Posted: 4/23/2015
Title: THE FRENCH CONNECTION

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Wizzing down to Marseilles from Paris is easy these days. Just over 3 hours by TGV (very fast train) cutting the time by more than 50% 14 years ago. It's France's oldest city, founded by the Greeks 2,600 years ago.

Arriving at Gare de Marseilles-Saint-Charles was a revelation for me. My last visit was in 1998 and it was very crowded but now there is a huge modern addition with restaurants, shops and a regional navette-bus station. Built on a hill with a massive staircase, it opened in 1848. In 2000 there were 7.1 million passengers and then the TGV arrived in 2001, and by 2007 the number had increased to 15 million. Guns, crime and drugs as highlighted by the 1971 Oscar winning movie, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, has been replaced by a new charm offensive.

Fortunately there is a new, modern two line metro, The Blue Line and Red Line to get you down to the Vieux Port in two short stops where a lot of the action is. In 2013 it was the EUROPEAN CAPITAL OF CULTURE, with millions of euros pumped into the economy and the place was tarted up. The Metro pours you out at the harbour with a huge ferris wheel and a marvellous pavilion with a steel reflective roof. There was a big group of singers with tourists joining in, a steel band and a clown giving our balloons, and ferry boats to the nearby islands and to the Calenques to the East, a serious of rocky inlets with places to dock, swim, sunbathe and picnic.

I took a half hour ferry to the Ile d'If and the 16th C. chateau, later a prison, and the setting for Alexander Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. Further afield to the east are The Calenques by ferry, but I prefer taking the regional bus to charming CASSIS, a quaint, laid back fishing village and then a smaller tourist boat to these limestone rocky inlets. If you go to Cassis by rail its a long 3km walk into Cassis or a taxi ride.

When we talk of local culture l'OM is big time culture - Olympique de Marseilles and the Stade Velodrome. I went to the draw for the 1998 FIFA World Cup the previous December when they had the ceremony and a star spangled World All-Stars match. It was FREEZING, thanks to the annual cold wind, the MISTRAL, that whistles down the Rhone Valley at least 40km an hour for hours on end. Ten times champion and ten times cup winners they are the only French club to win the UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE in 1993. After a bribery scandal they lost their national title and were relegated a year later. Their Virage Nord and Virage Sud are full of local fan clubs. Before matches 'JUMP' by Van Halen is heard, and when the team scores 'COME WITH ME' by Puff Daddy.

I used my cheap 24 hour pass, available on the metro, super new trams and buses and went to the Velodrome, line 2 4km East and now the 67,000 seats(12,000 increase) are covered by a new wavy roof, ready for EURO FRANCE 2016. I was there at World Cup 1998 for Holland v South Korea (5-0) and the semi-final Holland v Brazil(1-1) which went to penalties 4-2.

The Vieux Port is the place to wine and dine in the evening with an Irish and British pub quayside and a mammoth choice of restaurants and cafes. At the World Cup we had a group of 10 or so and went for the local speciality BOUILLABAISSE, which is best ordered by a big group. It's a Provencal fish stew with at least 3 types, usually red rascasse, sea robin and European conger. It can also include turbot, monk fish, bream, mullet and hake. Added in are shellfish, sea urchin, mussels, velvet crabs and maybe octopus.

Vegetables such as leeks, onions, tomatoes, celery and potatoes are served with the broth with rouille, (mayonaisse made with olive oil, garlic, saffron) plus grilled sliced bread. Provencal herbs and spices are used in the broth. Take your time and chat with your table mates and neighbours for a memorable eveninga Vieux Port.

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