Monday, 26 May 2014

What to see in Marseille in one day?

Situated on the Mediterranean coast of France, Marseille is the largest commercial port and the second biggest city in Francewith a population of over 853,000 people. Along with its rich history, the capital of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region has so many more to serve to its visitors.

It's been almost one year since I visited this charming city for two days and I fell in love with it irremediable. If I'd have to think about the first three things that come to my mind when recalling my short trip, these would be :
  • the most beautiful view of the bluest sea I've ever seen from the top of the Notre Dame de la Garde, a major local landmark located at the highest natural point in Marseille, a 149 m (490 ft) limestone outcrop on the south side of the Old Port.
  • the taste of bouillabaisse, an yellow fish soup that is a a specific dish of this area. 
  • the contrast between the poor and rough neighbourhoods in the North of the city and the lavish properties near the sea coast, two different worlds that create the charm of this city of contrasts.
The first day spent in Marseille was one of wondering around the Old Port and discovering the hip multicultural urbanites in the north of the city. If a few streets away, the chic restaurants are packed and the luxury goods shops are doing brisk business in monogrammed handbags and gold watches, in the neighbouring quartier, prostitutes and drug dealers duck and dive to avoid the police patrols.

These are the two faces of modern Marseille: the cosmopolitan, cultured pearl of the Mediterranean on the one hand and Rio-sur-Mer, as certain papers have nicknamed it, a lawless badland full of gangsters, dirty and dangerous as I perceived it.

Going back to the touristic spots of the city, in the city centre, one of the places that I loved the most was the area around MuCEM and Fort Saint Jean located at the entrance of the Port of Marseille, looming above the J4 pier.

Fort Saint-Jean is now an exhibition space for permanent collections. It also hosts temporary exhibitions, while offering the visitor a stroll through a Mediterranean garden. It also represents a meeting point between the city and the museum, between history and its contemporary setting.

The MuCEM Museum it's a fabulous building, and its blue lights make it look like from a fairy-tale at dusk.

Very close to MuCEM is the the Cathédrale de la Major, a national monument of France, a very imposing church that guards the shores of the city. 

This is a very tranquil place, perfect to watch a deep red sunset over the Mediterranean Sea. 

Turning right from the cathedral, you discover Le Panier. As the Marseille equivalent to Montmartre, Le Panier is a fantastic history-woven quarter; a mishmash of sloping streets and lanes flanked with ochre buildings and terraced houses. A clutch of artisan shops sell traditional products such as scented soaps, olive-wood carvings, homemade biscuits and chocolates – not to mention pastis, the quintessential Provençal drink. Here is the place to find a bit cheaper souvenirs and where my marseillais fridge magnet comes from.


Just behind this lovely quarter lies the Vieux Port, or The Old Port, the most picturesque part of the town and the place to go for some Marseillaise cuisine, which is usually dominated by fish and one dish in particular—bouillabaisse. This fish soup combines a variety of fish with saffron, fennel and orange zest. It is served with rouille, a garlic and chilli-flavoured mayonnaise. Olive oil, herbs, fresh fruit and vegetables are also abundant parts of Marseille cuisine.

This is where to find the boat shuttles to the Château d'If, toPointe Rouge and to L'Estaque as well as the boat companies offering excursions to the calanques. In the mornings there is a small, lively fish market.

I loved to watch the people beneath the huge mirrored canopy placed at the entrance of the port, the best shelter on a torrid summer day and during the evening the buzzing little market near the water filled my soul with heavenly smelling lavender and other beautiful crafts from the Provence.

I ended my first day in Marseille with a stroll on the busy Canebiere street, heading towards my hotel, situated near the Saint-Charles train station.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Colourful Birmingham seen on a grey spring day

I have recently discovered the miracle called Megabus. A good friend of mine suggested we should visit another British city asap, and subtly implied that she knows how we can find a very cheap way of doing that. Megabus.
So, for under a tenner, specifically £ 8.50 we managed to book a return ticket to Birmingham. I wasn't sure if that was the best choice mainly because the city itself hasn't got a very good touristic reputation. Without to much research on what it's to be seen there nor to much planning done we embarked on the 10:45 Megabus :) to Birmingham which had a considerable delay of one hour.
We even managed to get the upper deck seats just in front of the big window, and together with a few newspapers and some great snacks we've made our three hour journey to Birmingham a very pleasant one.

Once arrived there, we faced the cruel realisation that we have less than five hours to explore the city so there was no time for hanging around or ( to much ) shopping. Maybe we could squeeze in a Mac or a Starbucks break in the evening.

We started our tour from the train Station, so the first stop was the Bullring Shopping Centre off course the famous Bull, surrounded by lots of tourists making funny faces to the cameras and grabbing the bull from the horns or the tail, depending on their mood.


One of the biggest surprises I had visiting Birmingham was the spectacular range and size of shopping malls, galleries and  markets. From the elegant Western's Arcade and the luxurious The Mailbox to the world famous Bullring, all that you may need in this situation is a thick wallet or a grand pay- check. And then there are a few more to explore, if your patience and shoes are supportive enough: The Piccadilly Arcade, The Pallasades and the Pavilions, all packed with top names in fashion, high street brands, local shops and a great variety of restaurants. 

