If you are cruising the Mediterranean Sea, there's a good chance that the city of Marseille or another city on the French Riviera will be a port of call. Marseille is often the cruise gateway city to the historic Provence area of France, and provides easy access to fascinating cities like Aix, Avignon, St. Paul de Vence, and Les Baux.
Three things come to mind when the word Marseille is mentioned. Since my mind is usually on food, bouillabaisse, a fish stew which originated in Marseille, is the first. The second is that Marseille is the namesake for the stirring national anthem of France, La Marseillaise, which I tend to hum (to the annoyance of my spouse) whenever I think of France. Finally, and of most interest to travelers, is the historical and tourism aspects of this captivating area.
Marseille is France's oldest and second largest city. It has historically served as an entry point for North Africans entering France. As a result, the city has a relatively large Arab population. Those of us who watch old movies and read mystery novels can recall the stories and pictures of the French Foreign Legion, and remember the exotic tales from this exciting port city. The city is watched over by The Church of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, (Our Lady of the Guard) which sits above the city. The city is full of fascinating landmarks and architecture.
On a cruise to the French Riviera, the ships usually offer shore excursions to Avignon, Les Baux, St. Paul de Vence, and Aix-en-Provence. On my first trip to Marseille, we decided to do a half-day shore excursion to Aix-en-Provence, and thoroughly enjoyed it. We went via bus to the old city of Aix about an hour from the ship. This city is famous for being the home of the French impressionist Paul Cezanne. It also is a university town, with lots of young people that keep the city lively. Aix was originally a walled city with 39 towers. It now features a circle of boulevards around the center, with fashionable shops and sidewalk cafes. We were lucky enough to be there on market day, so the streets were filled with shoppers from the surrounding countryside. Flowers, food, clothing, prints, and even all of the things you might find at a yard sale back home were in abundance. We wandered through the streets with a guide, visiting the Saint Sauveur Cathedral. This church was built over hundreds of years, so you can see the 6th century early Christian baptistry and the 16th century carved walnut doors right next to each other inside the church.
After about an hour of touring with the guide, she turned us loose to explore Aix-en-Provence on our own. We had to cram everything into about 90 minutes. Of course, I wanted to try one of Aix's famous Calissons, so we headed to a bakery and bought a few. Very sweet, but tasty! We could have used a whole day just to wander through the market, but had to satisfy ourselves with just browsing through some of the stalls. The guide had given us general directions to meet at the Great Fountain on the Cours Mirabeau. It was built in 1860 and is at the "bottom end" of the Cours at La Rotonde. Unfortunately for us, the time passed too quickly. We easily found the fountain, boarded the bus, and headed back to the ship docked in Marseille.
One of the best things about a cruise is getting to see a wide variety of places without having to pack and unpack. One of the worse things about a cruise is not having enough time to explore fascinating towns like Aix-en-Provence in more depth. Of course, if I hadn't had to make that bus, no telling how many Calissons I would have consumed, and I would probably still be wandering the streets absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of Provence.