From the Old Port in the center of Marseille there are boats that run several times a day to the Frioul Islands, a group of four small islands just off the coast at a distance of about four kilometers from the harbor.
The most famous of these islands is the Île d'If, the site of a prison that figures prominently in the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père (1802-1870).
Most of the boats go from Marseille by way of the Île d'If to Port Frioul and then back to Marseille. The journey typically takes 25 minutes from Marseille to If, then 15 minutes from If to Port Frioul and then another 35 minutes from Port Frioul to Marseille, making a total of one hour and fifteen minutes for the round trip.
If you visit only one of the islands, the cost of a round-trip ticket is € 10.10. For a combined trip to both islands, If and Frioul, the round-trip costs € 15.20. (Prices as of April 2013.) They also sell one-way tickets for € 5.10, but this will probably not be of much use unless you know someone on Frioul with a boat.
The boat I took was called the Edmond Dantès (third and fifth photos), named after the protagonist of The Count of Monte Cristo.
The booking office and the dock in Marseille are located at 1 Quai de la Fraternité (formerly Quai des Belges) at the Old Port.
Next Frioul tip: On the Frioul If Express
Directions: Location on le vélo map.
The nearest bicycle station is 1211 -- Beauvau Suffren.
In March 2012 the German and French railways inaugurated a direct high-speed train connection between Frankfurt am Main and Marseille via Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Strasbourg, Lyon, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. For the time being there is only one such train per day – but that’s much better than none!
Their original intention was to use a new version of the German ICE (InterCityExpress) for this run, but as usual the ICE had technical difficulties so service is currently provided by a double-decker French TGV train (“Train of Great Speed”) which leaves Frankfurt each afternoon at 14:01. The journey to Marseille takes seven hours and forty-five minutes, so the train arrives at Saint Charles station in Marseille at 21:46 in the evening.
The return train leaves Marseille at 8:14 in the morning. It reaches Frankfurt at 15:58 in the afternoon.
The full price (which few people actually pay) for a one-way ticket from Frankfurt to Marseille is currently € 147.00 (as of 2013), but I booked on the German railways website and got one of their “Europa-Spezial” tickets for 69.00 Euros.
For the return trip I wasn’t as lucky. Since the French railways require reservations – and do not sell more tickets than they have seats – it can happen that the train is sold out well in advance. I originally wanted to return on a Sunday, but since no more tickets were available I stayed on an extra day in Marseille and returned on Monday. The return trip cost me 98.40 Euros because there were no “Europa-Spezial” tickets available on that day, but I did get a reduction with my German rail card (BahnCard 50).
There is no dining car on the TGV trains, but otherwise I found the journey quite pleasant and comfortable. Refreshments are available at the TGV bar in the middle of the train (fifth photo).
This is the main railway station for Marseille. In a typical hour, trains arrive from Avignon, Brussels, Le Havre, Paris, Toulon, Bordeaux, Lyon, Aix-en-Provence and Hyeres. And once a day there is even a direct train from Frankfurt am Main.
As you can see from the first photo, the station is up on a hill or plateau. To get up there you can climb the grand staircase and feel suitably awed, or you can make a slight detour around to the left where there is a more prosaic entrance with escalators.
The staircase was finished in 1926 and was intended to glorify the French colonial empire, since Marseille was where people came by train to board their Messageries Maritimes steamships for the Far East or wherever. So this was the gateway to the colonies, so to speak, and was meant to be monumental. Presumably they had porters to carry their luggage.
The architect of the staircase was a man named Eugène Senès (1875-1960), who won an architectural competition in 1911 but didn’t actually get to construct the staircase until the 1920s.
On the staircase there are various sculptures intended to symbolize “The Colonies of Africa” and “The Colonies of Asia” as well as “Marseille as the Gateway to the Orient”. (These sculptures did not impress me particularly, so I neglected to take pictures of them, but perhaps I should have done so out of historical interest. Maybe next time.)
