We found our way to the Old Port and immediately went to the tourism office located there. The lady at the tourism office was very helpful. She gave us our City Passes, a map, a stack of brochures, and accurate advice about the best times for avoiding crowds at tourist attractions.
It was approaching 7 PM and we were hungry. We thought it would be a good time for the ritual pizza meal Traci and I always have when we travel abroad. Looking for food is one of our favorite ways to explore a new city. Our wandering that evening was mainly in the vicinity of the Old Port.
The Old Port could not have been named any better considering it was established by the Greeks in 6oo B.C.. Today, its waters are crowded with sail boats, yachts, and tour boats. Each morning, fisherman bring their catches into port and sell them on the docks to restaurants and other patrons. The port is surrounded by hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars, a theater, souvenir shops, ancient ruins, and more. Popular souvenirs are santons (figurines for nativity scenes) and soap from one of the many soap shops. People and traffic constantly flow through the Old Port area.
Marseille is a diverse city. We saw people wearing the clothing of many different religious and ethnic affiliations. A common site as we wandered the Old Port were the Africans dressed in colorful garb. They were selling sunglasses and other trinkets to tourists.
Traci and I continued to stroll the Old Port and decipher the posted menus of the restaurants. We eventually climbed the stairs of Fort Saint Nicolas. Louis XIV ordered the construction of this fortress in the mid-1600's. From the top of the fort, we got a great view of the Old Port in addition to heat relief in the form of a refreshing breeze. The daytime temperature during our stay in Marseille was typically in the mid 80's and humid.
Old Port seen from Fort Saint Nicolas
We descended the steps of Fort St. Nicolas and continued to walk. We had pretty much left the Old Port and were entering the Prado section of the city. It was here that we came across Catalans Beach. It is a small beach nestled into the craziness of the city. We took in the scene from the sidewalk for a few minutes. There was a women's beach volleyball game in progress and plenty of people lounging on the beach or playing in the water.
It was approaching closing time (8 PM) and people were starting to leave. Traci and I decided to eat at a restaurant at the edge of the beach. We were seated next to a large open window that provided a refreshing ocean breeze. Ordinarily, seating such as this would be considered scenic and/or romantic but looking at all the litter that was left behind by the beachgoers was not at all appealing. Traci and I nicknamed the place the "dirty little beach".
We enjoyed our pizza at the restaurant. Looking out of the window and ignoring the trash on the beach, we were occasionally treated to the site of a cruise ship or ferry floating by. These ships dock at a pier just north of the Old Port. The North African nations of Tunisia and Algeria are located across the Mediterranean from France. There are regular ferry boats that travel between Marseille and these two nations.
Catalans Beach is nestled at the edge of the city
watching ships go by as we dine
dinner at les Catalans Restaurant
It didn't get dark until almost 10 PM. It was approaching this time when we left the restaurant. We were quite a distance from our hotel. We felt a little uneasy walking the dark deserted streets so we kept up a vigorous pace. It was during this walk we discovered one of Marseille's other dirty little secrets - the rats! These fat rodents come out after dark and dash between trash cans and crevices of buildings. Traci was a nervous wreck. One of the rats crossed our path and before I could take Traci's hand she was already halfway across the street. After seeing this, we tried our best to be off the streets before dark but we were rarely successful. We did not know if we'd ever have an opportunity to visit Marseille again so we wanted to get in as much sightseeing as possible even if it meant dodging rats on the way back to the hotel.
Our City Passes were only valid for Thursday and Friday; therefore, we got an early start on these days in hopes of taking advantage of the package. We didn't come close to using all of the offers. Here are the tours we did...
If Castle sits on the island of If which is one of the four rocky islands in the Frioul Island archipelago. A tour boat departs the Old Port every 30 - 45 minutes for the castle. As recommended by the lady in the tourism office, we took the 9:45 AM boat to beat the afternoon crowds. It took about 20 minutes to reach the island.
If Castle began as a fortress in the early 1500's under Francois I who ordered its construction. By the late 1600's it was being used as a prison. Alexandre Dumas wrote about the castle's most famous prisoner, José Custodio Faria, in The Count of Monte Cristo.
We spent about an hour walking through the castle on our own. The dungeon-like rooms were mostly empty. There was some signage explaining the former usages of some of the rooms. There were also clips from the The Count of Monte Cristo movie playing in some rooms (French only). We encountered signage explaining the reasons people were imprisoned on the island - for example, plotting against the monarchy or being Protestant. Wealthy prisoners could actually pay a fee for the upgraded accommodations on the first floor that included luxuries such as a fireplace and windows.
We climbed the winding staircase of Saint Christophe Tower, one of the castle’s three towers. We enjoyed the view of Marseille across the light and dark blue water. In a way, the scenery kind of reminded me of viewing San Francisco from Alcatraz Island.
The boat ride back to the Old Port made a stop at one of the other Frioul Islands. Our City Pass did not include this island so we stayed on the boat while the passengers who had paid for this stop were let off. People come here for the beach, hiking, nature reserves, sailing, and other outdoor activities.