Marseille travel diary, a sing-song destination to learn French

cultural visits | destinations tips

Thian, a French teacher from Argentina, shares highlights from his Marseille language stay with his Buenos Aires students and Vacances Actives Linguistiques agency. This travel journal is packed with flavour and sing-song accents that made the group very happy as they took a deep dive into French culture and language… Provençal style.

My Marseille travel diary

Marseille is a buzzing and bustling city whose locals are famous for speaking their mind! It’s the perfect destination for my group of French language students: it’s easy to get chatting with people, there are lots of places to interact with locals and the city’s residents talk a lot! The local accent may not make oral comprehension any easier but it certainly spices things up!

We had a fantastic schedule packed with Provençal history, architecture, stunning scenery, thrilling tales and delicious dishes. 

Two Marseille landmarks to visit with 800 years between them 

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde or Bonne Mère to friends

This basilica started out as a humble chapel in the 13th century, sitting on the hill above Marseille. It became popular when sailors made it their place of worship after surviving a shipwreck. A huge bronze Virgin Mary was erected at the top of the monument in 19th century as it became a basilica, protector and emblem of the city which you can see wherever you are in Marseille.

I’ll never forget walking up a never-ending steep slope to it!! That was the workout of the day for the students! A deafening mistral whipped up when we reached the top… What with the 360° views, it was a breathtaking experience in every way! Inside the basilica, its mosaics were rich and opulent whilst the crypt was deep and serious. Notre Dame de la Garde is an absolute must-visit if you want to get to grips with the religion surrounding Bonne Mère!

MUCEM, a new beacon in Marseille Port

What a sight the MUCEM, Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée is… It’s not just the exhibitions that are fascinating here, it’s the architecture too. 

It’s a cube wrapped in beautiful latticework which visitors can see the surroundings through. It sits on the Marseille seafront so you can see the sea through the concrete net curtain as well as Fort Saint Jean and the city’s fantastic maritime heritage. 

It’s a feast for the eyes and the students went wild for selfies here!

Stunning scenery from a dreamworld

A hike out to the Marseille calanques

This was the one we’d been waiting for: the iconic calanques They’re partly why we picked Marseille as our language stay destination with the VAL agency: sun, sea and incredible beaches lapped by the bright blue waves. We decided to hike there to soak up the unspoilt natural surroundings. It took hours walking through the garrigue hills to reach the hotspot. We took a picnic break to explore the local flora and its magical names: chêne kermès, figuier de Barbarie, griffes de sorcières… It was a great way to work on specific French vocabulary and get an insight into the threats to the area: fire, drought, extinction etc.
Then all of a sudden, from the top of the hill we could see the calanque’s glittering water. After a dip to cool off, it was time to head back…

Château d’If, from a distance

We never get bored of the sea! The third day of our language stay in Marseille saw us set sail to the Frioul archipelago. The schedule included a stop at Château d’If standing on a rock. Unfortunately, the Mediterranean Sea’s swell didn’t let us dock so we listened to the story that made this place a legend: the Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. 

The royal fortress was built by King François I in the 16th century and was a state prison for over 300 years. This magical yet imposing historical landmark really inspired my French students. A few months before, we studied the legend of Monte Cristo in class, read part of the novel and did a creative writing contest based on the character. What if Edmond Dantès had an accomplice in Château d’If? 

That day in Marseille, the sea sealed our fate: we didn’t get to visit Château d’If and we reached the Frioul archipelago half-drowned by the splashing waves!

French treasure hunt on the Frioul archipelago

There’s nothing better than a treasure hunt to learn French through play. We planned a treasure hunt on Ratonneau, the main island in the archipelago, to explore the unspoilt setting full of rocks, sandy coves and crystal-clear water. The students had to answer a questionnaire in a set amount of time and gather information from locals (mainly shops) or use their sense of observation. No smartphones were allowed for this team activity so the students had to think and speak in French. The agency designed a treasure hunt that introduced them to the fascinating history of the Frioul archipelago: military adventures, quarantine site for foreign boats during the Great Plague, “Hôpital Caroline”, Ratonneau Fort and more. The students who got the right answers were allowed the first swim in the calanques! 

Exploring Cosquer Cave: the highlight of our Marseille language stay!

Our French students fell in love with Cosquer Cave, an underwater prehistoric cave (the original is protected so you can only visit the replica). It’s an otherworldly place. The story of when the cave was discovered is as unique and magical as the site itself. A passionate diver called Henri Cosquer was exploring the Marseille shores when he stumbled upon the underwater cave in 1985 and its cave art a few years later! Mankind visited the cave 33,000 years ago… The replica of the cave and its art is open to small groups at a “submarine base” 3 floors under the sea. The students loved the incredibly realistic dive into prehistory. 

Marseille, cinema city

Our students had already visited Marseille before coming here! Some of them had watched Stillwater, an American film from 2021 starring Matt Damon and Camille Cottin, shot entirely in Marseille’s streets and calanques.

Le Panier is a popular film location and we explored the neighbourhood’s sun-drenched and colourful lanes lined with artisans and bustling eateries. The guide told us that the district is where a famous soap opera is filmed and broadcast around the world in several languages: Plus Belle la Vie. Next, we visited the Belle de Mai Media Centre to tour the series’ film studios where everyday scenes are recreated from the famous Le Panier area. 

Experiencing Marseille food and drink at the Vieux Port!

No language stay in Marseille would be complete with some good food and Provençal classics. Apparently, it’s easier to learn French on a full stomach. We started with a dish whose name is very hard for foreigners to pronounce: bouillabaisse. We dived into the recipe with a trip to the Vieux Port in the morning as the fishing boats came in, to see which fish go into the local concoction. Our young foodies weren’t too fond of scorpion fish, but they did like chatting with the shop owners and gazing at the pretty boats… 

Pistou soup was far more popular at dinner time! The basil flavours made our palates sing, or “faire chanter les papilles” as the locals say! Last but not least, we tucked into navettes, crispy little boat-shaped biscuits scented with orange blossom. The shelves in the Les Navettes des Accoules shop in Le Panier were left bare!

A Marseille urban legend… 

Did you know that a long time ago, a giant sardine blocked the Vieux Port in Marseille so ships couldn’t sail into the port. No matter what they did, the sailors couldn’t move it! The giant sardine refused to budge. 

A little boy came up with the solution: he used a small mullet as bait to attract the giant sardine away from the port. He did it! The diversion tactic worked and the port was open again. This quirky little story says it all about Marseille’s storytelling legacy and the unbreakable bond between the city and the sea.

A language stay in Marseille means soaking up French culture and its bond with the sea. History (and prehistory), heritage, architecture, scenery, food and drink all rooted in the Mediterranean. Our week of morning French lessons and afternoon outings improved the entire group’s culture and personal development. A true blue adventure where the students got to chat with Marseille students, despite a few challenges understanding the sing-song Provençal accent!

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