone coast known as the Calanques (three hours, 19 Euros), our large, hefty-looking vessel was so tossed about by waves that a few of the passengers were seasick.

On this otherwise glorious outing, the boat passed through narrows known as the Cap Croissette, then along an unending series of rock massifs and headlands (caps) with names like Sormiou and Morgiou. All along this coast, the rare signs of human settlement were a few rustic cabins and the stone remains of long-abandoned homesteads.

Returning into the Vieux Port, filled with sailing yachts and fish boats, you can see, at this summit of this hilly city, the basilica known as Notre-Dame de la Garde - a massive Romano-Byzantine pile built in the mid-19 th century on a sea-faring theme.

A local bus wends up steep streets, through crowded neighbourhoods, to this basilica filled with folk-art paintings (shrine-like ex-votos) of long-lost fishing boats and their much-missed crews. From here you overlook the city - taking in the old and modern ports, the more modern and affluent neighbourhoods and a coastal corniche road that fronts onto hilly hamlets graced with upscale-looking, sea-facing houses.

But when a companion and I tried, with a hundred other hopefuls, to catch the regular #38 bus along this corniche to swim one of its rock-side pools or cove-like beaches, the service, we were told, had simply stopped - for the moment.

"Typical Marseille," grumbled a local. And, when I returned to the Gare Saint Charles to buy ongoing train tickets, the power failed, taking down the French railway (SNCF) computer system, and everything else in the station with it.

Back on the Rue Curiol, the big blonde with the boobs had moved her flashy body to a more visible perch on a tall-legged stool. And, as I approached the Hotel Grillon an even larger woman, possibly a transvestite, offered, in passing, a lovely "bonjour."