It’s partly my fault, I realize that. I was on a crazy schedule around France (which I agreed to) and frankly some cities suffered from lack of time. Marseille was one of those cities. But I refuse to accept all of the culpability, I’d like to think that I can see and do a lot in a short amount of time and more importantly I can gauge the ‘spirit’ of a town fairly quickly. That’s the problem with Marseille, I did get a sense of the place but I didn’t like what I felt.
I worked with the local tourism authority to help me in my efforts to see the ‘splendors’ of Marseille, the second largest city in France, and I was confident that I was in good hands. They’re the experts after all, they know what makes their city great and more importantly how to share that message with the rest of the world. So when they scheduled me for a walking tour of the city I was excited.
I love walking tours and if well done, they are great ways of experiencing a different side of a destination. They share stories and tips that as a tourist can be hard to find. I’ve written about this tour before, so I won’t go into exhaustive detail, but it was not a good experience. The guide was not trained or licensed but part of a volunteer program to involve local residents with tourism. In theory it sounds great, but the practice is something else entirely. But that’s not the reason why I didn’t like Marseille; I didn’t like Marseille because, well, it’s Marseille.
My first introduction was leaving the enormous train station as I walked through town to the harbor. Along the way I saw piled up garbage and dodgy alleyways. This is in no way different than other urban centers around the world, but for me it set the tone for the day. Those first thirty minutes were an important opportunity to make an impression, but the one it made wasn’t great. Still, I had high hopes knowing that Marseille had been selected as the 2013 European Capital of Culture. In retrospect though, this fact is more befuddling than it is logical. Approaching the old port I noticed construction, a lot of construction, supposedly there to prepare the city for the big year of tourism. But it had the effect of marring the landscape. What could have been a beautiful port full of boats and people was instead a pain to navigate and a monstrosity to behold. (I’m told that those cranes are still there by the way, even though the 2013 year of tourism has already started)
The tour led us away from the port up to the highest point in the town, Notre Dame de la Garde. Having toured through Europe before I’ve seen my fair share of ancient churches and they almost never fail to disappoint. While the architecture of the church wasn’t necessarily disappointing, I was a little let down to hear that it was built in 1896. This is Europe, isn’t everything supposed to be incredibly old? But spending time at the cathedral was one of the few high points of my day; the views are frankly stunning. Looking off into the distance you can see the harbor and even the island Château d’If , the setting for Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. On a nice day it really is a treat to see. But it was also there that I got my first good look at Marseille itself and it was just as I suspected. Big, sprawling actually, and not all that attractive. Where were the spires and towers that mark most great European cities? Where were the charming little neighborhoods and enclaves of civility? I couldn’t find any of those things.
The tour ended with a walk through some neighborhoods near the port, during which time our guide seemed almost lost. Again, I was not impressed. It still wasn’t pretty or interesting. It lacks the charm of Paris and the interest of Toulouse. It lacked the obvious age of Avignon or the appeal of La Rochelle. It was just a big city, doing big city things. That’s fine, it’s not the job of Marseille to amuse me personally or to make sure I have a good time. But I can’t imagine ever wanting to go back, something that is all too rare for me when I travel through Europe.
Have you been to Marseille? What did you think?