Sunshine and chic culture, but rambunctiousness still remains
Marseille is going straight – cultured, even. New museums and galleries sprout. Trendy restaurants and bars abound. Hotel openings bang into one another. The 21st-century city is recapturing the trading grandeur of the 19th century. It’s got a sophisticated swagger as it aspires to regain world city status.
Yet it remains Marseille, where the staring sun casts shadows enough for skulduggery. There’s an edge to the place – which is precisely why you should go. If you wanted just museums and hip restaurants, you could go anywhere because everywhere has them. You travel to Marseille for the new-found culture, certainly, but also for the brawling beat of a big port city, picaresque and seductive for the last 2,600 years. For the music, the bombast and football, the Med roots and 50 shades of humanity living life loud. Marseille changes continually but remains its boisterous self; the most overwhelming city in France.
Hot right now . . .
Anthony Peregrine, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the best places to eat, stay and drink this season.
CopperBay has arrived in Marseille, on the back of success in Paris, at 36 Boulevard Notre-Dame. It has a sort of maritime seam running through it and, in Monkey in the Yard, a cocktail mixing whisky, bergamot and raspberry.
Maison Montgrand (35 Rue Montgrand; 00 33 491 03520) is a dignified townhouse adapted for the exacting 21st-century guest. It’s splendidly located in a quieter residential street of the city centre. Quiet and handy for everything: the best of both worlds. The gardens are a lovely surprise.
On the Old Port, Une Table du Sud (2 Quai du Port; 00 33 491 216203) has bagged a Michelin star for the cooking of Ludovic Turac, not yet out of his twenties. You'll find many fishy Med dishes – grand aioli; bouillabaisse – but re-worked through the prodigious imagination of young Mr Turac. Turac bounded to prominence on French television’s Top Chef. A four-course dinner costs €58 (£52).
48 hours in . . . Marseille
Start your morning at the Vieux Port, or 'Old Port', the city's focal point for 2,600 years. Commercial shipping went round the corner decades ago, so the VP now bobs with pleasure craft, and a few small fishing boats that deliver their daily catch to fishwives on the Quai de la Fraternité. Early morning, they’ll be beheading sea bream – under the vast, reflective stainless steel awning designed by Norman Foster for the quay.
Now take the hop-on, hop-off Colorbüs(which begins at Vieux Port), an effortless way of getting around some of Marseille’s greatest hits. Hop off at Vallon des Auffes, an unlikely fishing village entirely engulfed by the city.
Hop on again for the long pull up to Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica (Rue Fort du Sanctuaire), topped by a golden Madonna and Child. Note the ex-votos, the crypt and the extraordinary views over city and sea, then eat at the basilica’s on-site restaurant, L’Eau Vive (00 33 491 37 8662), which is run by nuns and serves simple grills and French classics such as supreme of guinea fowl and rack of lamb in garlic cream. Its three-course menu of the day is €13 (£12).
After lunch take the bus to the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM) (7 Promenade Robert Laffont; 00 33 04 84 35 1313). It’s new, right by the water and appears to be wearing a mantilla. Inside you'll find challenging coverage of Euro-Med cultural themes, taking in art, industry, agriculture, politics and more.
Trot across, past the cathedral and up into thePanier district, where Marseille was founded by incoming Greeks. Subsequently, its steep streets and suspect stairways filled up with huddled masses and hoodlums. It’s now gone bourgeois, or so they say. But there’s still a whiff of roguery about the place.
I usually intend to visit the museums of the Vieille Charité – the classically-designed ex-workhouse – but get ambushed by the Bar des 13 Coins(45 Rue Sainte-Françoise; 00 33 4 9191 5649). The huge terrace was HQ to Jean-Claude Izzo, poet and crime writer, than whom no one ever wrote better about Marseille.
Take an aperitif up above the St Victor abbey over the Vieux Port – at, say, theCafé de l’Abbaye (3 Rue d'Endoume; 00 33 4 91 66 8757) where smart young professionals spill out onto the pavement.
Have dinner nearby at L’Aromat (49 Rue Sainte; 00 33 491 550906), the city-centre HQ of one of Marseille’s brightest young talents. Chef Sylvain Robert has an enviable reputation for his contemporary take on Mediterranean cooking. Try the squid ravioli with tomato, chard and tapenade, or the celebrated hamburger de bouillabaisse.
Later,Le Trolleybus(24 Quai Neuve; 00 33 491 543045) – in former arsenal premises across the port – is made up of three different spaces offering different ways of dancing till dawn.
Onto La Canebière, Marseille’s monumental main drag running back from the Vieux Port and now regaining the imperial grandeur first established during the port’s trading heyday. Sheer off towards the all-day Capucin market(5 Rue du Marché des Capucins), and associated souk zone of open-fronted spice emporia, stalls, rai music, bazaars, halal butchers and hole-in-the-wall cafés. All nations are here and trying to get a word in edgeways.