With a stunning mix of gifts, food, electrical, sports, fashion and beauty, you have the chance to dress yourself from head to toes, check out the best computer games or the latest mobile phones. If you have time to do all of these of course. And as we had already spent a quarter of our strolling time we had to discover something else beside shopping malls in this interesting looking place in Britain.

But why so interesting suddenly? Well because it's not so British after all. It doesn't look like London,or like Cambridge or Brighton or any other city in England. It has a very interesting mix of architecture, people and bad tempered character. You can be in a extraordinary place at a given moment but within a few streets it becomes a rough and unsafe area and getting out of there feels the best thing to do.

Our second stop, not far away from the city centre was the famous China Town of Birmingham. Nothing compared to its brother from London, we found it empty and deserted. The buildings were the only reminders of a genuine vibrant China Town, with a great colour mix of red, green and yellow cheering up a grey glooming day.

Looking for a nice place to have some lunch we headed towards the New Street, where we discovered the great Waterstones shop, the magnificent Burlington Hotel with its great interior arcade and my favourite clothing shop, one next to each other. Inside the little shopping arcade you can find also Uber, an exclusive fashion retailer, Bad Apple Hair ( isn't this a great name for the most cutting-edge stylist in the city?) and the nicest surprise is  underneath all this and it's called The Bacchus Bar, one of the city's best kept secrets for good food and wine.

Very close to New Street we stumble upon the Birmingham Cathedral, a very quiet and peaceful place to escape from the buzzing city centre. I most definitely fell in love with the green gardens that surround the church, like an isle in the middle of a stormy ocean.
My favourite place in Birmingham was the next to be discovered. Surrounded by stunning buildings and statues lies the The Victoria Square, home to both the Town Hall and the Council House and adjacent to the Chamberlain Square and the University of Birmingham. 


Town Hall and Symphony Hall are two iconic concert halls that bring some of the best musicians and performers in the world to the heart of Birmingham. In search for my next target destination, the grand Mailbox, we found one of the greatest pride of the city, the Library of Birmingham, the largest public library in Europe spread over ten levels and in my opinion one of the most enchanting buildings. 

Tired and hungry, our feet carried us towards the Mailbox through a very nice short-cut on the shore of the Birmingham canals, a little Little Venice in Birmingham, nicer than the London one. 

The area is filled with cosmopolitan restaurants and coffee shops, and stunning views across the canal, plus the magnificent building called The Cube which prides itself with a 25th floor restaurant by Marco Pierre White, overlooking the city.

The Mailbox, one of the most exclusive shopping destinations in Birmingham hosts an indulgent combination of designer label fashions, aspirational home design and zuper restaurants.

But we were deeply disappointed by their public acces facilities and their confusing elevators that carried us from the underground parking to another parking.After we had to cross by foot the whole parking area, together with few another frustrated visitors we decided we should just have a good glance from outside and leave the big Mailbox behind and look for some more pedestrian friendly shopping places. 

And so, after a few tiring hours we ended up with a coffee and some snacks in front of us in the Bullring with plans to head towards the eternal and much loved TK Maxx for some well deserved souvenirs.

Back to London then and close to midnight we are back where we left from - Victoria Station and planning our next escape. 

Friday, 24 January 2014

A short walkaway from London : Cambridge

Cambridge - a city of all seasons.

With plenty of activities and events to choose from, Cambridge is very close to London being situated just 80 Km north from the capital. 
Cambridge is widely known as a university town and the home of University of Cambridge, founded in 1209 and ranked consistently as one of the top five universities in the world. 
The city's skyline is dominated by the Kings College Chapel and the Cambridge University Library, along with the Addenbrooke's Hospital and the St. John Chapel tower. 
The river Cam runs through the city and follows all the major touristic attractions. In the warm seasons you can enjoy a pleasant punting journey around the city guided by knowledgeable guides who provide their passengers with a lot of insights on the history and modern vibe of this unique place. Or if you are a bit more courageous you can rent a boat, a kayak or a canoe for as less as  £10 and start your own adventure along the upper river out towards Grantchester Meadows and beyond. 
Let yourself inspired by the many art galleries and museums, with the highest concentration of internationally renowned collection in the UK after London. They are no less than 8 museums in Cambridge and the majority of them are free to enter. Plus loads of independent galleries and exhibition displaying local and international artist. You should definitely don's skip the Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street belonging to the University of Cambridge or stroll around the great pieces of history displayed in the National War Museum. For those passionate about plants and Botany they can visit the Botanic Gardens of Cambridge, one of the widest and richest in the UK. 
I left to the end the attractions that I believe impressed me the most through their architecture, historic heritage they carry and their contribution to the world in general. And I know you had already guessed that I am referring to the famous Colleges . They are 31 in total and each of them has it's own character and charm. King's College Chapel is one of the most popular but you can see almost all of them by taking a punt tour along the river Cam. Each College has a different policy in admitting public visitors so I highly recommend checking their individual websites beforehand or the Visit Cambridge website for the opening hours and special events that may affect your visit. 
It's a real pleasure to stroll the city's narrow streets, and you can choose a guided tour around the city centre and discover the real buzzing life of the modern Cambridge, while mingling with locals to buy the best sticky Chelsea bun at the much-loved institution that is Fitzibillies. 
I hope I entice your appetite to discover the true colors and flavors of one of the most representative city of Britain.