Monday, August 9, 2010

Marseilles, France

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Marseilles is located by the sea and the Vieux Port/Old Port is a cove in the center of the city.

Imagine arriving in Marseilles about 4 pm (2 1/2 hours by bus from Arles) with no accomodation booked because the B & B rooms that you booked online in Arles and Avignon were far from the cities, cost about 60 euros even though they were 2 stars at the most so you decide to take a chance and arrive in Marseilles early to find a room. At the Gare de Marseille St Charles, the city's big main train and bus station, you find have a hard time getting yourself understood because nobody speaks English, which can be frightening because you may end up stranded. Then you find that all the bus seats to Genova in Italy are sold (panic!) and you'll have to wait a week for the nearest available seats. You go to the train tickets office and the queue is 40 people deep and when it's your turn the French girl wouldn't serve you because it's your fault that she can't speak English. But thank God you finally buy train tickets for Genova for travel two days later, at 46 euros each (btw, students below 25 are always given discount on transportation and entrance fees in Europe with a valid student card. We also found out too late that in England, students get a discount of 10% from some clothing retailers). By then it is about 8 pm and you drag your lugguage onto the unfamiliar street, only to find that every hotel that you walk into is full. You then take the metro to a hostel recommended by a Chinese girl (the only person who could communicate with you) at the station. On arrival, the hostel is full too but the guy in charge, Sederic, is very friendly and helpful and let you use his computer to book the nearest available room at a hotel nearby.

Confused, scared and worried was my state of mind when I was in Marseilles. I was also worried about accomodation in Cinque Terre, Italy because it was high tourist season and all the places we checked on line were full (except for rooms at USD100 per person per night) and Sederic, who'd been to Cinque Terre last year, said I was mad not to have made earlier bookings.

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This room at Hotel Du Sud cost 60 euros/RM240/USD75 and was clean. The lift can fit only two persons. Or one fat person.

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Hello Marseilles is a small, clean hostel with a big kitchen located near shopping streets. Cost 17 euros only per person, shared room.

Hello Marseilles is a newly open, very popular hostel run by the friendly and hospitable Sederic, a ringer for Adam Sandler. Sederic makes the small apartment-hostel like a home and I finally overcame my reservations (well, almost) about hostels and backpackers' because of Hello Marseilles. Comfortable and cheap, Hello Marseilles even has a kitchen you can cook in and provides free breakfast of crusty, yummy baguettes, jam and butter. I met other travellers, including a teacher from the US who's about my age, and realized that hostel-living is not only about cheap rooms but also about a community, usually of young students, who make friends and trade tavel advice. I'm glad I've experienced this kind of travel (yes, been there, done that) even though some of my friends expressed shock (and probably disdain) that I actually slept at hostels. The accomodation for the second part of my Europe travel was mostly in hostels and I can say that if you are travelling for long in Europe, this is an excellent way to save. If I, who have a fear of sharing bathrooms and toilets, can do it, so can you unless you are Princess Latifah, whoever she is.

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Those grapes were so fresh they looked like they were still growing on the vine. A little grocery shop like this has nearly everything including cheese and saucissons.

Bouillabaisse is a famous Marsellian? Marseillais? seafood soup in which a few kinds of fish  and other seafood is used and presented with a whole fish at the table before they cut it up to serve. 17.90 euros/RM72/USD22 per serving, with some places pricing bouillabaisse at 22 euros/RM88/USD28 per serving. Bouillabaisse in Marseilles is a big rip off.

I'd up till then taken Rick Steves' advice not to eat at touristy places, especially near or on the squares/piazzas but Sederic recommended this restaurant, L'ecallier (avoid it!), at the piazza for eating  bouillabaisse, Marseilles' famous dish (the other two being nicoise salad and aioli). He said that at 17 euros, the soup had lobster (langoustine) and oysters (I think he meant mussels) and the seafood was fresh. What a terrible disappointment! Not only was there no oysters and lobster (instead, there was one little miserable mussel), the whole fish  (which was small and full of bones) had a slight salted fish flavor and the fish steak (looked like monkfish) had a strange flavor like it was frozen for too long. Ew. Luckily, the soup was good. The rouille was quite ordinary. We filled up on the toasted baguette and fine, noodle-like cheese which we guessed was mozzarella. This meal put us off anything Marseillian (which is unfair I know) so we stuck to sandwiches and home-cooked meals thereafter.

All these for  12.20 euros/RM48/USD16 (dollar for dollar, there's no way we can get the same things in Malaysia, even if it's local produce, for RM12.20), enough for dinner and lunch for the two of us.

Yi made a delicious men tiao dinner that was so comforting, especially in the confines of Hello Marseilles, which had a homey atmosphere.

