France’s second city is a European Capital of Culture in 2013 – making this year the one to explore its old centre, regenerated districts and the wild coast beyond, says Philip Sweeney
If you want an urban antidote to ‘Gay Paree’, look no further than Marseille. France’s second city spurns chocolate-box romance, but exercises a salty attraction entirely its own. When you mention Marseille to people who don’t know it, the reaction is often mild horror, due in part to its headline-grabbing drug murders. But you can reassure them: like Naples, which has a similar image problem, it’s a terrific city, perfect for a long weekend in the sun.
It’s also complex: you have to work at Marseille a bit. Even on arrival, it doesn’t fall over itself to greet you, though the arrival is always dramatic.
The last couple of times I arrived by train. The grand 1848-built Saint Charles station is as impressive a monument as anything in the city, with its magnificent esplanade and stairway, bordered by animals and princesses in stone, sweeping towards the port. The great gold Madonna on the Church of Notre Dame de la Garde is visible on its hill across the harbour.
Both times I arrived, classic Marseille-bolshy taxi drivers refused to take me to the Vieux Port, claiming the traffic was impossible. You can see their point: it’s been a building site for a decade, as it attempts to transform itself into a Barcelona-style capital of cool.
Marseille’s year as European Capital of Culture is intensifying the pace of construction. The old dock area of La Joliette is disappearing under concrete, out of which futuristic museums are emerging, the latest instalment of 2,500 years of building. Marseille is one of the oldest centres of human settlement in France, a port for both Greeks and Phoenicians millennia before becoming France’s doorway to the south. This made it a huge racial bazaar, peopled by France’s one-time overseas subjects – who invariably arrived here – as well as dozens of other global communities.
At times it seems half the Marseillais have Italian names, and most of the remainder Corsican or North African. This is significant in the matter of food: Marseille is one of the best places to eat in France, with many old-fashioned restaurants selling delicious local pizzas, Maghrebin cous cous and good seafood (try the supions – little squid), plus the famous but expensive and often disappointing bouillabaisse.
Marseille covers a large area in a haphazard fashion. A Napoleonic palace sits out beside a race track; 1950s tower blocks are plonked in the old centre. Historic châteaux share a hill with crime-ridden slums, which nonetheless have magical Med views. There are city beaches, dilapidated but fine old quartiers filled with Bohemian youths, bits of Provençal village tucked behind African markets – enclaves you may not see on your first visit, but to which you’ll soon be planning to return.
Avoid tourist fish restaurants. Look beyond the Vieux Port; try La Boîte à Sardines (blvd de l’Independance), Toinou ( La Canebière) or François Coquillages (ave du Prado).
Get to grips with the gritty Mediterranean city, then explore the coast beyond
When to go: Year round: winters can be mild enough for short sleeves, spring and autumn are the perfect temperature, and summers ideal for beach-lazing. Also bear in mind the Marseille 2013 European Capital of Culture programme (see below).Getting there: Marseille-Provence airport is served from multiple UK airports by Ryanair, easyJet and BA; note, some routes are seasonal. Flight time is around 2 hours. By train, Marseille is 3 hours from Paris, 6/7 from London. London returns from £119 (www.raileurope.co.uk).
Getting around: The airport is a 25min, €8 shuttlebus ride from central St Charles station. Around town, use the Metro, new tramway and buses.Where to stay: Hôtel Alizé, near to Vieux Port, is a good mid-price option; it’s newly refurbished, and very convenient. Doubles from €79. A cheaper choice is Etap Hotel Marseille Vieux Port; doubles from €60.
Start at the hub of things, the Vieux Port, in the 1920s café La Samaritaine, on the corner of Rue de la République; this grand Haussmann-style boulevard has sleek new trams that glide up towards Place de la Joliette. With your coffee, buy La Marseillaise – this paper is still printed on antique mechanical presses at nearby Place aux Huiles.
Next, peer at the bouillabaisse ingredients on the fishermen’s stalls (the fish market proper is now down the coast at Saumaty). Then stroll the Quai, admiring the 17th-century Town Hall, almost the only historic building left after the Germans dynamited the maze of old streets in 1943. This was once a red light district of such renown that pamphlet guides circulated around the merchant shipping world.
Walk up through the old quartier of Le Panier, stopping at Bar des 13 Coins (local of Fabio Montale, the anti-hero of Jean-Claude Izzo’s noir crime novels). Continue through Place de Lenche, with its little theatre and café terraces, to the neo-Byzantine Cathédrale de la Major, the second-newest in France; it has views over La Joliette, Saint Jean fort, and ferries to Algiers, Corsica and Tunis.
Beyond is the Euroméditerranée district: the old stone docks have been renovated, and are now home to smart shops and cafés. The former Arenc Silo is now an arts centre while the newest landmark is a curvaceous glass tower designed by Zaha Hadid.
Explore further. Walk up La Canebière, Marseille’s Piccadilly, noting the ornate stone facades of the grand hotels and cafés. Now, they’re all shops, including – on adjacent Cours Belsunce – that of the Alcazar, the most celebrated of the music halls which made Marseille an entertainment rival to Paris up to the 1950s. Detour to another musical emblem, the fine art deco Opera House, surrounded – in true Marseille fashion – by as many red-light bars as chic boutiques.
Walk through the Marché des Capucins, a mini Africa full of exotic veg, spices and crates of chickens awaiting halal despatch. Pause for coffee either at the historic café Noailles or brasserie Les Danaïdes with its tables under the acacia trees.
Once past La Canebière you arrive at the Palais Longchamp, a grandiose Napoleonic hymn to water, with its extraordinary cascade of fountains; it’s now a museum of natural history and fine art. To your right, elegant Cours Julien leads to the Bohemian quartier of La Plaine, full of little boutiques, bookshops, art galleries, bistros and graffiti (AKA street art); this is a good place for evening bar-hopping.
In the opposite direction, amid the web of fascinating old streets behind St Charles station, is La Friche belle de Mai, a great expanse of former tobacco warehouses halfway through a massive transformation into a complex of performance spaces, galleries, artists’ studios and cafés.
Take Bus 35 east from Vieux Port to l’Estaque, a pretty fishing village and magnet for 19th-century painters, notably Cézanne and Braque. There’s a row of medium-price fish restaurants and kiosks selling local specialities chichi fregi (doughnuts) and panisses (chickpea fritters).
On the other side of the city, a long Corniche winds past beaches and old villas, with fine views of the Frioul Islands and Château d’If. Off the Corniche, the 19th-century Prado avenue – Marseille’s Champs-Élysées – leads to Place Castellane with its ornate fountain and smart shops.
The Corniche ends at Calanques National Park: a landscape of wild scrubby hills and rocky inlets – some with deserted beaches, some with small harbours and fishermen’s cabanons. Calanques boat tours leave from Vieux Port, or you can hike along the coastal paths. The nearest harbour is Les Goudes (reachable by bus), which has two super fish restaurants.
Beyond the Calanques, and a short train hop from the city, is the delightful small port of Cassis, a sort of Marseillais Saint Tropez. It gets crowded in high season, but visit in the morning to find it at its quietest.
For North African products, a bustle of nationalities, antiques and bric-à-brac in one rough but picturesque area, go to the Marché aux Puces, open daily. But watch your pockets...