My first encounter with Marseille was in my teens, when I started reading Jean-Claude Izzo‘s crime novels: the Marseille Trilogy followed jaded cop Fabio Montale in his quest for justice, amidst deeply anchored corruption, crime, racism… However you could really feel the love of Izzo for his city and its inhabitants and it was contagious. If you like your crime genre, I really recommend you get hold of these books (thank god they were translated into English).
Another thing Marseille was famous for was its hip-hop scene. The first instalment of Izzo’s trilogy, “Total Kheops” (“Total Chaos” in the English version), actually refers to a song from Marseille cult hip-hop band IAM, whose members wore names inspired by Egyptian antiquity and pharaons.
IAM: Marseille’s cult hip-hop band
Click here for their hit song -> IAM – Je danse le MIA
My friends and I as students would sometimes drive down for a few days of sunshine and swims, but since then I hadn’t been back.
Therefore, after a week in Corsica, we decided to have a stopover in Marseille, if only to prove to my partner that my home city Lyon, despite being beaten at the title of 2nd city of France, was still much nicer! Turns out this 2-day stay did nothing to help my case: Marseille was awesome!
Our flight from Ajaccio felt like 2 minutes: we landed in Marseille-Provence airport and took a taxi to our hotel in the 7th Arrondissement, near the Palais du Pharo. We were ideally located, a nice stroll away from the “Vieux Port“, and not too far from the beautiful Vallon des Auffes.
On our first day, we walked up with great difficulty to “Notre Dame de la Garde”, a neo-byzantine basilica located on a pretty steep hill and after 15-20 minutes to get our breath back, we were able to take in the view… wow.
The view was amazing, well worth the climb! Click on the above panorama for a bigger version.
We then took little streets to go back downtown near the Vieux Port and have a well deserved Pastis (it was almost midday after all!) at the terrasse of one of the numerous cafés on the Cours Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves.
We then walked to the other side of the Vieux Port to explore the old part of town.
The “Quartier du Panier” (Basket) in the 2nd Arr., with its hilly, narrow streets and stairs, was historically a working-class area, but is now getting a bit more touristy. The huge success of soap opera “Plus belle la Vie”, set in the Panier, has also helped (depending on the point of view I guess) put the spotlight on this lovely quartier.
We had a refreshing Perrier citron on a cute little square, near “La Vieille Charité”, an old poorhouse and hospice converted into an art space. We actually missed by one day what seemed like a great exhibition of Friedensreich Hundertwasser at La Vieille Charité: boyfriend was gutted, GUTTED!
The Vieux-Port was unfortunately being renovated at the time of our visit, so it was all fenced off, not like I remembered from my last visit 10 years ago: I could still see myself there, lining up at a stall to pick up my ticket for an outdoor music festival on the nearby Frioul island. It was finally my turn, and I had barely held the ticket for a few seconds that it was swiftly removed from my fingers by an invisible man who disappeared forever into the sunset. No ticket, no festival. I was suddenly faced with the prospect of spending the night alone, in a city I didn’t know and with nowhere to go. Panic was settling in rapidly… Then, a sheer stroke of luck: I spotted some friends from Lyon who had made the trip but had failed to get tickets, who took me with them and let me stay at their friend’s place, thank god! The other consoling thought was that it rained like “pissing cow” that night, so it must not have made for an enjoying festival experience, ha ha!
Aaaah memories… But my festival days were truly over and all I could think about now was how to find the best “Bouillabaisse” in town!
Fernandel tells us how to make the perfect Bouillabaisse
Actor/Singer Fernandel says that to make a good bouillabaisse, you have to get up early, get the pastis ready, tell jokes with your hands, get the help of a pretty young lady to stir the soup and kiss her in the process, and play pétanque while it’s stewing. Sounds like fun!
Traditionally, the bouillabaisse was a dish eaten by poor people or the fishermen themselves, who would used the fish and pieces that they wouldn’t be able to sell at the markets because they would not look as good, but which were still fresh and good to eat, to put in a stew with sea water, and local herbs and spices.
Over the years, Bouillabaisse has become a bit more bourgeois and the prices advertised in the Vieux-Port restaurants were really scary: 50, 60 euros for a fish soup!!? Of course, Bouillabaisse is THE dish that tourists like me want to taste when they come to Marseille, so restaurants make the most of it… fair enough.
I resigned myself to pay a hefty price, but endeavoured to find at least a reputable restaurant. After reading online reviews I decided to go to “Chez Fonfon“ (what a great name!), located at the Vallon des Auffes, a short walk from the hotel along the Corniche du President J.F. Kennedy.
The walk was so nice in this early evening light, we had to stop on the way and drink a pastis (it was almost 6pm after all!) in a little bar/restaurant right on the water, Le Petit Pavillon: it was simply one of the best moments of the trip: soaking up the early evening sunlight, the light sea breeze, losing our gaze in the big blue expense of the Mediterranean sea… I’m obviously no poet, it’s hard to convey how beautiful it was! Hopefully the pictures will help :)
We then kept on walking until we reached some stairs that led us down to the Vallon. We couldn’t believe how cute this spot was! I could totally see myself live in one of the little houses at the top near the bridge. Sigh…
We entered the restaurant and were welcomed by a very professional and attentive Maître D’, who obliged to all of our requests (luckily for vegetarian boyfriend, to whom I hadn’t left any choice on that one: they made him a nice dish of gnocchi).
The room had a beautiful view on the little harbour and the walls were decorated with portholes, marine-themed art pieces and pictures of actors, singers and other famous people who had eaten at Fonfon’s over the decades, which were many! Jean Gabin, Francis-Ford Coppola, Jean Dujardin, even John Wayne!
The waiter first brought some croûtons to the table, as well as some Aïoli and Rouille (a sort of mayonnaise prepared with garlic, saffron, chilli pepper)… very dangerous, filling up on bread before a hearty dish is never a good idea! Of course I never learn and started enthusiastically slathering the croûtons with the delicious rouille and aïoli…
The waiter then brought me the fish soup broth as the entrée, made from tomatoes, saffron and rockfish. The tradition is that bouillabaisse is served in 2 distinct phases: first the broth, then the fish pieces to go in the soup as a main.
The fish platter was then presented to me by the waiter who went through all the fish names used in the dish, which are local rockfish: St Pierre, Congre, Rascasse, Rouget Grondin, Vive.
He then took it back to a nearby bench where I could see him prepare the fish pieces into manageable cuts, which is also part of the ritual, so that I can later put them straight into the broth.
They actually put a video on their website on how they make their bouillabaisse, see it here.
It was all I hoped for: intense flavours of the broth, tender pieces of fish, hearty, comforting… The waiter topped up my plate with more broth and I soldiered on, but it got the better of me. The portion was seriously big for one person!
The bouillabaisse was 47 euros, almost cheap compared to what I’d seen, but it was well worth it, I was very happy: I’d finally had my Marseille bouillabaisse experience!
And this was our last night in Marseille… we were both quite sad. Didn’t even have time to go to nearby Cassis to see the Calanques and their turquoise waters… I hope we’ll be back, it is such a beautiful city with a rich cultural life… so many cafés, restaurants, theatre, museums, art galleries on offer. Marseille has actually been selected as the European Capital of Culture for 2013, so there will be lots of exciting events to check out next year!
PS: I obtained a lot of the information about the bouillabaisse through a great France Inter radio program about food called “On va déguster”, in their show about Marcel Pagnol.