On the A50 autoroute to Marseille, I am filled with mixed anticipation. I have been told that France’s third largest city is hostile and unwelcoming with a high crime rate and undesirables. But for me, Marseille has echoes of Mireille Matthieu’s songs, Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy Marius, Fanny, César, the old charm of the Vieux Port, a cold pastis and its specialty dish, la bouillabaisse marseillaise.
The approach to Marseille
After my provencal culinary ruminations en route, hunger has set it. I distract myself with the changing vista on the approach to Marseille. We pass petro-chemical industries and a conglomeration of buildings then get caught in a massive embouteillage or traffic jam down a wide avenue. We are looking for a sign pointing to the port with no luck. I roll down my window and ask a group of young women in the car beside us.
“Pardon Madame, le Vieux Port, c’est par là?”
“Oui, oui, suivez-moi.”
They drive ahead of us, indicating by hand the turns we are about to make. As we reach the port, they point to it, wave us au revoir and toot their horn. Who said Marseille was hostile and unfriendly?
We park our Renault 19 in a multi-storey car park and look for a restaurant serving Bouillabaisse. This is our main reason for visiting Marseille. The first restaurant along the way serves the dish if ordered a day in advance. Another is already closed. It is a little late for lunch. We stumble upon a large square with a multitude of restaurants and ask the nearest one along the Vieux Port if bouillabaisse is on the menu.
At Restaurant l’Esquinade in Rue Saint-Saëns, the waiter checks with the kitchen and offers an outdoor table as requested. The temperature has soared to 37oC and after racing across from Cannes to St-Tropez to Marseille in the car, it is pleasant to sit in the shade. Odd as it seems to be ordering a soup in sweltering heat, we are thrilled to have found a restaurant serving Marseille’s signature dish.
Bouillabaisse at Restaurant l’Esquinade
We don’t have to wait too long before the bouillabaisse arrives, served in the classical method. The soup is presented first with a side of croutons, aioli (garlic mayonnaise) and rouille (pepper mayonnaise) which are smeared on the crusty bread and floated on the soup. This is followed by the fish, served whole on its own, and includes a white and red rascasse, vine, galinette and chapon.
We toast to the bouillabaisse in front of us and savour the fresh flavours.
Once satiated and a little more rested, we crossover to Quai de Rive Neuve onto the Vieux Port crammed with fishing boats and pleasure crafts. We are standing in a place of history. Founded over 25 centuries ago, the port was the Greek settlement of Massilia. Today, it serves as a Provencal harbour to Africa. We walk along the quai des Belges opposite La Canebiere, Marseille’s principal street and admire the impressing vessel, Neptune, and photograph it from different angles.
Eyes behind veiled faces follow our movements. Suddenly, I feel very uncomfortable in my summer dress.
I try hard to distance myself from the present and look for a little of Marcel Pagnol’s romance in his descriptions of the vieux port. I concentrate my thoughts on the boat-filled harbour, blocking everything out of mind and let Mireille Mathieu’s Emmène-moi demain avec toi transport me to a more nostalgic port. For a brief moment I could sense it before piercing stares took over.
vieux port with Notre-Dame de la Garde
From the quai du Port, we see Notre-Dame de la Garde, the Romanesque-Byzantine church built in 1854-1864 with a gilt statue of the Virgin keeping a watchful eye on the harbour.
There are signs for excursions to the nearby Chateau d’If island, where various political prisoners were held captive throughout the ages, including Alexandre Dumas’ fictional character, the Count of Monte-Cristo who was imprisoned in a cell there before he escaped through a hole in the wall. Much to my chagrin, we did not have time to visit.
In need of cash, we walk along La Canebiere searching for a bank to change travellers’ cheques. One by one, we enter the security door. Service is slow by any standard and the bank resembled a tiny office rather than a large financial institution. With money in pocket, we take a brisk walk towards the car park, past many outdoor cafés and restaurants, bidding the city and its vieux port farewell.
around the port
I was told by a recent visitor that Marseille is best avoided at night, that it is the drug capital of France and that crime and North African gangs rule that part of the country. But with all that in mind, the city did not disappoint me. We were led to the Vieux Port by a friendly group of people, we were served lunch at closing time and we had our bouillabaisse in a city I long dreamed about.
Overall, the romance of autrefois was not completely gone.
Le vieux port
… continues tomorrow
‘Le Tour de France Gourmantic’ series is the story of a young couple from Australia who took to the French roads on a whirlwind Tour of France back when the internet wasn’t at everyone’s fingertips, phones were still attached to sockets, GPS was an unfamiliar acronym, digital cameras were a pipe dream and the Euro hadn’t replaced French Francs. With just one fold-out map of France and boundless enthusiasm, they took their Renault 19 and went on a cultural and culinary discovery.
38 Rue Saint Saens
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