In France, the month of June was dominated by one thing: soccer. The country was hosting the 2016 UEFA Euro Cup and fans from all over the continent were descending upon French host cities (Toulouse included!) Dan was lucky enough to get tickets to a match in Marseille and for another in Toulouse later in the month. Our friend Garrett came to visit for the tournament and we met him in Marseille for the France vs. Albania match and for five days of sightseeing.
Another thing that seemed to be dominating France in June were the country-wide rail strikes. Dan and I had purchased train tickets to Marseille months in advance, but a few days before the trip, we were notified that the train was canceled. We panicked because Euro Cup tickets are not easy to come by and the idea of missing the game and missing our meet up with Garrett was just not an option. We were saved by a ride-sharing service here in France called BlaBlaCar. Drivers can post an ad on the site and offer the available seats in their car. And it’s cheap! We paid €26 total. You can even choose how talkative you want the ride to be by how many “Bla”s the driver has listed on their ad. 1 Bla = not so talkative and 3 Bla’s = very! The driver, a super friendly African guy, picked us up at the Toulouse train station and we met the other traveler who would be joining us, an older gentleman from Morocco who had an impressive gold cane and turquoise rings. We were quite the crew. After Dan and I had blown through all the French phrases we knew, we fell asleep while the other two talked up front.
The driver dropped us off at the train station in Marseille and from there it was a short metro ride and walk to our airbnb. Garrett was there already so we hollered up at the open window and the party started!
The party had already been going for the Russian and English hooligans in town for their match. By the time we walked down to Vieux Port, the last of the police tear gas was drifting away and the crunch of glass underneath our shoes was everywhere. A riot had just been broken up. We walked around to find a bar to sit and catch up, but the city was destroyed. Restaurant staff were bringing in tables and sweeping up smashed beer bottles. None of us had seen soccer fanaticism up close like this. It was giving the already rough reputation that Marseille had an extra boost.
Despite this introduction, I found Marseille to be wonderful. We certainly appreciate things that are rough around the edges, but more than that, I liked being close to the water and the personality that gives to a city. We walked around the port and got a feel for our whereabouts.
The next few days were planned carefully to include sightseeing while also blocking out time to duck into bars to watch the other televised soccer matches. It was a strange dance that I think is coined as “sport tourism”.
On our first full day in town, we started by walking into the Cours Julien district, a neighborhood that I had read was similar to Kreuzberg in Berlin i.e. alternative, lots of graffiti, and cool restaurants. It did not disappoint. I felt comforted by a large sign in lights that read “Quartier des Creatures”.
We didn’t know it yet, but bagel sandwiches would become a recurring meal in Marseille. While in Cours Julien, we ate at a place that served humongous ones. L’ID Fixe is situated in the square pictured above and has a nice shaded terrace.
We left this area to head to the official Fan Zone of Marseille. Each host city had one and Marseille’s was located right on the beach! We layed out some towels on the sand and could watch the match on the jumbo screen a hundred yards away.
I got up at one point to put my feet in the water and suddenly felt a tiny hand holding my hand. I looked down to see a little girl smiling at me and wanting to play in the water. We did for about 15 minutes and when I asked her, “n’êtes-vous pas froid?” (aren’t you cold?) she just looked up and smiled through chattering teeth, game for more.
When you wake up every day with that view of the basilica in your window, you start to think to yourself, “I wanna climb that thing”. It was a steep, steep walk to Notre Dame de la Garde, but worth it. Not only were the city views impressive, but so were the winds. You felt like you’d be picked up and carried to Heaven or somewhere higher probably.
We also walked around Fort Saint-Jean, which connects to the very cool MuCEM building, and got even more views.
I loved our airbnb location because it was just off of a small square in the Panier district. The square was surrounded by restaurants and at the bottom of the square, someone had set up a TV so people could watch the soccer games.
It was an easy place to grab meals and there was also a popular ice cream shop nearby, Le Glacier du Roi. <–warning, their website plays very jarring classical music. I opted for the navette flavor, made from orange blossom cookies. It made the hot day bearable again.
That evening, we decided to save some euros and picnicked by Vieux Port for dinner. Not only could we watch yachts coming and going from the port, but also staggering Englishmen chanting soccer songs.
I decided to make our day trip from Marseille to Cassis a separate post, which you can find here. If you come to Marseille, I highly recommend this side adventure because it’s easy and so so beautiful!
Ok, so finally the main event happened and we watched France play Albania in Stade Velodrome. I’m not a huge fan of any sport, but whenever you see one in person, in a loud stadium, you can’t help but get excited. And seeing the France team play in one of their own cities was especially dramatic.
Best of all, France won! And the place went crazy.
On our last day, we got another bagel sandwich from a place near our square, called Dunk, before heading to the train station. Lucky for us, the route back had not been canceled.
So many French people has warned us about how terrible and unsafe Marseille was going to be. I’m sure we stayed in the “nice” part, but I really didn’t think it was as bad as everyone said. Even with the hooligans thrown into the mix. It was a great trip to kick off summer and I would absolutely recommend it.