Marseille is the oldest and second largest city of France and although it was named the “European Capital of Culture for 2013,” many Mediterranean cruisers tend to overlook the city itself, seeing it as merely the “gateway” to Provence. There is no “best” choice as to where one should spend the day, as it all comes down to your interests!
The cruise terminal is located in a busy industrial area, but the city provides a free shuttle to the city center. The Marseille Hop-On Hop-Off bus is also a good way to get around and see the sights Whether you choose the bus, or just go off on your own, don’t miss Vieux Port (the Old Port), the heart of Marseille. It’s a great place to stroll, eat, drink, and shop. Leave time to sit at a seaside café and try the bouillabaisse, a fish stew which originated in Marseille! You may want to head up to the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde. Built on the city's highest point, the Basilica is part lighthouse, part fortress, part sacred place of pilgrimage. Built between 1853 and 1864, its bell tower is crowned by a 30 ft tall gilded statue of the Virgin Mary on a 40 ft high pedestal. Once at the top, visitors are rewarded with beauty of the basilica, ornamented with colored marble, murals, and intricate mosaics as well as a panoramic view of Marseille and out to the Mediterranean.
Many cruisers choose to pass over Marseille and take the train or a shore excursion to Aix-en-Provence. Aix is charming, with quaint squares lined with cafes, as well as local markets where you can browse amongst the flowers, fruit, vegetables, olives, cheese, lavender products, spices, and herbs. Be sure to taste the small cake-like Calissons, a specialty of the area. Aix is the hometown of painter Paul Cézanne and there is a trail around town marked by footpath-embedded bronze plaques inscribed with the letter C, for those interested in seeing where the artist ate, drank, studied and painted.
Yet another option is Les-Baux-de-Provence, again, by shore excursion or by train. This picturesque village is set high in the hills but its real beauty is the site viewed from the exterior, and the chateau-fortress area beyond the village. Just inside the entrance to the medieval village are narrow cobblestone streets, terrace cafés, and unique shops making it a wonderful place to spend the day.
The Provence region of France brings to mind the scent of lavender floating though the air, delightful medieval villages, and delicious regional food! Whether you choose to stay in Marseille or explore the surrounding area, you’ll understand why this is a favorite port of call on a Mediterranean cruise.