Festivities are finished. Your head is heavy and your purse is spent. As you chuck your last oystershell into the bin its whiff of iodine catches you, and suddenly you yearn for sea breezes to blow away all those post-Christmas cobwebs.
Clinging to its mountainous north-western perimeter, the little seaside village of l’Estaque opens the backdoor to Marseille. This once-famous spot has known better days, and Cézanne’s “reds roofs on a blue sea” now mingle with flats, factories and Marseille’s wholesale fish market. But it’s still easy to spot the charm of its position, the seaside follies, and the tiny passages and steep steps that once seduced Renoir, Braque and Dufy, inspiring the beginning of the Cubist movement. And the fact that it isn’t as pretty as Cassis, or as unspoiled as Niolon, means that it is nowadays off the tourist map, and therefore a relatively well-kept secret.
Strolling along the port and fishing harbour in the watery January sunshine soon works up an appetite, and by 1230h the many eateries are filling up with diners hungry for the freshest seafood in the region. While businessmen are clinking glasses with clients at the chic but somewhat soulless “Poisson qui Marche” in the docks, the real action is going on further down the front, along the Plage de l’Estaque. L’Hippocampe, at the far end, is heaving with jovial customers tucking into pizzas, grills and good-value seafood à la Carte. This is a simple neighbourhood eating emporium, jolly and bustling - big windowed salons in winter, terrasses in summer — right on the water’s edge.
If you can’t squeeze in there hurry back up the road and grab one of the squashed-together tables on the sheltered balcony upstairs at La Rade, before it is mobbed by local fans of this buzzing bistro. No haute cuisine here — but the €10.50 menu gives you a huge choice of honest, satisfying dishes - 1/4 l wine thrown in — typical of this unpretentious village.
And there’s even a treat for those of you whose plastic is still pliable — at the Restaurant C.A.M. Surrounded by clinking sailboat masts at the end of a small pier in the middle of the port, its art-déco-just-manqué room is comfortable, and the service is almost as smart as the food emanating from the kitchen - greeted by contented, admiring clucks from well-heeled customers. Oysters (massive) and oursins (huge) abound amongst the 13 starters. And the imaginative main courses contain absolutely top quality fresh fish (I’d especially recommend the excellent Baudroie on steamed Chinese vegetables — at €25, the average price for plats), and they serve a couple of game dishes for those with less piscatorial tastes.
Believe me, after the excesses of Christmas, L’Estaque is a real breath of fresh air.