Two French Cities, Neither of Them Paris. Which One to Love?

Our columnist, Sebastian Modak, is visiting each destination on our 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. He arrived in France from Germany, where he visited Munich and Dessau in search of culture and history.

It’s 7 p.m. in Lyon and the banks of the Rhône are buzzing. Barges converted into bars are full of university students celebrating their first night of the semester, all of them exuding a nervous “new kid” energy. When the sun eventually sets, the city lights up: the many bridges look like they’re wrapped in glowsticks and the stoic beige and maroon buildings along the water are bottom-lit by a warm incandescent wash. High above the city, visible from virtually anywhere, is the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, its gleaming white facade turned yellow by spotlights. It’s as if the entire city is one big museum, carefully curated and expertly lit to encourage awe.

It’s 7 p.m. a week later and almost 200 miles away, in Marseille. In the main plaza of the Cours Julien neighborhood, groups of friends of all ages and ethnicities are gathered around the rusty picnic tables that fill the space outside microbreweries, dive bars and cafes. A couple sits next to the central fountain, sharing a bottle of pastis poured into paper cups and diluted with water, while listening to hip-hop blaring from a portable speaker. On the opposite side of the plaza and down a few of the painted steps that lead into the Opéra neighborhood, two Senegalese friends are jamming, one on a guitar, the other on a djembe that’s been wrapped in streamers of brightly colored silk. Two of their friends watch, passing a fragrant spliff back and forth between them. Street art covers every inch of wall that’s reachable with a ladder, and most of the walls that are not.

If Lyon is a thoroughbred, a crowd-favorite racehorse, then Marseille is the scrappy long shot who sneaks into the track and steals the race. Experiencing both places back to back felt like crossing continents, and it was proof that you can have an unforgettable trip to a French city without ever stepping foot in Paris.

First, a confession: I spent five days in Lyon, a major destination for lovers of arts and culture, during which I barely stepped foot in a major museum. My defense? The weather was too good and there was far too much to eat.

Lyon’s gastronomy is world-famous and one of the things that put it on this year’s 52 Places list. Though I missed the International City of Gastronomy, an expansive celebration of all things food which opens this month in the 12th-century Grand Hôtel-Dieu, there was plenty else to eat. Lyon is home to more than 4,000 restaurants, most of which eschew trends in favor of hearty, traditional fare the way grand-Maman used to do it.

The beating heart of the food scene is the bouchon. Dimly lit and appointed in furniture you’d find in a countryside tavern, each bouchon is a time portal back to the seventeenth century when silk workers would stop in for wine poured straight from the barrel and dishes that could satiate those who had to skip lunch.

Little has changed since then, including the menus, which don’t shy away from the icky-delicious bits: tripe, liver and sausages made from pork intestines. But what you’re really going for is the atmosphere, each bouchon — even the touristy ones that pack the narrow cobblestone streets of Vieux Lyon, the Old Quarter — feels like its own secret speakeasy. Every diner, trading jokes with the always-just-a-little-sardonic waitstaff, looks like a regular, even when they don’t understand the menu.

My first bouchon experience was elevated by my company. I met Stéphane, a Lyonnais man, eight months ago on a beach in Panama. In the red-walled confines of Les Fines Gueules we reminisced about the ice-cold Balboa beers and whole grilled fish we’d shared halfway around the world, while marveling at the fact that here we were, reunited, while sharing red wine poured from an unmarked bottle.

And then my main course arrived — I had opted for one of Lyon’s specialties, quenelle de brochet. Its description was a little baffling: a dumpling-like concoction of creamed pike fish made semisolid with an egg-based binding agent. But curiosity got the better of me, and the reality was nothing short of a religious experience. The piping hot oblong mound had the consistency of a delicate souffle and any fishiness was subtle and comforting. After every bite I looked up to Stéphane with a “is this for real?” look on my face. He seemed miraculously unfazed.

  • The Lyon City Card, an all-access pass that gives you free admission to museums, public transit, activities and tours is a very good deal. Available in one-to-four-day versions, even if you only use it occasionally, you’ll be saving a lot of money.

  • For an old-school brasserie experience try Brasserie Georges, the oldest brasserie in the city and one of the oldest in Europe. Go for the veal liver — trust me. Elsewhere, make a lunch stop at Les Halles Lyon-Paul Bocuse, named in honor of the city’s gastronomic godfather. Come to the indoor food market hungry and spend a few hours grazing its stalls which sell fresh oysters from across the country and an infinite variety of sausages and cold cuts.

While Lyon’s three-course set menus of meats cooked in vats of butter and dripping with fat can make even the most seasoned eater crave a nap, I found a better solution was to walk — and walk and walk. The Old Quarter and Croix-Rousse neighborhoods are full of traboules, secret, covered passageways that were used by silk traders to transport goods in inclement weather and as shortcuts across town. Handy online guides are available, but it’s far more exciting to stumble upon them on your own, and follow them as they wind through tiny courtyards and storehouses. More than once, I put the phone away and walked for 30-minute stretches with no destination in mind, taking arbitrary turns until, somehow, I ended up on the banks of the Saône.

The stately apartments that line Lyon’s two rivers; the way the light dances across the cobblestones of Vieux Lyon in the hour before sunset; the vegetable stalls that line the sidewalks of the third arrondissement: Lyon looks like the history picture books I’d pore over as a child. The city’s greatest appeal is its beauty, as if its founders knew that they struck gold with its location at the confluence of two slow-moving rivers and just a day-trip away from the Alps.

