Cruising: Sailing to Marseille

 

L’Hôtel-Dieu de Marseille is a former hospital that we hear is being converted into an InterContinental hotel.

 

Clients cruising the Western Mediterranean this summer? A stop in Marseille, once a notoriously crime-ridden seaport, is a chance to indulge in some landlubber luxury and get a taste of the Provençal good life. Marseille has been a lively port city and cultural melting pot since the Greeks established a settlement here in 600 BC. Since the 2001 arrival of high-speed TGV service connecting Marseille to Paris in three hours, the city has shed its louche image. The docks have been cleaned up, and there’s a new tram system and a cutting-edge arts scene. Vibrant and colorful, Marseille now also channels a chic vibe, reflected by the opening of high-design hotels like the New Hotel of Marseille-Le Pharo and Villa Massalia. The city being named European Capital of Culture for 2013 is further proof of Marseille’s rebirth.

Most of the luxury lines call in Marseille this year. It’s on Seabourn’s Yachtsman’s Riviera seven-day itinerary (which has six departures throughout 2010, starting in May) on Seabourn Legend and also on an October 25 itinerary aboard Seabourn Sojourn. Silversea also has seven cruises this year that call in Marseille, on Silver Wind and Silver Spirit, which just joined the fleet in December. Regent Seven Seas Cruises will have six itineraries that visit Marseille (three from March through July; three more from September through October) on Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Mariner.

A one-day itinerary in Marseille should start with a morning visit to the fish market in the Vieux Port, where local fishermen vie to sell their catch. After wandering through Le Panier, the maze of cobblestoned streets comprising the oldest quarter of the city, head to Notre-Dame de la Garde for 360 degree views over the city’s sun-bleached houses and terra-cotta roofs. History buffs will get a kick out of the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille, the Musée des Dock Romains and Chateau d’If—the 16th century island fortress where the Count of Monte Cristo was fictionally imprisoned. Boats leave every half hour from the Quai des Belges and the trip to Marseille’s Alcatraz is worth it for the views alone.

Foodie Fodder: For gourmands tracking down the best bouillabaisse, the quest ends in the Vieux Port, where visitors can imbibe an anise-flavored pastis aperitif on the waterfront before tasting Julia Child’s obsession. The question of where to eat the best bouillabaisse is highly debated, but you can’t go wrong by booking a table at Le Petit Nice, which attained the coveted Michelin three-star status in 2008. Famously referring to the Mediterranean as his “kitchen garden,” Chef Gérald Passédat routinely cooks with 70 species of fish. Two years ago he made headlines by removing Bluefin Tuna, a threatened species, from his menu. Other acclaimed chefs have since followed suit.

Another top-rated Marseille resto is L’Epuisette. Perched on the rocks above Vallon des Auffes, the eatery serves up panoramic views of the harbor along with its bouillabaisse. Try Chez Michel for what’s rumored to be the most authentic recipe in town. Across the street, Le Calypso is another good spot. Or head to local favorite Chez Brun, one of Julia Child’s old haunts. For cooking enthusiasts, the office of Marseille Tourisme offers a bouillabaisse cooking class once a month. Had enough bouillabaisse? Tempt yourself with creative Provençal cooking at Une Table au Sud, the Michelin-starred restaurant helmed by Chef Lionel Lévy, a talented Ducasse disciple.

Top Shop: A trip to Marseille is not complete without picking up some of the city’s famous soaps and bath products. Deliciously scented and beautifully packaged blocks of savon de Marseille can be found at La Compagnie de Provence
or 72% Pétanque. Learn the history of pastis, the city’s beloved tipple, through generous tastings at La Maison du Pastis.

Another local specialty: orange-flavored cookies shaped like boats celebrating the legend of Les Trois Maries—three saints, each named Mary, who arrived by boat near Marseille to convert the ancient land to Christendom. Pick up les navettes at the family-owned Le Four des Navettes, which has been commemorating the myth in cookie form since 1791. Visitors looking to do some serious retail damage can hit the trendy boutiques around Cours Julien.

From Marseille, there are a number of unforgettable day-trips to be had, so rent some wheels for a spin in Provence. Heading east along the coast for a few miles toward Cassis, visitors discover the Calanques. Carved into the white limestone cliffs, these fjord-like inlets are adored by swimmers for their picture-perfect beaches and clear blue water. The best is Calanque En Vau, reachable by foot.

A foodie field trip to the village of La Celle is not to be missed. Just an hour east in the idyllic Provençal countryside, the Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle is a restaurant/country inn adjoining a royal Benedictine abbey. Surrounded by herb gardens and vineyards, the property is one of the Maisons d’Alain Ducasse. Here, guests are awed by Ducasse protégé Chef Benoît Witz’s culinary wizardry. Witz has a devoted French following, and gives cooking lessons in the Hostellerie’s impressive kitchens.

From late July through the month of August, visitors flock to the Lavender Route in Haute-Provence, where the fields are awash in purple, and the blooming flowers perfume the air. The most photographed spot is the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque, north of Gordes. Just as popular is the medieval village of Forcalquier, not far from the L’Occitane factory, where tours are available with a reservation. Above all, a visit to Provence is about slowing down and kicking back with a pastis in hand to watch a leisurely game of boules, idling at cafés and soaking up the sunshine.

A rental car isn’t necessary to visit Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. Avignon is accessible by high-speed train in 30 minutes, while regional trains connect to Aix-en-Provence in 45 minutes. Whiz by the luminous landscapes dotted with cypress trees that so captivated Cézanne, Aix’s native son. Indeed, Cézanne’s light-filled paintings have become inseparable symbols of the Provençal setting they depict. Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Musée Granet in elegant Aix. Recently renovated, the impressive museum hosted the blockbuster “Picasso Cézanne” exhibition in 2009. Cruising in July? Don’t miss the world-renowned Festival d’Avignon, one of the world’s greatest multi-art celebrations. Perhaps most magnificent of the citywide festival venues is the Palais des Papes, the fortified palace that was home to the medieval popes during the 14th century.

 

Port Des Goudes in Marseille is part of a calanque, a rugged coastal area interspersed with small fjords.

 

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