Marseille & Aix-En-Provence, France

The funny thing about travel is that even though you might be on the other side of the world in far-flung and exotic places, you’ll probably spend a lot of time thinking about home or comparing your current locale to home. And it’s parochial of me to say this, but the more a place is like multicultural Sydney, the more I seem to like it. So it’s not so surprising that Marseilles was a city after my own heart.

A few years ago I watched a film called La ville est tranquille which was set in Marseilles. The film was about a French woman with a twentysomething daughter who is a heroin junkie, and somehow along the way she gets involved with a boy about half her age whose family are migrants from North Africa. It was a pretty depressing film now that I think about it, but the impression that it gives of Marseilles is that it’s a city that is as urban as it gets. Which is pretty much true, though that’s not to say that there are also some very classically beautiful parts to the city.

The Cours Julien area is to Marseilles what Newtown is to Sydney. Cafes, juice bars, diverse restaurants, second hand bookshops, shops selling rusty tins containing buttons and old packs of expired Gauloise cigarettes, and clothing designers that recycle fabrics to come up with truly inspired creations.

A lot of shop facades, particularly around Cours Julien, have spray-painted murals on the outside proclaiming names, opening hours and various symbols.

But for me, the story of Marseilles is the migrants’ story, which is one of my all-time favourites for both personal reasons but also for the simple fact that it’s the story of the world. On Sunday, when most of France seems to shut down, the Belsunce Quartier pulsated with life. It did actually feel like we were walking through a part of Morocco with hot pancakes and spices and stalls on the side of the street selling cheap goods. The migrants of North Africa give Marseilles an edge that I haven’t found in other European cities I’ve visited in the past; a vibrant urban centre where the old and established is constantly reinvented by the arrival of the new.

While we were in Marseilles, we decided to take a day trip to the nearby town of Aix (pronounced “Ex”) which felt very much like the sort of place that people from a big city like to escape to. It was not particularly remarkable in any way, but had lots of boutiques and little streets to wander.

There are fantastic toy stores all over France full of wooden spinning tops and handmade dolls and puppets.

We came across a public garden which had a secluded air, outside a mansion-come-gallery full of drawings of fruits and vegetables which we had free admission because of our age. Oh the benefits of being 25 and under in France…

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