Travels on the Run: Marseille

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I admit, back in the days when Marseille exuded grittiness and underworld debauchery, I did not go there. Why bother?

But now I stand at the edge of Marseille’s U-shaped Vieux-Port, beneath Norman Foster’s dazzling Ombrière, and I take in the magnificence of a true renaissance city. Indeed, thanks to billions of euros being poured into its economy, France’s second largest city has transformed into (or, one could argue, returned to being) a booming business and cultural center, with more yet to come.

Perhaps the greatest addition of all is the MuCEM, a glorious über-modern museum celebrating Mediterranean cultures. Open since the summer of 2013, the glass-and-black-metal museum has been integrated into the historic structure of Fort Saint-Jean in an amazing feat of architectural dexterity.

I run to the left of the port, taking in the mirrorlike waters reflecting bobbing boats and dawn-lit pastels, and pass the neo-Byzantine cathedral Notre-Dame de la Garde perched high on a hill, a golden statue of the Virgin Mother gleaming from its top. The Marseillais call her Bonne Mère—Good Mother—and most seem to truly believe that she has guarded the city for more than 800 years.

After clearing Fort Saint-Nicolas—the twin to Fort Saint-Jean across the harbor mouth—on my right, I zigzag past some neighborhoodly buildings, never anticipating what awaits ahead. I make a turn onto Corniche Président John F. Kennedy, Marseille’s main coastal road, and all at once the gloaming beauty of the Mediterranean engulfs me.

Empty beaches dotted with silhouetted umbrellas enjoy the calm of the early morning, before the crowds descend. Off in the distance hovers the low-lying islet of Château d’If, Marseille’s version of Alcatraz, made famous by fictional prisoner the Count of Monte Cristo.

Onward, I come to an art deco monument, a graceful arch outlining the silhouette of a woman with upstretched arms, the Mediterranean glimmering behind. It’s a monument to the soldiers from the French colonies who lost their lives during the World Wars.

A bridge sweeps me over the terra-cotta rooftops of a small hamlet called the Vallon des Auffes, where fishermen mend their nets and paint their boats in colorful Mediterranean hues. Chez Fonfon, the famous bouillabaisse restaurant, is located here as well.

Though I am tempted to run all the way to the fishing village of Cassis—site of a popular 20-kilometer race every October—when I reach Corniche Jean Martin, I decide to turn back and return the way I came. Here, fishermen survey their daily catch—sea urchins, mussels, the odd octopus or two—and I happily note that, despite the modern hustle-and-bustle, some things never change.

> Run Stats

Mileage: 4.2 miles (round trip)

Best time: Early morning, to catch the golden light of dawn shimmering on ancient stone buildings and the Mediterranean Sea

Start and End: Beneath the Ombrière at the foot of the Vieux-Port, Marseille

> The Route

  • Amble along the left side of the Vieux-Port, following the sidewalk the entire way.
  • After passing by Fort Saint-Nicolas, continue along the sidewalk, merging onto Corniche Président John F. Kennedy.
  • You can go as far as you wish; the turn-around for this run is at the bus stop labeled “Corniche Jean Martin.”
  • Return the way you came.

Barbara A. Noe is senior editor at National Geographic Travel Books.

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