Legendary Hollywood hardman Gene Hackman may have won an Oscar for The French Connection – a Marseille-based thriller that portrayed the murkier aspects of life – but his success certainly didn’t help the coastal city’s image. Its gritty, unsavoury reputation always made it Provence’s poor relation of Riviera role models like Nice, Cannes and St Tropez; writes Kevin McIndoe.
Happily, over the past 10 years or so, the municipality of France’s second- largest city has rolled up its sleeves with a gusto that wouldn’t have gone amiss among its marauding mariners of yesteryear.
Buildings have been sandblasted, poor areas spruced up, museums renovated, and expensive yachts now jockey for position in the revamped but still venerable Le Vieux-Port (Old Port) marina.
Marseille was voted European Capital of Culture 2013, and it’s one of the few cities that can combine the myriad delights of urban living with a trip to the beach.
It’s not Paris, but its cultural treasures are not too shabby either. It’s France’s most multicultural city; an amalgam of the Mediterranean’s rich heritage tinged with North African influences. This is a city with a pulse.
My favourite place- Le Vieux-Port (Old Port). Its pontoons are packed with fishing boats, yachts and motor launches of every size and income bracket. As well as enjoying an eclectic range of market stalls and cafes, visitors can sample the same fish stalls that chefs of local restaurants use to peruse the day’s best catches. The restaurants here vie to bring you the best bouillabaisse (a classic seafood soup) you will ever taste. From here you can take a ferry boat from one end of the port to the other. Or take a trip to the Calanques – a collection of inlets framed by craggy clifftops and stretches of white sand. Of course, the Bay of Marseille is an archipelago made up of four islands, and boat trips are available. The nearest is just a couple of miles away from the Old Port. Here, you will find the city’s fortress prison, the Chateau D’If, which kept Dumas’s anti-hero the Count of Monte Cristo cooped up for 14 years. You can explore the ancient stone fortress for an idea of how horrendous it must have been for its hapless inmates.
Highlights- Sitting atop Marseille is the majestic Notre Dame de la Garde. Built in 1864 on the foundations of an ancient fort, it’s a neo-Byzantine church that commandeers the highest point in the city, and offers some pretty impressive views. It’s a must-see on your itinerary and there’s a little model train that will take you there if you can’t quite make it on foot. In a city that is the oldest in France (more than 2,500 years old), you’d expect the museums to cut the mustard. And they do, in spades. The Natural History Museum, the History of Marseille Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Modern Museum of Culture all mean you will be spoilt for choice when you choose your “Museum Day”. For those who prefer stately homes, the Musee Grobet-Labadie houses the art collection, musical instruments, furniture and tapestries of the prominent 19th century businessman Louis Grobet.
About five minutes’ walk from the Marseille Cathedral, which is well worth a look, in Le Vieux-Port area you will find a heavenly little café that’s the perfect place for a cuppa when all this tourism malarkey makes you a bit parched. It’s a bit galling for British visitors when they realise that the French can actually make tea as well as (or better than) they can but that’s exactly what Cup Of Tea (1 Rue Casserie) offers: more than 55 varieties of tea, a patisserie loaded with pastries, tarts and gateaux as well as bookcases groaning with Baudelaire and Balzac, among others, for you to read while you take the weight off your feet on one of their sofas. Whether or not you put your milk in first is up to you. Marseille is also a great base from which to explore the more compact but very congenial cities of Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Arles. Each is easily accessible by bus or train and provides the perfect opportunity for a culture rush for visitors. If you fancy a bit of a jaunt to the seaside but would prefer something more family friendly, take the train to Carry le Rouet. It’s a charming little port town about 30km west of Marseille that is famous for its sea urchin season, as well as other shellfish, while one famous habitue was the legendary singer Nina Simone.
Lowlights- Big city “rules” apply here more than in other cities in France. Watch your wallet, and don’t spend too much time hanging around or outside Marseille Saint Charles railway station. Don’t travel on buses at night unless you are in a large group. Also, the French authorities insist you carry a form of ID on you at all times.
Souvenirs- Sadly, Le Canabiere, which was once the city’s answer to the Champs Elysees, is looking a little careworn these days but it is where you’ll find the scruffy, cut-price outlets or funky, quirky boutiques. Les Terrasses Du Port, a high-end shopping mall right on the waterfront, is where the serious shopping action is.
Getting there- One option would be to take a Turkish Airlines flight from Muscat to Istanbul, and transfer from there.
Where to stay- As in most European cities, the choice can range from top five-star hotels to delightful, reasonably priced (and often very well-located) little guest houses. Check out the usual sites: Booking.com, Trivago or Hotels.com to get an idea.
1. Stroll round Le Vieux Port, and watch the fish traders at work
2. Take a boat trip to the Calanques
3. Relax or play volleyball on one of the city’s many beaches
4. Take the little model train to the Notre Dame de la Garde for panoramic views over the city
5. Have some bouillabaisse at one of many fine restaurants