On my last day, I tied my shoelaces tight and hiked up the steep streets that lead to the city’s crown jewel, the monumental Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière. On the way I passed the ruins of ancient Lugdunum, the Roman administrative center of conquered Gaul. From the amphitheater that opens out into a panoramic view of the city, I continued upward. Built in the 19th century, the Basilica is devoted to the Virgin Mary, who devotees credit with saving the city from the bubonic plague, driving away invaders during the Franco-Prussian War and Lyon’s continued existence. Its interior is covered in golden trimmings and intricate mosaics devoted to her. I joined a guided tour, the only way to access the basilica’s back rooms and towers, which ended on the roof. I looked out onto the city below both rivers visible dividing the densely packed brown roofs and pastel facades; an oxidized copper statue of the archangel St. Michael holding a downward-facing spear dominated the foreground. From here, the city looked less like a home to more than 500,000 people and more like one of the meticulously crafted miniatures I had seen at the Museum of Miniatures and Cinema, the one museum I did visit during a brief rain shower. “Paris who?” I almost said out loud.

“Marseille feels like an always temporary city, a city in progress, that has been that way for hundreds of years,” François Thomazeau, a Marseille-based journalist-turned-novelist said, as we sat on a balcony overlooking the Old Port.

Mr. Thomazeau’s noir novels take inspiration from the city’s perpetual state of transition and the dark undercurrents — a powerful mafia, municipal corruption, crooked cops and petty thieves — that have given the city a less-than-stellar reputation.

When I told people in Lyon that I was heading to Marseille, they reacted by suggesting I watch my back at all times and avoid walking at night. While some of that is informed by statistics — there are neighborhoods in Marseille, like in any major city, that are best avoided if you don’t know where you’re going — a lot of it is based on (surprise!) a fear of the unknown. Strategically located as a gateway to the Mediterranean and North Africa, Marseille is a city of immigrants.

Italians, Spaniards, Russians, Algerians, Syrians, Latin Americans and more have all at some point or another moved to the city in droves, changing it in the process. Every Marseillais I spoke to said the city was better for it, even as recent anti-immigration movements in the country blame gang violence on diversity.

“Marseille isn’t pretty like Lyon or Paris,” Mr. Thomazeau said. “But because it’s not pretty, there’s a certain type of tourist who loves it.”

Turns out, I’m exactly that type of tourist. Perhaps it’s because of the stops that led up to my visit — picture-perfect Lyon and Munich, the sparkling architecture of Dessau and pristine hiking trails of Orcas Island — but Marseille had the chaotic energy I didn’t know I needed. I loved stopping at the ubiquitous hole-in-the-wall pizza shops, where the Neapolitan owners barely spoke French and at restaurants like Nour d’Egypte, where I dug into spreads of falafel and pulverized vegetables for next to nothing.

I spent hours going in circles in the neighborhood of Noailles, where people from across Africa and the Middle East trade and chat all day long. Algerian and Moroccan men in fake designer T-shirts loudly hawked black market cigarettes out of fanny packs; a Mauritanian woman asked me to follow her to her textile shop; side by side, people from across the world, spanning religions and socio-economic backgrounds, looked over the catch of the day at the fish stalls, and filled their bags with the same vegetables for very different meals. That energy was one of the reasons Marseille made the 52 Places list this year.

Wandering away from the neighborhood, I had one of the best bowls of Vietnamese bun thit nuong — charbroiled pork over rice-vermicelli noodles — I’ve ever had at the unassuming Nguyen-Hoang, on a decidedly unscenic street corner.

“How did you find us?” one of the family members who run it incredulously asked me at the end of my meal. (Thanks, Instagram follower!)

  • For the best view in the city, hike up to the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde to soak in Marseille’s vast sprawl. If you can’t make the steep climb by foot, there’s a “petit train” that leaves from the Old Port. Avoid weekends and cruise ship days when the crowds can get thick.

  • Bouillabaisse is a hearty seafood stew that’s famous in the city. Today, it’s a major tourist attraction and you should expect to pay upward of 70 euros for the pleasure of eating it. If you are going to give it a shot at one of the many seafood restaurants in the Old Port or out in Les Goudes, call ahead to make a reservation: many places require a 24-hour heads up.

It’s never quiet in Marseille — on one night, I watched a 10-minute-long fireworks display out my Airbnb window and still have no idea what the celebration was for. But I found the noise of the city comforting. It’s a city where tourists aren’t the focus and, as a tourist, it can feel good to feel like you’re somewhere with its own sense of purpose.

That’s not to say there isn’t beauty of the more conventional kind, to be found in and around Marseille. Le Panier, a neighborhood of gently sloping streets that cut between brightly colored buildings housing art galleries and clothing boutiques, feels far removed from the chaos of the rest of the city. And a short day trip away is the Calanques National Park, where steep, limestone inlets extend into the Mediterranean like fingers. Hiking trails cut between and through them ending in precipitous drops into the bright azure of the Mediterranean. There’s Cassis, a fishing town that wouldn’t be out of place on the Italian Riviera, with pastel-colored apartments lining the pier. Even within Marseille’s city limits there are anomalies, like Les Goudes, a fishing village just a short drive from the city center, where seafood restaurants leave their windows open over the quiet harbor.

But after a few hours in the quiet of the Calanques or having an unrushed meal of bouillabaisse, in Les Goudes, I found myself craving more of the excitement and uncertainty of Marseille proper. It’s a chaos that’s as addictive as it is endearing and when Mr. Thomazeau explained his complicated relationship with the city, I understood what he meant.

“Marseille is like a family member,” he said. “I’m allowed to complain about it all I want, but as soon as someone else does, I’ll be the first to defend it.”

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