We are very fortunate to have a family holiday home in the Languedoc, which we try to visit two or three times a year. But this time, lovely though it was to be amongst the reddening vines and the dwindling yet still warm late October sun during half term, many of our usual haunts were closed, and family activities were a little thin on the ground.
Which is how we found ourselves in search of some urban excitement and a change of pace from the almost somnambulant rural Herault. So we hopped in the car and drove the three hours around the coast into the Provence-Alpes-Cote D’Azur region, to its capital, the ancient trading port and France’s second largest city, Marseille.
And what a contrast this bustling melting pot provided. As the road swept its dramatic descent between the mountains and the deep blue Mediterranean sea into the Vieux Port, flanked on both sides by its two ancient forts, the sights, sounds and smells were immediately more exotic.
We checked into two rooms at the Residence Hotel in the heart of the old port, with balconies looking out over a busy scene: a plethora of bars and restaurants, and a harbour full of vast cruise liners, fishing boats and ferries chugging passengers out to the small archipelago of the four Frouil Islands.
Designated the 2013 European Capital of Culture, Marseille offers cultural opportunities aplenty with its Opera House, multiple theatres and museums.
But we had just three ambitions for this overnight visit – to take a ferry out to one of the Islands – Chateau d’If – on which the famous Dumas novel The Count of Monte Cristo was based; to visit one of the city’s extravagant cathedrals, and to taste the world renowned Bouillabaisse seafood dish.
Unfortunately, strong winds prevented us from fulfilling the first of these, so instead we headed away from the port and into the vibrant Panier district to soak up the multi-cultural atmosphere and indulge in some retail therapy.
Having enjoyed the regional classic Moules Marinieres for lunch, I was in hot pursuit of the perfect Bouillabaisse for dinner. However, since my children and husband did not share my desire, I was thwarted, as the dish is traditionally served for two or more people. We satisfied ourselves instead with some truly spectacular gastronomic fayre at the Miramar, one of the oldest restaurants in the city.
Next morning, we set off to reach the huge cathedral Notre Dame de la Garde, which towers over the fort from atop an enormous hill. We eschewed the easy option of the bus, instead tackling the long and vertiginous walk through the winding streets to reach it. Its gaudy basilica with its gold leaf statue of the Madonna was less rewarding than the spectacular view.
My desire for a bowl of the rich, velvety fish stew complete with crunchy ‘rouille’ – a crouton smothered in garlicky mayonnaise – was finally satisfied at lunchtime on the last day at a small unprepossessing brasserie, La Daurade in the Rue Fortia. Just a stone’s throw from the tourist traps on the port frontage it proved to be another hidden gem in this mysterious Mediterranean treasure trove.