One of the easiest and most enjoyable day trips from Lyon is to Marseille. After you’ve laced your most comfortable walking shoes, take the first train from Lyon Gare Perrache at 7am and two hours later you’ll arrive at Marseille Gare Saint-Charles. This train station is within walking distance to anywhere you need to go. Don’t bother to get a metro or bus ticket, simply exit the train station and begin walking down the hill.
The best way to explore most cities is by wandering around with a general sense of what you might find. Marseille is no different. I didn’t do much research before this trip. I had a goal to be pleasantly surprised. I knew there would be many interesting murals and open air markets aplenty. I also anticipated good pizza and seafood based Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode filmed here. And of course since i’m in France – beautiful and awe inspiring cathedrals.
By wandering around without being guided by GoogleMaps you can find so many hidden gems. Our first stop was a hole in the wall cafe that was clearly a local hangout spot for the neighborhood grandpas. We walked in and were greeted with a rousing ‘Bonjour!’ by the proprietor, also an older gentleman. I immediately noticed a man seated near the front of the restaurant reading his newspaper, an empty espresso cup near his right hand. The proprietor told us to have a seat and he would come and take our order. Immediately the seated man looked up and pulled out a chair at the table in front of and away from him. ‘Asseyez-vous,’ he said, in a neutral/unthreatening and welcoming tone. I am very suspicious of men in general and especially in France but wound up pleasantly surprised that this was a simple innocent gesture. After we sat he did not make any attempt to speak to us but he just continued reading his newspaper. I think it was a case of a neighborhood regular noticing a group of visitors and decided to welcomed them.
As I ate my croissant I couldn’t help glance at the newspaper reader and as he continued reading seemingly oblivious to the world around him I realized he reminded me of my own late grandfather. I didn’t know him that well, and didn’t have that many interactions with him. He seemed to always be very quite and always doing something, like reading a newspaper or fixing a typewriter. He always wore grey polyester pants and white or pale blue t-shirts with pockets at the top and at the bottom, always perfectly ironed. His face was itchy and thought I don’t think he had a beard, his face was never smooth. maybe he trimmed it with scissors instead of a razor. The lower drawer of his wardrobe was filled with tennis balls. When we visited my grandparents house I would always ask ‘Grandfather can I play with a tennis ball please?’.
I learned from trial and error to alway select the hardest ones as they bounced the highest.
One of the most pleasantly strange things about exploring new places is how often it evokes memories from the very distant past. My earliest childhood memories often come back in extreme clarity at times when i’m furthest away from home.
The varying color palettes of Marseille is in a word magnificent. Because our trip started early in the morning we wandered around empty streets and marveled at the colorful shuttered cafes and restaurants. It was like being alone on a secret tour of the city while everyone was still at home getting prepared for the day.
We wandered about exploring the markets, murals, small boutique and artisanal workshops including a knife making atelier. This was followed by a delicious lunch at a very small and excellent Pizzeria. We then made the long hike to up to the Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral. The trek was grueling but every time we stopped to rest and turned and looked behind of us the view kept getting more and more beautiful.
Once we got to the very top we were out of breath, both due to weariness and the beautiful panoramic view of the city.
View of Marseille from Cathedral Notre Dame de la Guarde
There’s something about cathedrals that invoke sentiments of piety in even the most agnostic of persons.
Maybe it’s all those sculptures of Jesus with the pained look on his face and nail marks on his palm. Really? this is the guy who died so I could live? Hmm….
Rendering of Jesus on the Cross inside Cathedral Notre Dame de la Guarde. Marseille, France I felt especially moved by this display of candles flickering in the almost stillness. visitors could take a candle for an offering of 1 Euro and light it and say a prayer. I always wanted to do this but never really knew who to pray for or what to pray. Maybe next time i’ll get one and pray for myself.
After spending quite a bit of time at the cathedral, contemplating, people watching and enjoying the gentle spring weather, we made the trek back down and headed straight to the waterfront where we relaxed on the patio of a cafe and had a glass of wine and enjoyed lively conversation. About an hour later we made the 20 minute walk back to the train station and hopped on the 6:44pm train back to Lyon.
It was a great day exploring a new city, all on foot. Marseille is beautiful and I will definitely return and spend much more time there. But for a day trip, it was the perfect 9 hours.