Popular for “The Count of Monte Cristo” connection, this French city is intimidatingly beautiful. But be prepared for a little disappointment

Forget Parisian-chic; banish any ideas of Provencal prettiness; perish the thoughts of the rich Riviera… this bustling French city lives by its own rules. Only.

Places, like people, have definite ‘characters'. Some are ever-so charming, picture-postcard pretty, you want to pack your bags and move there, while others are such dreadful bores, they make you wish you had never bothered coming over… There are some though, that aren't quite so straightforward. Marseilles, France's second largest city, was one of those enigmas, and years after a brief visit, I can only think of the words ‘intimidatingly beautiful' to describe the city.

We had but one evening to get to know Marseilles, famous for its Bouillabaisse, for its “The Count of Monte Cristo” connection. Expectations, I must admit, were running pretty high; after all, Marseilles straddled two highly romanticised worlds — Provence and the French Riviera. What, we wondered, would the city resemble — a cutesy, tiered town spilling over the hills, or would it be one long, expensive promenade, filled with terribly rich people walking their terribly pampered mutts? Well, I can still recall the surprise, the disappointment — Marseilles was hardly what we expected…

First impressions

To be fair though, the drive into the city was fairly noteworthy. Just before we hit Marseilles, there was this marvellous, endlessly long tunnel; when we, phew, finally drove out into the open, we were wowed by lovely clusters of light — venerable, old buildings, aesthetically lit, dotting the hills, while over the waters, dozens of plush yachts belonging to important, rich people bobbed up and down the old harbour. It was all very impressive, and until we walked out of the swanky underground garage, we were busy brushing up our superlatives. The moment we hit the streets, however, it was a completely different story…

Marseilles was one crowded city. The grand, long promenade, winding its way besides the old harbour seemed to contain the entire population of Mediterranean-France, besides hundreds and thousands from the neighbouring North African countries.

It was fairly throbbing with humanity, so throbbing that the toned-waiters and chic-waitresses of the busy sidewalk cafes had to duck beneath groups of people — cleverly balancing trays laden with frothing beer — to serve their customers. All the benches in the vicinity were, naturally, taken; the railings were taken (there was barely any space to lean on one to click a picture!); we were simply forced to walk in the general direction of the restaurants, admiring the yachts…

Lasting impressions

After some frantic scouring, we found a pizzeria with decent food, and better still, a chatty waiter, who earned his tip just by telling us the must-visit spot of the city. “You should go up to ‘Notre Dame de la Garde'. The Basilica is right on top of the hill, and it's so beautiful; you can see the whole city from up there!” Bolting down our dinner, we set out in the direction of the Basilica. We walked uphill, and then we walked uphill some more; we would've probably gone on, wheezing up the hill, but we turned back. The reason was not because we couldn't handle one measly hill (ha!) but mostly because we were spooked out.

You see, Marseilles has this notorious claim to fame — it's atrociously high crime rates. Blame it on the power of suggestion, on all those books, reviews that use the words “mugging” and “drugs” liberally, but something about those groups of young men — lurking around every street corner, smoking, chatting, staring — bothered us immensely. Oh, I know what you're thinking — those poor chaps could've been discussing their grandmother's arthritis or grandfather's stamp collection — but we weren't taking any chances. We hurried back to the garage, fetched our rented car and drove up to the Basilica, past quaint squares and old, historical quarters, past more groups of men in dark corners, chatting, smoking…

What a view!

But, all that trouble was definitely worth it. The view from the top was stunning; the Basilica was sublimely lit, the steeples were glowing a rich yellow-gold, the inky-black sky was generously studded with stars, all the lights of the city twinkled away in the distance, there was a faint suggestion of the bracing sea breeze in the air… We spent a few minutes admiring the view, taking pictures (which my ill-equipped camera botched up) and then rushed back to the safety of the car. Because even up there, there were groups of young men, smoking, chatting, exuding this faintly menacing air… or were they perhaps simply, innocently trading recipes on ‘how to make Bouillabaisse?'


Aparna KarthikeyanJune 28, 2012