Second photo: Two of the tracks in the station.
Third photo: Trains at the station (from one of my hotels).
Fourth photo: Outside the station.
Fifth photo: Train leaving for Toulon on track 3.
Marseille has a bike sharing system called “le vélo” (not a very catchy name) that is similar to Vélib’ in Paris and Vé’lov in Lyon. It is run by the same company that runs the Paris and Lyon systems, JCDecaux.
In the General (Favorite) tips on my Paris page I have described in detail how these systems work, so I won’t repeat it all here. Suffice it to say that these bike sharing systems really do work – in Paris and Lyon, but not in Marseille.
In both Paris and Lyon you constantly see people riding around on the Vélib’ or Vélo'v bikes. And at the bike stations there is a lot of coming and going, as people check out bikes or bring them back. (See the photos on my Paris and Lyon pages.)
In Marseille you occasionally see someone riding one of the blue bikes, but not often. Usually the bikes just sit in the stations, unused.
The system has been operational in Marseille since October 2007. After the resounding success of the systems in Lyon (since May 2005) and Paris (since July 2007), the city of Marseille was hoping to have fifty thousand annual subscribers to le vélo. In reality, the number of subscribers peaked at 8,825 in the year 2008, and has been going down ever since.
By way of comparison: at last count, Vélo’v in Lyon had 42,000 annual subscribers. Vélib’ in Paris had 224,000. Paris of course has more inhabitants than Marseille, but Lyon has fewer.
It is not hard to understand why le vélo has been such a flop in Marseille. The main reason is that Marseille does not have anything resembling an adequate cycling infrastructure. Paris and Lyon (and many other French cities) have been rapidly installing new bicycle lanes and parking facilities; Marseille has hardly any.
Another reason is that in Marseille the system shuts down at night. You can return a bike at any time, but you can’t check one out between midnight and 6 a.m. In both Paris and Lyon, the systems are fully functional twenty-four hours a day and are used extensively at night, after the Métro, buses and trams have stopped running. (See my tip Vélib' at night on my Paris page.)
The bike sharing system in Marseille is not expensive, by the way. An annual subscription costs all of five Euros (in Paris 29 Euros), and a weekly ticket in Marseille is only one Euro (in Paris 8 Euros) – prices as of 2013.
I had a weekly ticket for le vélo and used it occasionally, but it was really hard to get where I wanted to go by bicycle (even though I am an experienced urban cyclist, as you may have noticed).
The bike station in my first photo is 1210 – Beauvau Canabière, with the opera house in the background two blocks away.
Second photo: The bike station 2272 – Joliette Dunkerque.
Third photo: The main terminal at bike station 1301 – Saint Charles Marseillaises.
Fourth and fifth photos: A lady on one of the blue bikes. (Her boyfriend had one, too.)
Marseille has two Métro lines (also known in other parts of the world as the underground, the tube or the subway). Both of these lines serve the main railway station Saint Charles. The trains run every few minutes, so they are very convenient for travelers arriving by train who want to go to other parts of the city.
My recommendation for tourists, however, is to use the Métro as little as possible. On my Paris page I have written a tip called Five or six reasons not to take the Métro. Some of these reasons also apply to Marseille, even though the cycling infrastructure is not nearly as good in Marseille as it is in Paris.
The construction of the Marseille Métro was a unanimous decision of the Marseille city council in 1969. The stated purpose of the Métro was to reduce traffic congestion, but of course it had the opposite effect because the additional road space soon attracted additional cars, so traffic congestion was soon worse than ever.
There are plans to extend the existing Métro lines a bit further, but no new Métro lines are being planned as far as I know.
In my first photo, showing the long escalators descending into the depths of the Métro, there is an advertisement for Euroméditerranée, which is said to be the largest urban renewal project in southern Europe. The advert reads: “Euroméditerranée is building the Marseille of tomorrow”
Unlike most French cities, which had a half-century hiatus between the closing of their original tram systems and the opening of their new modern ones, Marseille likes to boast that its original tram system was never completely abolished.
