Story and Photo by Eric Lepeak, Personal Travel
On the southern coast of France, perfectly nestled into the Mediterranean, sits Marseille. Away from the spotlight of Cannes and the money of Monaco, France’s oldest city combines metropolitan bustle with the idyllic beauty of the French Riviera. Last summer, I had the chance to discover this beautiful place while traveling through France with my three best friends.
Despite our parents’ claims that Marseille was a “dangerous, working-class city where slaves were traded not too long ago,” we took the risk and booked a train from Nice to Marseille. Thinking that France could not get any better than the picturesque beaches and quaint streets of Old Nice, I was astounded by the compelling beauty of France’s largest port city. Upon our arrival in late July, we wandered through the streets of Noailles, a bustling North African-influenced neighborhood in the 1st arrondissement. After finding our Airbnb and meeting a more-than-welcoming Marseille-born woman, we set off to explore the city. We roamed open-air African markets selling everything from Kashmiri saffron to the famous Savon de Marseille, handmade soap crafted in the Provence region of France for over 1,000 years. Despite the wear on our bodies from traveling for the past 10 days, we explored the trendy streets of Cours Julien, filled with vibrant youth and countless cafes, and got lost in the beautiful murals and museums of Le Panier, Marseille’s old city.
That night, we found ourselves in a local dance bar where we met a small group of girls from Marseille, who we still call our friends today. Eager to show off the city they call home, we communicated, with my limited French, a few places my friends and I should visit the next day. It was this connection with enthusiastic locals that made our experience so special, as the place they recommended, an island in the bay that is part of the stunning Les Calanques National Park, would soon become one of my favorite places on Earth.
Completely unaware of the day we would soon have, my friends and I hopped on a 45-minute ferry to the Port du Frioul on Les Îles. The sister islands looked like an undiscovered Greek island mixed with a lunar landscape. Jagged white rocks and low-lying shrubs formed small craggy peaks sloping into the sea like long tentacles. This extraordinary foreground framed an abandoned French fortress perched on the far side of the island that looked straight out of a James Bond set or a Tintin adventure.
Meandering along the winding, dusty path that traversed the island gave me time to appreciate the unspoiled beauty that lay all around. Free from guardrails, tourist attractions and signs directing you where to go, I felt a sense of freedom that simply cannot be found in the hustle of modern cities. My friends and I scampered down one of the rocky coves to cool off and lost track of time reveling in the landscape. Beneath the warm Mediterranean water was a sea life teeming with coral, fish and quite a few crabs. Unable to leave, we stayed for hours, jumping off the rocky ledges over snorkelers into the sea below with nothing but water between Africa and us. Marseille holds an innate ability to unite the dichotomy between land and sea, work and leisure. A lively and diverse city gives way to the calming waves of the Mediterranean, lapping on the countless beaches. Each could exist independently, but when meshed together create a beautiful harmony. Shattering the stereotype of rude and unaccommodating, the Marseillais are warm and welcoming people, only adding to the allure of the city. Enthusiastic to share my experience with as many people as possible, I hope that anyone who gets the chance to visit this absolutely amazing city snatches it up, as I am eager to return to study or work in the near future.