On our way to celebrate the New Year in Spain, Colin and I took a trip across southern France. December is a great time to soak up some extra Mediterranean sun, so we decided we’d take the train to Marseille and drive from there to Tona, the small town where we’d be meeting our friends. On the way, we’d take the scenic route, driving through the Camargue and the Pyrenees.
All I really knew about our first stop, Marseille, was that it was a large city in France, so I’d naively assumed it would be more or less like Paris. Not at all! The city is a major port with ferries and cruise ships linking France to the Mediterranean islands and northern Africa, so the culture feels distinctly different. More surprisingly, though, Marseille feels entirely different depending on which part you visit. The Vieux Port is bustling with shops, restaurants, and tourists (and a huge Christmas market while we were there), which made it feel more like Paris. Other parts of the city – like the neighborhood Le Panier, where we stayed – have a quieter, less polished feel with small restaurants tucked into a maze of narrow streets. And if you walk a couple miles down the coastal road La Corniche (which has really nice pedestrian walkways) you get to sandy beaches with hotels, bike shops, and pizza joints.
We did all of the above, starting one morning at the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde for the stunning views over the city and the sea, then walking down to La Corniche through the gardens behind the basilica. The walk up to the basilica is exhausting – such a big hill! – and once you get there you’re greeted by dozens of tour buses and their tour groups. The overlooks are spacious enough that the number of people didn’t bother us, but when we saw a quiet garden path hidden behind the parking lot – which conveniently would take us in the direction of the sea – we knew we wanted to go that way.
Once at the waterfront, we followed La Corniche for about two miles and stopped at a totally mediocre beachfront pizza restaurant for lunch. Some things, like overpriced beach pizza, must be universal. On our walk back to the Vieux Port, we passed Château d’If – the setting of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo – and a number of luxury seaside villas. We showed up back at the old port just in time for sunset… and happy hour, which because we were so far south lasts until at least 9 pm. Good thing Marseille is known for its pastis! Colin and I both agreed that pastis – an anise-flavored aperitif – tastes exactly like ouzo in Greece, cementing the fact that Marseille really feels a world away from Paris.