Marseille: the color and the gray – Part 1/2

In May, I went alone to Marseille on a whim. It was one of four French public holidays stuffed into May, and I thought I would take my first visit to the famous sun-soaked coast before the crowds and the heat picked up.

Alas, this turned out to be the only rainy weekend in a string of suns on the forecast. What do clouds and dampness do to your perception of a place whose personality is defined by the sun? I think the expectation did me a disservice because I’m not a sun-chaser. Every single one of my ancestors were Northerners and I do NOT tan, not even a little bit. And I realized I don’t even care that much about beaches. So what did I get out of a gray weekend in Marseille? 

How about cool, humid hours of wandering between ports old and new and the rocky sea margin, the neo-Byzantine cathedrals and sand-colored forts, the vibrantly graffitied and worn-edged houses, and ateliers of Le Panier?

A slow, rainy museum afternoon practicing reading French signage. A postcard-beautiful hike through the wild limestone of the Calanques without ever feeling hot. Skimming the edges of gentrification and pondering what it means to be a tourist in a country and language you’re learning. And a nice little magnet and postcards.

I’ll take you first to the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde


You can walk here from an AirBnB in the city center if you have a little steam to climb to the highest point in the city. Up there on the ruins of a fort is an opulent 19th-century church with panoramic command of Marseille.

Chateau d’If and the Old Port

On the evening of Ascension Day, there was no rain, only a dramatically moody sky over the shimmering Mediterranean and warm terra cotta rooftops of Marseille, pastel touches of sunset settling over Chateau d’If (of Count of Monte Cristo fame) and the other islets hunched in the bay. You can see the Vieux (Old) Port cut into the city with its neat white rows of small boats, the heart of the fish market and focal point of the old city—since the 1800s, the container ships, long-distance ferries, and cruise ships dock in the Joliette port dominating the coast just to the north.


And to the south, the pale outcroppings of the Calanques march down the coast, thrusting to the horizon.

The inside of the basilica was worth the wait for the Ascension Day mass to finish: richly gilded domes and striped arches set off by midnight blue mosaics and strings of model ships hanging in the aisles, while the last drawn-out chords of the organ finish the recessional. Jewel-toned votive candles glimmering. A moment of prayer in the crypt.

Le Panier

North of the Old Port, Le Panier—the Basket—is a hilly, lived-in maze of narrow old streets that seems torn between tourism and reality. The jumbled street art and graffiti leap off the walls with an energy that seems to claim residence and identity, not to advertise—though it drew me all the same.

Saint-Jacques snackées

I roamed the streets where men chatted loudly from rickety tables outside bars or apartments, where potted plants that hadn’t been moved in years spilled off the porches. Where tour guides blabbed about how resourceful the Marseillais are, look how they’ve turned old bras into bunting above this street. And where café after café put out their menus (Saint-Jacques snackées—seared scallops—are the chef’s specialty, they’re local, try them) and open-air ateliers d’artistes (artist workshops) invite tips. I bought a magnet and tried the scallops.


When I told French friends I would be visiting Marseille, I occasionally sensed a bit of side-eye directed at my choice.

It’s not the nicest city, people said.
Great beaches though, and the Calanques.
Avoid the neighborhood east of the train station.
Just stick to the touristy areas and you’ll be fine.

La Joliette

I walked from the train station coastward to my Airbnb in La Joliette and pondered what to do with my nervousness and aversion to being in this anonymous, run-down urban space that wasn’t marked for me, a solo, middle-class American tourist. In Le Panier, and elsewhere in Marseille, gentrification is both inviting and following visitors like me.

But it’s still rough around the edges.

What does this transition mean for the people who live there? Do they resent it? Are they being pushed out? I was not there long enough, of course, to have any idea.

Despite feeling like an outsider to Marseille, however, I could feel that becoming a French resident has already shifted my center.  I’m no longer parachuting into this little pocket of time corralled by long-haul flights in a place with no real overlap with my usual reality. I’m beginning to weave into the context: the geography and the mindset of France, little familiarities like the names of stores and cities and train lines, and of course, the language. I’ve been making progress in my lessons, and when the first few exchanges with waiters went reasonably well, it was a bit of a thrill to compare myself to the tourists around me making do with English—the tourist I had once been. It felt like power. 

Then I mispronounced bouteille d’eau a couple of times and got English replies from the cashiers, and was finally corrected by one.

Messing up such a simple thing was stunningly effective at poking holes, and I deflated quickly.

But then I gave myself a pep talk: the French available to the tip of my tongue may be patchy, but there’s more synapses where that came from, and more to come. Plus, I tried. A few months ago I would not have tried. Barriers are coming down. Why put them back up? Onward!

Here you can read  Part two.


Have you ever visited Marseille? What was your experience, was it similar? Share your experiences below.


About the Contributor

Anne Thomas

I'm an American ecologist living at the base of the French Alps. Grenoble is an ideal place to research alpine ecology (my job) & to explore a diversity of natural and cultural landscapes (my favorite hobby). I began writing about my forays on Substack when I arrived in France in March 2023. I enjoy learning French & reading all kinds of books—a few in French!

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