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Visit magical Marseille and swap snow for sun this Christmas

The vibrant Provençal city that offers 136 hours of December sunshine is full of festive spirit and a wonderful Christmas market

Christmas spirit on the ‘Vieux Port’, Marseille; The Santon Fair has been held in Marseille since 1803 Pic: hkOMTCM / LamyOTCM

The southern city of Marseille is a wonderful winter destination because, with an average of 136 hours of sunshine in December (compared to 77 in Limoges and 63 in Brest), there is a high chance of catching some rays. 

Even if the mistral is blowing, skies are often blue and temperatures are mild.  

That does not mean sacrificing an iota of Christmas spirit, however. For, on land, next to the yachts riding at anchor in the Vieux Port, a wonderful Christmas market sells toys, sweets, games, foodie treats, decorations and, of course, tablets of the celebrated Marseille soap.

Read more: When is Saint Nicholas Day and how is it celebrated in France?

Heritage of savon de Marseille

Savon de Marseille has been produced in the city for at least 600 years; the first documented soap maker appears in the records in 1370, and by 1913, annual production had topped 180,000 tons. 

Traditionally made from sea water, olive oil and seaweed ash, it can take up to a month to make and is reputed to be the best product for laundering delicate fabrics. 

Traditionally it is green, but there is also a white variety made from palm or coconut oil. 

Today, however, there are entire shops devoted to selling savon de Marseille in just about any colour and perfume you can imagine.

Ditch the car for a boat, tram or e-scooter

While you’re exploring the Vieux Port, make any excuse you like to take the tiny pedestrian ‘Ferry Boat’ over from one side of the port to the other. 

The ferries run every twenty minutes and cost a mere 50 cents for the two-minute journey, making them a delightfully gentle way to test your sea legs. 

Generally speaking, getting around Marseille by car is a nightmare. Many streets are closed to traffic and parking is expensive. The best option is to find a hotel with free parking, and leave the car there for the duration. 

Read more: Macron announces RER commuter train project for 10 French cities

Public transport passes give unlimited journeys on buses, trams, metro and the aforementioned Ferry Boat, costing €5.20 for 24 hours and €10.80 for 72 hours. 

Combined passes, available from the Tourist Office, give unlimited transport plus free entry into a range of tourist attractions, but to make them worthwhile you need to plan ahead and be sure of what you’re actually going to do. 

Armed with your transport pass, getting around Marseille is quick and easy. The system is clean, regular and reliable and the maps showing the various routes are very easy to understand. 

The city has three tram lines, and riding them all from one end to another is a great way to orientate yourself. The routes are simple to follow, and outside the rush hours, it is easy to find a window seat facing forwards. 

The beauty is that the trams run through many of the main shopping areas, so you can hop off if you see anything you want to explore.

Another fun way to get around is on an e-scooter. They are widely available in the city centre, and can be reserved and rented (1 euro to unlock them plus 15 cents per minute thereafter) using an app on your phone. (Download before leaving home.) 

You can leave them anywhere, because they are fitted with GPS devices which geo-locate them in real time, and they are collected every early evening and recharged overnight. 

Look out for local people riding them ‘two up’.

Buy a new santon or ‘little saint’ every year

The Santon Fair on the Canebière, a very long wide shopping street, has been held every Christmas since 1803. 

Read more: Provence’s santon-makers launch bid for Unesco recognition

It opens during the second week of November and runs until the New Year. The stall holders are all local craftspeople who hand-make santons from Provençal clay.

Sculpting a santon from clay Photo: PVolpes

Santons were invented after the closure of the churches following the French Revolution in 1789. Denied their traditional Midnight Mass with a Nativity play, people in Provence began making models of the nativity scene. 

Gradually they started adding models of all the other locals who normally would have gone to church at Christmas. 

The ‘little saints’ (san touns) became so popular that families began collecting them in order to set up ever-larger and more complex crèches at Christmas. Nowadays, it is traditional to buy a new santon every year to add to the family collection.

Choose 13 desserts 

A particularly well-loved local tradition is the ‘13 desserts’: one each for the twelve apostles plus one for Jesus. 

The desserts include nougat, figs (representing Franciscans), almonds (representing Carmelites), raisins (Dominicans) and walnuts or hazelnuts (Augustines), fresh and candied fruits, dates, gingerbread, a chocolate log (bûche) and/or various spiced biscuits and cookies according to family tradition. The famous calissons of Aix-en-Provence are also generally included. 

There is no difficulty in buying a mouth-watering selection. Confisseries outdo each other to produce traditional offerings. The only real challenge is limiting yourself to a mere thirteen sugary delights. 