I would've named my daughter Marseilles ("ma say") if I'd remembered the city from my history books. It sounds and spells beautiful, don't you think? But as with most things, looks are only skin-deep because as somebody (an Italian) aptly described, "Marseilles is Babylon!" A reader commented that I over-reacted when I was fearful about safety in Marseilles and she/he was right. I did over-react. However, there is this sense of moral  rot in Marseilles that I sensed which was heightened by the locals, including tourist information people, who told us to stay away from certain parts of the city. Marseilles is the oldest and second largest city in France and is probably the most racially mixed city among all the places I visited. I read in Wiki that among the youth in Marseilles, the unemployment rate is 40%. Take that and the fact that Marseilles has a lot of 3rd world migrants, legal and illegal, and you know why the city has a high crime rate.

I did scare myself too silly to give Marseilles a fair chance. I'm told by our hostel mates that a stroll to the Notre Dame de la Gard in the morning is a must and another must is a hike into the beautiful Calanques (fjords) to the right of the city. If Hub was there, Marseilles would've been different I think.



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On the fringe of Marseilles' Old Town

It was so hot and there was nowhere to hide, so we left the Old Town. We wished we had Hub there so that we can walk the town in the evening when it's cooler and prettier.

Then there were the beaches, they told us, so we took a bus ride along the coast and saw plenty of people in the Mediterranean sea and felt sorry for them because there were just rocks and dirty grey sand which they took as beaches.




Marseilles was the dirtiest city I'd been to in Europe. Then again, I should cut it some slack because the city has been around since 600 BC, and evidence of human inhabitation dating from 30,000 years ago has been found around the area. Imagine that.


This creative and fun mural was made of real shrubs and flowers.

p.s.: the Chinese student I met said she came to Marseilles to see the city made famous by Alexandre Dumas' book, The Count Of Monte Cristo.


malaymui said...

the Bouillabaisse can't be the authentic version. You have to make reservation a day in advance for a real Bouillabaisse. Years ago I had my first taste of Bouillabaisse at a village called Cassis nearby Marseilles. One day in advance reservation, and it was good, thick fish soup (without potato) and super yummy... now lau hau sui...

Chocolate, Cookies & Candies said...

I've been to amazing hostels and I've seen my share of the most disgusting s**tholes during my travels too. However, I've always enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow travelers which is lost at hotels. I've lost count of the amazing individuals I've met which I'd never have the chance had I stayed at a luxurious hotel.

These days, given the chance, I'd still prefer staying at convents, monasteries, B&B, homestays and farms.

jinkar said...

I've been lurking around the fringes of your blog for some time now. Thanks for writing. I'm picking up travel tips from you now. I am based with my family in UK for a year and we've been trying to do some travelling and accomodation is challenging to find esp if you're travelling with young kids so we tend to stick to the safe budget hotels so that at least we know they're clean. Good on you for stepping out of your comfort zone.

javapot said...

Cinque Terre is a place i would love to visit!!! hopefully soon one day.

Anonymous said...

Traditionally, the cheese used with the bread croutes for bouillabaisse is Gruyere. *Never* mozzarella!

BTW if you found Marseilles dirty, then Naples would shock you. Uncollected rubbish in every street corner and as for the smell...

terri@adailyobsession said...

anon: ah, so it was gruyere. we didn't know what cheese it was n guessed it was bc we couldn't think of what otehr cheese it would be--we love cheese but aren't tt familiar with them.

naples is dirty? hm. but i'd still visit it just to see it for myself. the food in italy makes up for any disappointment.

Hellomarseille Marseille said...

Hey hey, Cedric here (the Sederic of the text) :)
I was just pointed out this article today and had some good smiles reading. Very happy that your opinion on hostels changed with Hello Marseille and that we could make your experience different. Our non-profit hostel is still running after 6 years (you came the very first year of our existence!). I founded it as a collaborative project to give the opportunity for travellers from all around the planet to come manage the project altogether here and make it an oasis for other travellers. So thank you very much for sharing your experience and pictures so that everybody knows how to get the best out of Marseille the wild, ancient, popular, dirty, multicultural, always surprising european capital of culture.
Come back say hello anytime,
Big cheers :)

(and yes, sorry for the misunderstanding, the "Ecailler" restaurant is not a refined choice, it is a good budget option if you want to taste cheap local food in a 15 euros menu for 3 courses. They have meals like aioli or bouillabaisse that are traditionally made by poor fishermen or poor famillies out of the fishes that could not be sold. The fish is known to have lots of bones, so you have to know it in advance not to be surprised. They do have oysters as a first course in the menu, but not in the bouillabaisse (never)! Also the Bouillabaisse does not have lobster for that price, it is a version made of 3 fishes, knowing that a touristic expensive bouillabaisse can have 13 different fishes and lobster for a cost of ... 45 euros.person just the one course.)

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