Marseille - Abbey Travel, Ireland

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Welcome to Marseille


Marseille is France's second largest and most ancient city. It was founded by the Greeks in 600BC and was later conquered by the Romans after becoming a thriving port and centre for trade. Today it is littered with ancient sites and artefacts; mostly Roman additions to the original Greek settlement.

Other than its colourful old harbour, the city does not have much appeal in the way of architecture. It is characterised by acres of slumlands and has a reputation for having a very active underground criminal element. Marseille is, however, very down to earth and lacks the pretension of most other French cities, with plenty of attractions and pedestrianised squares to explore. The city is also divided into arrondissements in the style of Paris, which makes it relatively easy to get around on the metro.

The Old Port area is filled with restaurants, bars, hotels, office blocks and a daily fish market at the Belgian Quay, giving it a lively and sophisticated air. There are also a number of decent museums, galleries, theatres and shops dotted about the city that are worth visiting. Marseille is also famed for its Opéra: an Art Deco opera house situated in the heart of the city that was all but destroyed by fire in 1920. La Plaine is a trendy area filled with cafes, bookstores and fountains, with a bustling market on Thursdays and Saturdays, while Noailles' bazaar is a multi-ethnic area filled with Indo-Chinese and Arabic shops.

The outgoing, friendly inhabitants of Marseille are a cosmopolitan bunch, with diverse backgrounds including a number of Italian, Spanish, and North African communities. There is far less of the style and image consciousness evident in the rest of the Cote d'Azur, creating a more North African flavour and a vibrant atmosphere. Marseilles also acts as a good base for exploring the nearby natural beauty of the calanques (or Mediterranean fjords) and some excellent beaches.

Information & Facts


Marseille's climate is Mediterranean, with mild, dry winters and warm, humid summers. July and August are the hottest time of year, with temperatures averaging around 78°F (25°C), while January and February are the coldest, with an average temperature of 51°F (10°C). Marseille is also well known for its mistral, a cold, strong wind that occurs mostly in winter and spring.

Getting Around

An efficent metro system operates in Marseille, and the city is linked to Paris (a 3 hour trip) by the TGV. An extensive bus system also operates in the city and its outlying suburbs. The central part of the city, particularly the narrow lanes of the old sections of town and the harbour, is easy to negotiate on foot.

French is the official language.

The Euro (EUR) is the official currency in France. Currency can be exchanged at banks, bureaux de change and some large hotels, though you will get a better exchange rate at the ATMs. Major credit cards are widely accepted, as are travellers cheques, particularly in major tourist destinations. Foreign currency is not accepted.

Local time is GMT +1 (GMT +2 between last Sunday in March and last Sunday in October).

Cassis is a beautiful resort town just west of Marseille. Hemmed in by high white cliffs, its modern development has been limited and it retains much of the charm lost by its more high-profile neighbours. Built on the side of a hill, the old village is centred around a shady square where the inhabitants come to cool off and play 'pétanque' on summer nights. Portside posing and drinking aside, there's not much to do except sunbathe and look up at the ruins of the town's medieval castle, built in 1381. A popular excursion is to take a boat trip to the calanques - long, narrow, deep fjord-like inlets that have cut into the limestone cliffs. If you're feeling energetic, you can take the well-marked footpath from the Route des Calanques behind the western beach; it's about a 90-minute walk to the furthest and best calanque, En Vau, where you can climb down rocks to the shore. Intrepid pine trees find root-holds, and sunbathers find ledges on the chaotic white cliffs. The water is deep blue and swimming between the vertical cliffs is an experience not to be missed.

On the sparsely vegetated island of If is the infamous prison, Château d'If, which is best known as the penal setting for Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo.François I built the fortress here to defend Marseille and its port in the 16th century, and the site later housed a state prison. The cells are horribly well-preserved; carvings by Huguenot prisoners can still be seen inside some of the cells. The views back towards Marseille and the mountains beyond are wonderful.

The most popular beach in Marseille near the city centre is the Plage des Catalans. This marks the beginning of Marseille's corniche that ends at the Plage du Prado, the city's main sand beach, where the water is remarkably clean. There is a nice walk along the corniche which takes you past the Anse des Auffes, a picturesque inlet with small fishing boats beached on the rocks and behind the Plage de Prado to the Parc Borély, which has a boating lake, rose gardens, palm trees and a botanical garden (daily 8am to 9pm; free). Along the Malmousque peninsula are a number of tiny bays and beaches that are perfect for swimming when the mistral wind is not inciting the waves. The small beaches between La Pointe Rouge harbor and La Madrague harbour also tend to be clean and usually slightly less crowded than some of the more touristy beaches.

Directly south of Marseille, and to the west of Cassis, is the wild coastline of the Massif des Calanques. Some of France's most beautiful and dramatic scenery can be found along this 12-mile (19km) stretch of coastline; the sea has cut gorges, up to a mile (2km) deep, into the limestone. Dazzling white limestone cliffs overhang the sea and attract rock climbers and deep-sea divers. The mountains rise up 1,850 feet (564m) and are a haven for climbers. Walking tours and boat trips can be organised via the tourist board. The highlight of the Calanques is Sormiou, with its beach, seafood eateries and small harbour. Sormiou is separated from another small but enchanting settlement at Morgiou by Cap Morgiou, which offers a panoramic belvedere with splendid views of both the Calanques and the eastern side of the massif. At Morgiou there are tiny creeks for great swimming.

One of Marseille's most scenic buildings is the Palais Longchamp. Built during the Second Empire, it is the grandiose conclusion of an aqueduct that once brought water from the Durance to the city. Although the aqueduct is no longer in use, water is still pumped into the centre of the colonnade connecting the two palatial wings. Below, a spectacular fountain features an enormous statue of three muscular women above four bulls wallowing in a pool from which a cascade drops four or five storeys to ground level. In the palace's north wing is the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which displays a vast array of paintings from the 16th to the 19th centuries. They include works by Corot, Millet, Ingres, David, and Rubens as well as some 80 sculptures and objets d'art; particularly interesting is a gallery of Pierre Puget sculptures.

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