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Back to the Med! Marseille

We were hoping to make it to the 13th century Monastère de la Verne before its 5pm closing time, but the winding mountainous roads of the Haut Var got the best of us and we just missed the last entry. All was not lost, however, as we got some great views of the monastery from the access road. I included a short clip to illustrate what it feels like driving in the area.

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We used the time we saved missing the monastery to visit the town of Collobrières, which is famous for chestnuts. We made the obligatory stop at the local chestnut showroom, where we tried unsuccessfully to understand why some chestnuts were called châtaignes and others marrons. The kids got chestnut ice cream and we resisted the urge to buy chestnut liqueur. It was still too early for dinner, so we got pizza for the kids at an incongruous food truck and explored the town for about half an hour. It was a very quiet and pretty place, with plane trees lining a shallow canal and peaceful little squares and lanes.
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Fortunately we were able to get to the main coastal highway before darkness, and we had a boring and uneventful drive to Marseille. Our arrival in Marseille was complicated by the fact that there was absolutely no way to stop in front of our Airbnb without blocking the road. We had to proceed to a garage a block away and schlep the sleepy kids and suitcases all the way back. Then we had dinner to attend to, and it was already close to 10 PM. Luckily I found a Tunisian restaurant called Saf Saf not far away that turned out to be quite good, even though we were the only customers. The owner and his family were very helpful and friendly.
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I had chosen the Arab quarter of Noailles in Marseille due to its central location and proximity to one of the largest city markets. The next morning the market was open but a little threadbare, which I ascribed to the fact that it was Sunday and quite chilly. However, there was a decent selection of meat, seafood, and fruits and the submersion in Franco-Arab culture was quite interesting.
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We walked a few blocks more down to Quai des Belges at the Vieux Port to see the fish market, but there was no seafood in sight. We asked around and got pointed in a few different directions, but there was no sign of a fish market.
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We eventually walked all the way to the end of the port on the northern side, where we were greeted by a vicious mistral that put the one we had experienced in Stes. Marie to shame. Fortunately the kids were protected by their strollers, but Mei Ling and I had to lower our heads and plow up the Quai de la Tourette through the freezing wind to the Cathédrale la Major. Here we finally found an escape from the cold, an entrance into the old Bohemian neighborhood of Le Panier. With a combination of leverage and lifting we managed to hoist the strollers all the way to the top of the hill the neighborhood is set on, while taking in the colorful cafes and graffiti along the narrow lanes.
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Back at the port, we made a strong attempt to identify the best of the seafood restaurants we had walked past by examining their menus and clienteles and checking online reviews. Despite these efforts, we struck out miserably and had a completely inedible meal. Around this time I suddenly realized why there was no fish market and only a rudimentary market at Noailles. It was May 1, May Day, one of the biggest national holidays in France. It was ridiculous for me to have forgotten about May Day, considering that we had been screwed by the same holiday a year earlier in Versailles, but there you have it. Given that so much would be closed and the freezing weather, we decided to return to our apartment. That ended up being a fortunate decision, because despite having not touched the horrible lunch I was seized with a nasty stomach bug that afternoon which rendered me completely useless for the rest of the evening. Mei Ling was a good sport about eating in, but I felt badly we had lost one of our two chances to have dinner in Marseille.

Monday morning was a vast improvement in every way. It was sunny and so much warmer that we didn't need to wear our jackets at all, and everything was open. We decided we'd spend most of the afternoon in Marseille to make up for the previous day, and skip a planned stop in the neighboring fishing town of Cassis. First we got to see the Noailles market in full effect, with outdoor stalls as well as storefronts.
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There was still no fish market to be found near the port, probably because no one had gone fishing on May Day, so we doubled back and ate at a seafood restaurant called Toinou Les Fruits de Mer. I hadn't planned on going because the online reviews were very mixed, but Mei Ling liked the way it looked and as usual she turned out to be right. The restaurant had an unusual set up with a self-service line for some seafood and drinks and then the option to order other seafood with the cashier. The restaurant had a seafood market outside and everything in the market was fair game to be ordered in the restaurant, which is always a good sign. We ended up with a whole platter of shellfish topped with a whole spider crab full of roe, which we washed down with white wine. It was another entry for our list of the ten best meals of the trip.
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After lunch we began to walk the streets of Marseille in earnest. After exploring the wide pedestrian boulevards of the Opera district, we found our way to the Quai de Rive Neuve on the south side of the port where we had great views of the old city fortifications from below..
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About fifteen minutes later we arrived at the entrance to Jardin du Pharo, which contains a pleasant park and playground at the top of a hill along with the Napoleonic Palais du Pharo. There were great views from the top of the hill of the city walls and port area.
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We piled into a taxi for our last stop in Marseille, the Cathedral de la Major. The enormous zebra-striped Byzantine structure seemed more in line with a church one might see in Russia than in France. Sadly, the two southern towers were being restored and were draped in scaffolding and canvas. We sat in a cafe just by the Cathedral and stocked the kids with ice cream before the drive to Montpellier.
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Here's a great travel article about Marseille.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:24 Archived in France Tagged marseille collobrieres

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