This is true, but only because one of the many original tram lines survived the mass closures of the post-war auto-mania period. From 1960 to 2004 only one tram line remained in operation. That was the old line 68, which survived because its central terminus was in a tunnel, so it could not easily be replaced by buses.
In the year 2000 Marseille started building a modern new tramway system, which began operation in 2007. Currently there are two tram lines, the T-1, which incorporates the old line 68 including the tunnel, and the T-2, which is completely new. More construction is underway, and there are plans to reorganize the system into three tramway lines.
As in other French cities, the building of the tramway is not an isolated project, but is part of a concerted effort to reduce motor traffic, upgrade neighborhoods, plant trees, improve the street lighting, widen sidewalks and install cycle paths.
Marseille has unfortunately not been consistent about installing cycle paths, especially in the city center.
For more on the new French tramway systems, see my tips on the tramways in Lyon, Strasbourg and Paris and on the extension of the Paris tramway which went into operation in December 2012.
As soon as the Frioul If Express leaves the harbor it suddenly speeds up and leaves Marseille behind in its wake.
Second photo: One of the many sailboats as seen from the Frioul If Express.
Third photo: Looking back towards the cathedral Sainte-Marie-Majeure and Fort Saint Jean.
Next Frioul tip: Views from the Frioul If Express
The island in the first photo is the Île d’If with its castle.
On the right up on the hill is the Basilica Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde.
Second photo: The row of stones in the foreground of this photo is a breakwater at one of the Frioul Islands.
Third photo: Off to the left in this photo is Marseille’s tallest building, the Tour CMA CGM.
Next Frioul tip: Île d’If
At the end of our walking tour, our guide told us that if we wanted to see some of the coast of Marseille south of the old harbor, an easy and inexpensive way to do this was to ride the number 83 bus to Métro Rond Point du Prado and back.
So I did that on my last day in Marseille. Unfortunately it was an overcast day, so the views were not spectacular, but I’m sure they would be much better on a sunny day.
In my first photo some small islands are visible through the bus window. These are the Frioul Islands, including the Île d’If with its castle and tower, which are visible in the second photo.
On the screen in the first photo are the initials “rtm”, standing for the city transport authority, the “Régie des Transport de Marseille”, and their slogan “changer de mode”. This slogan is somewhat clever because it can mean either “change your style” (of clothes, for example) or “change your mode” (of transportation).
According to the RTM website, Marseille has 77 bus lines with 1200 bus stops, served by 595 buses and 1428 drivers. All the buses have video surveillance.
Back to the beginning of our guided walking tour
Back to my Marseille intro page
I happened to be in Marseille on the day of their third annual Vélotour, which is described as “a unique festival in France, centered around an unusual bicycle ride, free style and accessible to everyone: men and women from 0-90 years!” They stress that Vélotour is not a competition, but rather an opportunity to re-discover the city and have a good time with family, colleagues and friends.
As you can see from the first photo, a lot of children took part. Nearly all the participants, children and adults, had to ride on the sidewalks in the center of Marseille, because there are no bicycle lanes and the streets are too narrow and dangerous.
The poster in the second photo reads: “Marseille as you have never seen it!”
Then it lists some of the participating institutions, the very first of which is the Marseille Opera. The opera house was one of the suggested stops on a 15 to 25 kilometer tour of the city. Here they could stop and have a look at the inside of the opera house (but I don’t know exactly how this was organized or what was offered).
According to the Vélotour website, Marseille is one of four French cities to offer a Vélotour festival each year. The concept originated in Dijon in 2006. It was taken up by Orléans in 2009 and by Marseille in 2010. A fourth city, Grenoble, will have a Vélotour for the first time on June 2, 2013.
In Marseille, six thousand people took part in the third annual Vélotour in 2012. The fourth edition is scheduled for September 29, 2013.
Third photo: Advertising for Vélotour at a le vélo bicycle station.