Pause for coffee, mint tea or a snack lunch – salad, omelette, sandwich - at the Café Prinder (1 Place Marché du Capucins; 00 33 491 54 0515). It’s the oldest in Marseille, in the same Italian family since 1925, and the meeting place for local tradespeople.
Returning to the Vieux Port, pause at Maison Empereur(4 Rue des Récolettes; 00 33 4 91 54 0229), the most venerable hardware store in France, dating back to 1827. It’s a sort of Aladdin’s cave of a shop of the sort we all thought had died out in our grandparents’ day – selling pretty much everything you need for the house, the garden or anywhere else in your life. There’s so much to see, you’ll struggle to be out before closing time.
Now, to boat: from the port, take the Frioul-If-Express to the isles. In 20 minutes you’re at If, almost entirely covered by the château-prison in which the future Count of Monte Cristo was gaolled. You’ll be shown his cell, but maybe not reminded that he was, in fact, fictional. The Frioul isles are 20 minutes further on and offer more rewarding, affording cliffs, creeks and beaches for stirring strolls. The views back to Marseille are outstanding.
You mustn’t leave Marseille without tackling bouillabaisse, the feisty maul of sea-creatures expressing the city’s turbulent spirit in fish stew form. It should come in two servings: first the broth, then the scrum of four to six different fish. Try it by the Vieux Port at Chez Madie Les Galinettes (€45 [£40]; 138 Quai du Port; 00 33 491 90 4087).
Not far away,La Caravelle (34 Quai du Port; 00 33 491 903664) on the first floor of the Hotel Belle-Vue has been a jazz bar since the inter-war years. There’s live music on Wednesdays and Fridays, October through May.
Where to stay . . .
Centuries of history get a creative modern makeover in one of Marseille's most beautiful landmarks, a palatial 18th-century hospital exquisitely restored to the Intercontinental Marseille Hotel Dieu. Check out the bar-brasserie; it's one of the best in town.
Doubles from €220 (£192). 1 Place Daviel; 00 33 413 424242
Step straight from the crowds and bustle of central Marseille into Hotel la Résidence du Vieux Port, a warm, colourful sanctuary with fabulous views of the harbour and top transport connections. This four-star, family-owned hotel belies its stark exterior to offer a boutique, welcoming, slightly quirky experience.
Double rooms from €160 (£141). 18 Quai Du Port; 00 33 491 919122
The Marseille member of the fast-growing Mama Shelter clan rocks this mini-chain’s popular formula of low(-ish) prices and light-hearted, high-concept urban chic. Zesty public areas and minimalist bedrooms combine to offer a pleasurable cocooning experience in an outlying district of the city.
Doubles from €71 (£63). 64 Rue de la Loubière; 00 33 484 352000
What to bring home . . .
Marseille runs on pastis at the aperitif hour and, indeed, most other hours too. Rather than the big, famous brands, try the herbier Henri Bardouin from theMaison du Pastis(108 Quai du Port; 00 33 491 908677).
The soap of Marseille has been known for centuries as useful for those who are allergic to other soaps – and equally wonderful for de-staining and washing clothes. Get the soap and learn its story at theMusée du Savon de Marseille (1 Rue Henri Fiocca; 00 33 972 545109).
When to go . . .
Marseille is an anytime destination. As France’s second city, it never shuts. In winter, the weather may be mild enough for shirtsleeves and lunch on a terrace. Spring and autumn are generally perfect for further outdoor moments – say, walking along the glorious Calanques (limestone creeks). Meanwhile, summer in the city might involve the south-side beaches followed by an al fresco evening until whatever hour you deem is bedtime.
Know before you go . . .
British Consulate in Marseille: (00 33 491 157210; gov.uk), Les Docks de Marseille, Atrium 10.3, 1er Etage/1st Floor, 13002 Marseille. Open Mon, Wed, Fri, 9.30am-12h30
British Embassy, Paris: 00 33 144 513100
Emergency services: Dial 112
Marseilles Tourist Office: (00 33 826 500500; marseille-tourisme.com), 4 La Canebière
Local laws and etiquette
French law requires that you always have personal ID about your person, so keep your passport on you.
If driving, you must have a fluorescent yellow bib in the car. It’s to be put on should you break down on a busy road and need to be visible to other motorists – and it’s a legal requirement.
When introduced to someone, shake him or her by the hand. All that cheek-kissing comes a little later.
Note that, when offered something (a fill-up of your wine glass, more bread, a minor treat), simply saying “Merci” indicates refusal. If you want more, say: “Oui, s’il vous plait.”
Round-the-clock snacking is far less common in France than in the UK – as is eating or drinking in the street. French practices are loosening, but you’re still unlikely to draw admiring glances if you’re walking along at 4pm with pizza in one hand, a can of beer in the other.
Telephone code: Dial 00 33 491 for Marseille numbers from abroad, 0491 from inside France
Time difference: +1 hour
Flight time: London to Marseille is about two hours
Anthony has several decades' experience of Marseille: he’s seen it open to the 21st century – contemporary museums, fast trains, the chic blast of smart hotels and restaurants – while retaining its boisterous essence.
Experience Marseille with The Telegraph
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