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Of all the places I’ve dived in, few offered the possibility of gathering a vibrant city life with scuba diving adventures. This place happens to be in my homeland, in France, in the second largest town in the country: Marseille. This is why in my first years as a scuba diver I quickly went diving in Marseille. It was the first time for me to go diving in France. For years now, I have been going back there regularly due to the beauty of the dive sites of the Calanques National Park and how accessible the harbour of “Pointe Rouge” is from the city centre of Marseille.
Marseille, a seaside city with a vibrant Mediterranean culture
In 2013, Marseille was chosen to be the European capital of the culture. The capital of the culture in Europe is a program that exists since 1985. For one year, a city is designated by the European Union for the organisation of a series of cultural events emphasising on the richness of European cultures. The underlying goal is to foster urban regeneration, change the city’s image and raise its visibility on an international scale.
The impact on this city has been tremendous! Special events, concert, art exhibition and even just walking around is fantastic thanks to all the art pieces distributed all over the city. Since 2012, we are assisting at the total rebirth of this city which exists since Antiquity. The Old Port offers now a fantastic promenade with a mirror sunshade, the Ombrière.
A walking tour of the scenic Panier district (on the right side of the Old Port when looking at the sea) is also really charming if you want to wander around, taste some delicious navettes (orange blossom biscuits) or buy some traditional Marseille soap.
By walking a little further you can visit the newly built MUCEM (National Museum of Mediterranean cultures) and it has an amazing black concrete lace style architecture. Although very modern, the light effects created by this audacious architecture quickly turned it into a must-see spot in Marseille. The view from its roof terrace is fantastic, so don’t hesitate to relax there while sipping on a drink.
The old landmarks of the city such as Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde Basilica offer great sights as well. Ideally located on the highest point of the city, the view is breathtaking: 360° on the town and the Frioul Islands.
Exploring the Calanques National Park from Marseille
The Calanques National Park is the most recent of the French national parks including a marine protected area. It was created in 2012. It goes from the south of Marseille to La Ciotat including Cassis. The picture above was taken from “Route des Crêtes“, a road with great viewpoints on the heights of Cassis.
If hiking in the Calanques from Marseille or from Cassis for a swim in the famous Calanque d’En-Vau is part of your plans, note that due to the risk of fire, access is often prohibited in July and August. Therefore the period of May-June or September-October will be a much better choice.
Let us hope that the protection from the national park will soon have the same positive impact as for the Port-Cros National Park created in 1962. Just to make myself clear, it doesn’t mean that there is nothing to see today, quite the contrary. It will just get better and better as the years go by.
Most scuba diving boats leave from the Pointe-Rouge harbour, only 20 minutes by bus from the “Place de Castellane” in the centre of Marseille. After leaving the harbour, the boats head south to enter the National Park area, passing the Goudes Village and the strait formed by Maïre Isle, to finally head towards the Riou Islands.
Best diving in Marseille
Marseille is a fantastic scuba diving destination, little known outside of France as the few foreign scuba divers coming to France are usually keener on going to the French Riviera.
The best dive spots are mainly located all around the Riou Islands, in the heart of the Calanques National Park. The playground for scuba divers includes tunnels, caverns, canyons, and walls covered in yellow and red gorgonians. The colours of the walls have nothing to be ashamed compared to some coral reefs.
The colours of the drop-offs have nothing to envy to some tropical coral reefs. Nevertheless, you will need a good quality dive light to appreciate all the nuances. Without lighting, all the gorgonians that you see red in these photos will appear dark blue in the natural light of the depths.
There is an abundant array of marine species: Inspect every hole and crack in the walls and you will be very likely to see moray eels, groupers and octopus. The latter are shy and usually hides below rocks.
If it’s usually to have large schools of seabreams to “fly” all around you, you will need to be lucky to meet sun-fish (usually in June).
Nubdibranchs lovers will be pleased, you can find many of them including dotted sea slugs and pink flabellinas.
Since 2010, I went diving many times in Marseille and these are my most memorable dives so far:
- L’Imperial du Large: max depth 40 m, beginners divers usually go to the Imperial de Terre or Imperial du Milieu for shallower depths
- La Grotte à Perez: max depth 40 m but the entrance of the cave is at 20 m
- La Pointe de Caramassaigne: max depth 40 m, my favourite dive in Marseille
- Le Chaouen: a shipwreck from 1961, from 6 m to 36 m deep
- Le Liban: a shipwreck from 1882, from 28 m to 36 m deep
The choice and the maximum depth of each dive is of course to be adapted according to the divers’s level of experience. If there are a few dive sites for beginners, due to the depth of the most beautiful sites, Marseille is a destination that is best appreciated when you are more experienced.
When is the best time to go diving in Marseille?
Even if the water temperature can be cooler than on the French Riviera due to the currents going in the direction of Marseille, the best period for scuba diving is from June to October with a water temperature of 14°C at the beginning of the season to 24°C in the middle of the summer.
I recommend taking a 7 mm full suit with a hood to feel comfortable underwater, especially at the beginning of the season. But it seems the cooler, the better. I once got some extraordinary 26°C, but the visibility was lower. When the water is around 18°C, you can get some excellent conditions with visibility up to 25 m!
How to go to Marseille and travel around?
The best way to get to Marseille is with the TGV high-speed train. It arrives in the heart of the city at the Marseille-St-Charles train station and its breathtaking view in only 3 hours from Paris. For information, Marseille Airport is located in Marignane more than 25 km northwest from the centre of Marseille.
Although a shuttle bus connects the airport to the St Charles train station in 45 minutes, I advise you not to take the plane to avoid wasting too much time. Furthermore, if you are going there only for the weekend, from Paris for example, you will be able to dive on both Saturday and Sunday by taking the train instead of the plane.
To travel around Marseille, a rental car is useless. Marseille has 2 metro lines and a good bus network. I recommend you to buy a rechargeable 10 ride-card when you arrive at the train station.
Where to stay in Marseille?
There is no lack of choice regarding places to stay in Marseille, whether in terms of hotels or guesthouses or in terms of pleasant neighbourhoods. On the other hand, Marseille is a large city and the harbour of Pointe Rouge, from where most scuba diving centres are, is located 10 km south from the Old Port.
I, therefore, recommend that you choose a place between Place de la Castellane and the south of the city. The bus 19 which leaves in the direction of the Goudes Village stops at the Prado beach and the Pointe Rouge Harbour. You will save a lot of transportation time this way.
The Prado Avenue is a good spot to find a hotel. Once, I had the opportunity to stay at Novotel Centre Prado Vélodrome: it doesn’t have the charm of an independent hotel but was modern and comfortable while being reasonably priced and located halfway between Marseille Centre and Pointe Rouge Harbour. For a smaller boutique hotel in the immediate vicinity of the Pointe Rouge harbour, the Mistral Hotel is an excellent choice.
For those who like being independent, a friend of mine rents a cute studio between the Notre-Dame Basilica and the Place de Castellane for less than 50€ per night on Airbnb. With its walk-in shower and washing machine, it has all the comfort divers need when visiting Marseille.
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