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

This is Marseille: the color and the gray – Part Two[Read Part One first]

Marseille: the forts

Where Le Panier meets the edge of the city and the sea, the forts begin.

  • There’s Fort Saint-Jean, with square battlements landscaped with Mediterranean plants and open to the public.
  • There, you can walk along the walls to see the Vieux Port, the sea, the other neo-Byzantine church, Cathedrale de la Major, and the other fort across the Port, Fort Saint-Nicholas.
  • And, you can take the walkway over the water to the Mucem (Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée), a perfect cube of wavy steel-gray contemporary architecture full of visually striking exhibits about things like how the Mediterranean diet has been commodified and what globalization looked like in Venice and Istanbul in the 16th and 21st centuries. 

In a dark theater, I discovered an online documentary featuring personal stories of people riding subways around the world.

Later I looked up the vignettes from Marseille and saw, on the metro line I had just taken that day”

  • a retired dock carpenter who had immigrated from Tunisia in the 1960s and now lived alone in subsidized housing;
  • a girl who had fallen out with her mother and had nowhere permanent to live;
  • and a teenager portrayed as a stylized animated drawing because (it’s implied) he works for a drug dealer and has already served prison sentences, and doesn’t know if he’ll end up dead or permanently in prison if he doesn’t leave Marseille, but he thinks it will be one of the two.

Marseille: the beaches

Back to the realm of tourists: it could have been the clouds, but I wasn’t impressed by the Marseille beaches.

On my last morning, still laboring under the illusion that to make the trip worth it I had to visit the beaches, I made my way to the largest swathe of beaches I could see on the map: Plages du Prado.

In the lowering weather, the beachfront was pretty much deserted except for a couple of food trucks, a copy of Michelangelo’s David, and a handful of locals sitting on the big blocky boulders lining the spits of concrete that protect the sand.

The pebbly sand, and the concrete, and the sky all seemed to be the same semi-industrial genre of gray, and the low hills of lackluster commercial district did nothing to set it off.

The water was a nice shade of blue, I’ll give it that. But it all felt too utilitarian.

A place to recreate and not much more. Even in good weather, coming here with the crowds just to jostle for a rectangle of sun and sand, to get wet, perhaps to play volleyball, would not be enough to draw me. And let me tell you, the public toilet was grim.

Marseille: the Calanques

The Calanques were another story.

There are half a dozen inlets to hike, all accessible by public transit and none are longer than a few hours. After perusing blogs and the Parc National des Calanques webpages I chose the Calanque de Sugiton and took the bus to the university parking lot where the trail started… This is where I learned to finally love the gray.

A companionable number of other hikers, not overcrowded; no sun to “reverberate off the limestone” (as the blog posts repeatedly warn); and only a sprinkling of rain here and there. 

Even without a blue-sky backdrop, the craggy, swooping white stone and the turquoise inlets in the coves below were stunning. White sails on the water and Mediterranean flora—twisting pines, rosemary, juniper, oak, rock rose—were the perfect garnishes.

From the viewing point, I wound down into the cove and almost regretted not wearing a swimsuit (I hadn’t even brought one on the trip, so pessimistic was I). Instead, I sat on a rock and watched the other young people cavort in the gentle waves while rain spat lightly down.

This is how I like my beaches.

I left Marseille with a blend of gray and color in my head, a panorama of the port city painted by immigrants and poissoniers and visitors alike, and a complex underlying reality I can barely begin to grasp.

Really, this is true for every place. It’s up to us to open our eyes when we pass through, even if on a tourist beat, even if only for a glimpse of what’s beyond.

Have you ever visited Marseille? Share your impressions and 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!

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!

Leave A Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.