If you’ve ever thought about visiting the Mediterranean, you’re probably already planning to visit the French Riviera. A beautiful coastline marked by long stretches of pristine beaches, winding roads and majestic landscapes, the Riviera is only a small part of Provence, a province of southern France. While many of the best sights and sounds of Provence are in the Riviera, there’s a lot too see and do in Provence away from the coastline.
Just outside the Riviera is the picturesque city of Marseille. Despite being the second-largest city in France, the architecture of the city lacks modern skyscrapers, and from the sea it looks like any other coastal town, only flanked by the blindingly-white Notre Dame de la Garde on a rocky outcrop. However, a bustling, modern city hides within.
Its narrow Mediterranean city streets, great restaurants and impressive port give Marseille’s Old Town the credibility that every Riviera town possesses, and outside the Old Town you’ll find a bustling and diverse city, with influences from Moorish Spain, North Africa and Italy. One of the best ways to sample Marseille’s unique culture and atmosphere is just walking around the city.
Marseille’s southern and eastern suburbs brush up against an area of exceptional natural beauty. The Calanques are craggy white limestone cliffs and creeks reaching gargantuan heights and descending sharply to the sea. You can experience these rocky wonders by land or sea. If you’re going to hike it then you’ll need an intrepid spirit, as the GR 98 from Marseille to Cassis takes around 11 hours and leads you into some tough country.
Of course, the scenery makes up for the exertion. There are also mini-cruises departing from the Old Port, as well as guided kayaking adventures. If you can, try to reach the indescribably beautiful cove at Calanque d’En Vau.
Weaving down the coast for several kilometres from the Old Port, La Corniche is one long balcony next to the Mediterranean, going past beaches and quirky little neighbourhoods. You can drive it, but it’s just as rewarding to walk for the sea air and outstanding vistas of the Frioul Archipelago and the towers of the Château d’If in the bay.
One of the most striking sights is the Vallon des Auffes, a traditional fishing harbour on a steep inlet, ringed with ramshackle old huts and accessed from the sea beneath the arches that support the road. Inaugurated in 2013, MuCEM is a cutting edge museum that regenerated a portion of Marseille’s waterfront next to the 17th-century Fort de Saint-Jean.
The architecture is breathtaking, but what’s inside is actually quite difficult to sum up: It’s a kind of overview of Mediterranean culture an civilisation, incorporating art, photography exhibitions and historic artefacts. Most people who visit agree that the exhibitions aren’t the most consistent, capriciously jumping from period to period and theme to theme, but they’re so diverse that there are galleries to capture everyone’s attention.
Entry to the fort, built by Louis XIV, is included in the ticket, and this structure is connected to the museum by two bridges.
Marseille is home to several beaches too. Marseille has up to 42 km of coastline for sunbathing, swimming and other beach activities. Some of the best beaches in the area are secluded from the busy ports, with craggy cliffs offering a feeling of isolation from the city life.
When it comes to visiting Provence, your first port of call should be Marseille. Marseilles is a popular stopping point on a superyacht cruise, with You Charter Direct offering several cruises that pass by the area and other coastal attractions along the Mediterranean Sea.