In 2018, I made a spur of the moment decision to fly to France for a week. Paris was an obvious choice on my list of cities to visit but I was intrigued by what France had to offer outside of the capital city. Our exchange student from high school from Avignon gave me a book on Provence and ever since then, I was fascinated by the south of France and the different things that this region had to offer.
It was then I decided to explore France’s 2nd largest city, Marseille. I’ve done plenty of research and even talked to many people about this city. It seems to be a place that doesn’t have of a good reputation. Watching an episode of Parts Unknown one day, I’ve heard a local even compare Marseille to the American city of Detroit. This made me want to go there and see for myself. Crazy? Yes I am.
We booked the plane tickets, Airbnb, TGV tickets and were on our way!
My first impression of Marseille was that it gave off a sort of unassuming vibe. There wasn’t that pretentiousness that I felt in Paris or even other cities around the world. People generally came off as very laid back, down-to-earth, and even rather friendly — something the French are not exactly known for. I was standing in one of the oldest cities in France. That’s over 2000 years of history surrounding me. Sure there was graffiti here and there but I never got the sense that I was in danger in any way. People kept to themselves and the architecture looked just as charming and old as what I saw in Paris.
The first morning consisted of walking down to any local Boulangerie we could find and getting something to eat. We struggled with our broken french to order two baguette sandwiches and two bottles of water and proceeded to sit outside and enjoy the weather and relaxing afternoon that lay ahead of us. I remember feeling a bit intimidated because this was the first time I’ve ever been to a foreign country where I had no friends, no family, no connections whatsoever. Aside from finally utilizing my high school French, I wondered bad my boyfriend and I were sticking out. Before finishing our food, a random gentleman walking by smiled at us and said “Bon Appetit messieurs!” and walked off. It was at this moment I felt a bit more relaxed and welcomed here. I was ready to take on the day!
Strolling along the Vieux Port, there were all kinds of stands selling random souvenirs and trinkets. The streets were lined with shops and restaurants with crowds of locals and tourists alike walking along and enjoying the late morning. We eventually made our way to the waterfront with what looked like old ruins. It was Fort Saint-Jean. I remember it reminding me of an old fortress that was most likely older than my own country. It hugged the waterfront and had steps leading up to the inside of it’s inner grounds and pathways. This place was originally a military fortress built in the 1600s as an entrance to the old port. It was even used in WWII during the German Occupation. At the top, it offered beautiful views of the old port on one side and the Mediterranean sea on the other.
We eventually found ourselves closer to downtown towards a small open air market selling fresh produce and other assorted food items. We decided to buy a bunch of fresh figs, some bread, and go back to our airbnb and cook our own dinner with what was available. I’ll never forget the young lady working the stalls who heard my American accent when speaking to her. She took a quick look at the two of us and proceeded to smile and say in broken English “It’s raining cats and dogs outside.” We both laughed and parted ways.
All in all, my first day in Marseille was a simple but great one. I tend to be attracted more to unassuming vibes which is probably why this city rubbed me the right way. I can definitely sense a much grittier past and did observe a larger population of north african immigrants. In my opinion, this city is still just as French as any other place in France — just with a bit more spiced humility. I truly believe it’s reputation is undeserved these days. It’s a place worth seeing if you are looking for a relatively low-profile city with a lot of charm and good people, especially if this is your first time coming to the south of France.
Thank you Marseille for welcoming this shy, unsuspecting Filipino-American. I will for sure return someday!