50 Shades of France: Our Travels in Marseille

Arriving in France was a bag of mixed emotions. At first we were thinking to ourselves, “Holy crap, we’re in France!” But as walked from the Marseilles train station to our Airbnb we were thinking aloud, “Holy crap, this is France?” I will be upfront and admit that the following post may be jaded by some of the more unpleasant parts of our stay in Marseilles. For those of you following us on Facebook you are likely well aware of the hell that was our Airbnb listing during our six night stay. For the rest of you, just know that there were more bugs inside the apartment than outside.

Eager to be out and away from our accommodations, we found as many sites and excursions to see as possible. Staying in the northern part of the main city, we had a decent walk into the heart of Marseilles and the Old Harbor. This portion of Marseilles was beautiful. The harbor was filled with boats of all types. Sailboats and yachts, ferries and speedboats. On either side the harbor was lined with restaurants, stalls, and specialty vendors. The vendors themselves seemed to change daily, rotating between homemade nougat, or a man selling soap off of his rowboat.

Outside of the Old Harbor the scene changed somewhat rapidly. Nicely maintained sidewalks became mine fields of dog poop and discarded food. Days old garbage was matted to the street or discarded 10 feet from an actual dumpster. At one point we laughed that we were back at San Fermin, without the excuse of days of hard partying to account for the mess. Don’t get us wrong, we know that no place is perfect. There are parts of New York City that leave us gagging. I guess we just hoped to see that people outside of the United States took better care of their cities. Oh, and if people didn’t randomly drop lit fireworks down their pant-legs and walk away quietly, that’d be great too.

Tired and hungry after our first day exploring the city, but not wanting to spend a minute in our Airbnb, we bought dinner at the grocery store, a bottle of wine, and walked back to the water. Just in time for sunset, we sat down near the rocks where a local man was happily playing his guitar for anyone that cared to listen. This was easily the best part of our day, and turned out to be a place we revisited many times during our stay.

As huge fans of the book and movie, The Count of Monte Cristo, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to visit the Cheateu D’if. Spoiler Alert: Edmond Dantes is NOT a real person!

When we purchased our ferry tickets we were warned about the heavy fog that morning. Boarding the boat we realized that there were only a handful of people that chose to ignore the warning. Drifting out of the old harbor towards the Chateau D’if on a nearly empty boat into the heavy fog made the trip feel all the more authentic. It wasn’t until we were within 50m of the island that we saw the walls of the fortress materialize out of the fog.

Walking up the ramparts and along the old walls (obscured by, you guessed it, scaffolding) we ducked under the archway and into the fortress. The prison itself was intimidating, with its high thick walls, rounded towers, and drawbridge, all of which kept France’s enemies locked away. Though now it is simply an attraction, not having held an actual prisoner since the end of the nineteenth century.

Not one to miss out on a good marketing opportunity, the city of Marseilles went so far as to recreate the fictional cell of Edmond Dantes, complete with a secret passageway! Though much of it was closed off, or re-purposed as cafes, it was interesting to imagine what it would have been like to be cooped up in one of those tiny cells all the same.

In an effort to get away from the hustle, bustle, and grime of the city, we discovered that were we only a short bus ride from the National Park of the Calanques. This turned out to be one of the best days of our trip so far. As I’m sure many a traveler would agree, getting to your destinations is half of the adventure. Having to hike in or climb a mountain makes us feel like we’ve earned whatever awaits us on the other side. So when we rounded the corner and climbed down the footpath to this…

…we couldn’t have been happier. Though not exactly a well kept secret, the Sugiton Calanque felt like our own (semi)-private slice of paradise. Compared to the beach, this place felt deserted. The water was beautiful, varying in shades of greens and blues, and felt great after baking in the hot sun. We spent the next few hours enjoying the cold water, the picnic we carried in our packs, and testing our luck at cliff-jumping. As the day passed we hopped from shady spot to shady spot, crowding under rocks and trees to hide from the sun. Sufficiently burned and not wanting to miss the last bus, we had no choice but to pack up and head back to the city.

Despite our initial impression, our stay in Marseilles turned out better than we had hoped. A couple of bugs in our bedroom (even the ones in our toothbrush holders) can’t outweigh a great day at the beach, grabbing dinner with old friends, or going on your first dive in the Mediterranean Sea.

Eager to be away from Marseilles, we began a day of transportation hell. Not wanting to stay one minute longer in our Airbnb, it began with a 6 hour wait in the bus station filled with creeps, pick-pocketers, and drug dealers. Catching a strangers eye for more than a few moments appears to be the universal signal that you’re looking to buy hash, weed, or cocaine. Our bus, as usual, was not on time. Normally not a big deal, but in this case it resulted in us watching the last public bus of the night drive away just as we arrived to catch it. Just shy of midnight, we were tired, hungry, and in no mood for our uncooperative Uber app and the shiesty taxi drivers. With some luck, we arrived to our new doorstep around 2:00 am. Happy to see the place was bug-free, we headed straight to bed.

Matthew & Stephanie

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