Bouillabaisse [bu.ja.bɛːs]. For first timers, getting the correct pronunciation is hard. And it’s even harder to spell it. For first timers, it’s also easier to have a bowl of soup in Shanghai, Japan or even Malaysia, where slurping is encouraged. But here in Marseille – the birthplace of bouillabaisse – soup is no casual affair.
Flying out from Kuala Lumpur on Turkish Airlines and arriving hungry in France’s second largest city after Paris, my travel partner and I ditched the hotel’s welcome drink for a welcome soup.
We headed towards Le Panier, or “the basket”, a former marketplace dating to pre-Roman times, when this old quarter was the ancient city of Massilia. After surviving several blasts during WWII, it’s now an artisans' hangout known for its shops, restaurants, movie houses, ateliers and cafés. The laundry that hangs from every window apartment welcomes the crowd and is perhaps its most familiar sight.
A mishmash of lanes and sloping cobbled streets narrow down to an open square where people laze about, chatting and sipping wine, while scrambling waiters walk to and fro taking orders and suggesting the plat du jour. Of course, no one can ever resist partaking of the local favorite and the region’s signature dish, bouillabaisse. To locals, it's serious business.
A good bouillabaisse includes all four essential elements: the bony rockfish, rascasse, along with three other kinds of fish (sometimes shellfish). The fish must be fresh; other requirements include olive oil and saffron. Although bouillabaisse is readily available throughout the city, we found reserving a table to be a challenge.
Its origin suggests an ordinary fishermen’s stew, cooked from the scraps of the catch. The recipe was refined during the 19th century as more restaurants opened along the old port. At the time a few bourgeois housewives were seduced into adding a dash of provençal seasoning to the stew.
On most occasions, bouillabaisse is served in two segments. The first revolves around the broth, or soupe de poisson. This rich tomato mixture is flavored by saffron, fennel and herbs. For an authentic flavor, it's accompanied with rouille (a chili-pepper and garlic-like paste) spread on the crouton and with a soupcon of cheese on top, which melts slowly into the soup. You can also dip toasted bread into the soup and enjoy a good bite before the bread gets soggy.
The second part is serving the platter of cooked fish halfway submerged in broth and sliced potatoes. Unlike a normal soup that's served as a starter, bouillabaisse is the main course meal itself.
As we sit on the wooden, rickety rococo-styled stool murmuring excitedly to each other, my travel partner tells me that from here on in, we're about to become amateur soup enthusiasts. Unlike the tea ceremony in Japan or in China, there is no ritual involved. But tradition is imperative. When eating bouillabaisse, you are reminded where to rest your spoon between bites and how to politely eat the last bit from the bowl - sipping and never slurping.
It’s the smell that commands center stage; the fishy whiff infused with herb-packed aromas is a culinary pièce de résistance. As our steaming bowls landed on our table paired with a dry rosé, I began to understand why this part of France is hard to resist. Out of this first sip comes a revelation in getting to know France’s sun-kissed south.
The city: a transformation
Bustling, bursting and beguiling: this is Marseille at midday. The vibe continues until nighttime and reemerges at dawn.
Before bagging the European’s Capital of Culture award last year, the city underwent a major facelift, shedding its “bad boy” image for one of a viable tourist destination.
As Marseille embraces its new look, world-class museums, gleaming state-of-the-art galleries, performing arts centers and an exciting gourmet ghetto are surfacing, with traces remaining of the mafioso clubs that date back to the '70s cult movie The French Connection.
The old port
The Vieux Port is the living nucleus of the city. It is the main source of life for many locals as well as home to several Michelin restaurants.
In the Hotel Sofitel Vieux Port where we checked in, the terrace featured a splendid view of both the old port and the city – an ideal spot to contemplate our next move. As boats moor on the harbor from time to time, the catch is immediately hauled onto stalls, as animated crowds flock and start to bargain for the freshest sea bass, monkfish, lobster, turbot, gilt-head bream and European hake.
At the opposite side in a nearby dock, young tan and toned boys somersault off the rocks into the azure water, like so many of their ancestors around the Mediterranean have done.
More Marseille exploring
No address is more accurate in showcasing Marseille’s cultural appreciation and diversity than Cour Julien. For hippies, it’s their stage. Atop a hill, it's an elongated square with trees and a fountain that offers space for a market selling flowers, antique books and stamps. Theaters and trendy bars serve as backdrop for a night’s entertainment. Nocturnal grazing is common, and the graffiti and painted façades are a draw for tourists and street art aficionados alike.
From Cour Julien, a short walk opens up to an alley leading to Cathedrale de la Major, a massive 19th century construction and one of the largest cathedrals in Europe. Its Turkish looking dome and cupolas, altars of multi-colored marbles and interesting mosaic floor pattern are a delight to the eyes.
There is a path (above) that connects one to the MuCEM – the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations from the cathedral. A futuristic architecture with dark cement latticework frontage even from afar, it presents a playful spectacle with architecture’s strongest element, light. Up on its rooftop is a picturesque view of the Palais du Pharo, the former imperial residence of Napoleon Bonaparte.
It’s no secret as well that Palais Longchamp is not really a palace. It's an irrigation project built to transport water from the Durance River in the mid-19th century. This imposing structure is a showmanship of dramatic fountains and staircases, charming sculptures and colonnades and a vast park behind it, evoking a romantic air.
If hopping on a boat fancies your interest, there's always the Chateau d’If, the popular setting of Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo. The neighboring Frioul Islands are also within reach: an archipelago of limestone and dolomites shaped by storms and harsh winds. Back to the harbor, huge ferries await for passengers bound for Tunisia and Algeria.
As sunset draws to a close, take the “Little Train” to the highest point of the city. The climb itself is bliss, but wait until you get to the top. You'll see a perfect view of Marseille – the city at its purest. The Mediterranean, endlessly blue, and the rugged mountains almost blend together in the setting sun. No wonder the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde was built on this very hill, with a gilded statue of the Virgin Mary atop the bell tower looking after fishermen and sailors at sea.
There are so many other places to go, time permitting. Perhaps a boat to the small fishing village of L’Estaque where painter Paul Cezanne once sojourned, or Calanques, a steep-walled inlet whose dramatic limestone cliffs stretch 20 miles to the south, or even a 30-minute bus ride to Aix-en-Provence from Marseille’s St. Charles station.
But I guess they can all wait. Here in Marseille there is no need to rush. Just like how one sips bouillabaisse – nice and slow. Savoring every minute and tasting each flavor.
As we head back to our hotel, we see more boats tethering at the jetty with their catch – fish jolting, jumping, almost catapulting. Standing on the terrace that looks out over the Mediterranean with the breeze kissing our cheeks, I can't help asking, “Care for another bouillabaisse?”
Jan Sevilla is a quixotic nomadic chick and writer by accident with some difficulty of having her subject agree to her verb. Catch more of her travel murmurs at najsevilla.blogspot.com.