Read more: The 2023 Fooding Guide announces its best restaurants in France

Shopping for all tastes

Marseille is fantastic for shopping; the area around the port has lots of upmarket boutiques, and the Le Panier district on the hill north of the port is stuffed with creative workshops. 

There are several large modern shopping centres and, if you are after something a little more authentic, head to the cosmopolitan and bohemian Cours Julien, one of the liveliest areas of the city both day and night. 

Liberally decorated with graffiti, it is a great place to pick through vintage clothes, buy organic vegetables, and hang out in cool artists’ cafés.

Museums and cave art

Ride the T3 tram and you will find yourself outside the extraordinary facade of the Palais Longchamps. Marvel at the multi-storied infinity fountains and take some selfies before mounting the graceful stairs to the museums inside. 

There are two, the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle and the Musée des Beaux-Arts. But even if you give the museums a miss, you’ll be glad you saw the entrance.

A visit to the Grotte Cosquer is a fabulous experience even if you normally have no interest at all in diving or prehistoric cave art. 

The caves, discovered 37m underwater by dedicated diver Henri Cosquer in 1985, have been recreated in detail along with all the artworks on the walls (including three penguins, a selection of seals, and dozens of hand prints) and the reconstruction is absolutely convincing. 

You do not need much imagination to believe you really are in the caves, even though in reality you are sitting in a six-seater electric wagon gliding on rails through replica caves. 

The real caves are increasingly submerged due to climate change, and with each soaking the artworks dissolve a little more, so eventually the caves which were inhabited by humans 27,000 years ago, will be permanently submerged and the original artworks washed away forever.

Right next door is the sprawling MUCEM compound containing a whole host of different museums, exhibitions, displays, cafés and cultural offerings. 

If you decide to do it all, at lunchtime you can use the raised walkway to cross the road into Le Panier, where there are lots of independent restaurants and bars. You can get back into MUCEM on the same day using the same ticket. 

You could also take advantage of the loungers on the roof terrace of the modern J4 building (the one covered in grey concrete lattice work) to enjoy a picnic.

Oldest hardware shop in France

Just behind the white Saint-Ferréol church in the Vieux Port, there is La Bourse shopping mall, and the rue d’Aubagne, which boasts Maison Empereur, the oldest hardware shop in France. 

Wander through it and consider purchasing a string of plastic lemons, an outsize paella dish, a miniature hammer or a packet of rat poison. They are used to people not buying anything. 

Wander on up the hill past shops selling intricately decorated plates, wicker baskets, rush mats, dried fruits and nuts, spices, joss sticks and kohl. If you get sore feet, look for a café serving oriental pastries and mint tea.

Footsteps of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo

Even if you have failed to master the bus network, at least try the number 83, which runs from the Grotte Cosquer all the way round the Vieux Port, and along the Corniche Kennedy. The road beside the Mediterranean sometimes even overhangs the waves, offering particularly beautiful views at sunset. 

Ride the bus all the way and you will arrive at the Parc Borély which surrounds the chateau. The park is a worthwhile destination but do not miss the chateau if it is open, as it contains the marvellous Musée des Arts Décoratifs, de la Faïence et de la Mode

For a truly educational experience the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille is excellent. Even the walk into the entrance is amazing, as it takes you through what was once the port. Once inside, view the videos and listen to the audio guide. The permanent exhibitions are free.

A visit to the Chateau d’If is also high on the list of unmissable experiences, and there is a regular boat service from the Vieux Port. Immortalised by Alexandre Dumas in his 1844 novel Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, it delivers all the gloomy, ghoulish appeal of a prison fortress. 

Read more: Two generations of Dumas, each a compelling character

Do not set your heart on the visit, however, because in bad weather the boats are not able to run. If that happens, you can take the same boat out to the Iles du Frioul. 

These windswept rocky islands offer easy walks with great views and the tiny port is fringed with restaurants and bars, two or three of which are open all year, and it is a great place to have lunch. 

Plastic windbreaks mean it is often even possible to eat outside, nicely sheltered from the wind. Ring ahead and book a table, however, just to make sure you do not end up stranded and starving.

Birthplace of pastis

Marseille is proud to be the birthplace of pastis, and even if you do not like aniseed, it would be a shame not to try it while you are there. 

Just walk into any bar. It usually comes neat in a tall glass with ice and a jug of water on the side so you can dilute it to your taste. (You can also order it without ice.) 

Just add water until you like the taste. If you really cannot get used to it, you can ask the bar staff to turn it into a tomate by adding a shot of grenadine or, if you are feeling exceptionally brave, a perroquet, by adding a shot of mint. 

When in Marseille...

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