Marseille, Montpellier or Nîmes?
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Short Break, Budget, Mid-range
You need a break, and you want it in the French south – for the heat, the verve and the adrenaline. Low-cost airlines offer a choice of off-beat cities, but which should you go for?
For the beat of big port thumping through the city streets, backed by big beaches and a bigger landscape. Colonial trading wealth brought Marseille grandeur, plus a world-class collection of huddled masses. Later, 20th-century decline enhanced its already marked taste for rumbustiousness.
This is the only place I know where you encounter fashion shops and an opera house, Armenian cafés, music clubs, fish, butchers, a souk, all-night girlie bars and every nation known to man, all within a few paces in the city centre. Lately, they’ve been announcing a renaissance. Old buildings are being awakened, galleries and designer hotels have opened, trams are running and weekending Parisians stream off the TGV. But Marseille, thank heavens, resists respectability. There are still shadows enough for skulduggery. Prepare to be excited, but keep your hands on your wallet.
Four key visits
The inlet in the heart of the beast is the city’s focus, bristling with bars and restaurants, pleasure boats and walnut fishwives cutting the heads off sea-bass. To the side rises Le Panier whose steep streets and suspect stairways have long filled with immigrants and mobsters. In front, the Canebière main drag is, like a raddled grande dame, being re-gentrified but reluctantly.
Notre-Dame de la Garde
Like most tumultuous southern settlements, Marseille drapes itself in Virginal protection. Here She stands atop the great Byzantine basilica on the city’s highest hill, seen by all and Herself all-seeing.
Just round the corniche from the centre, the coast broadens to parkland and beaches better than those at Cannes. Beyond, cliffs and creeks rise wild and wonderful and still within the city limits. The most testing bits are accessible only by foot or boat.
A ferry from the Vieux Port takes you to the Ile-d’If – where, famously, the Count of Monte Cristo was never imprisoned (don’t count on the guides to remind you he was fictional). Further out, Frioul is a lovely rocky outcrop of more creeks, cliffs and wonderful walking.
From a rash of decent contemporary hotels, the Tonic Hotel (doubles from €85) stands out as stylish and central – right by the Vieux Port.
Bouillabaisse, the fishiest fish dish in the world, expresses exactly the strong-tasting stew of southern life. The finest is at the Miramar (12 Quai du Port, +33 491 911040, www.bouillabaisse.com). It costs €58pp, but you’ll need nothing else.
Because it is provincial France’s most desirable city. Around the country’s loveliest, liveliest central square, Montpellier spreads from a medieval warren, via 18th-century gandeur to the classiest new development anywhere. Throbbing through the whole is the swirl of metropolitan life: students, scientists and intellectuals, artists, lawyers, absurdly handsome women and senior shoppers wondering how their somnolent backwater became one of Europe’s most dynamic centres. The tone is Mediterranean, with depth, tolerance and an undertone of irony.
Four key visits
La Comédie square
The theatre of daily life is vast, car-free and trimmed with soaring 18th-century façades. Sit at a terrace table. Note the Opéra theatre and Three Graces statue at one end, the parkland opening at the other. In between, locals give lessons on how to be Latin. There’s no cooler, more graceful spot in Europe.
Just along from the Comédie, the recently renewed gallery has a superb collection, ranging from 17th-century Dutch and Flemish to 19th-century French masters like Corot and Courbet.
Commercial heart of the tight, light old centre where the town houses of the ancestral bourgeoisie cram in next to techno bars, ethnic restaurants, hip shopping and quite unexpected squares. Look out, at the top of town, for the Arc-de-Triomphe and Peyrou Royal Promenade, created to show that Louis XIV was back in charge, after 75 years of Protestant disturbance.
Imagine an entire district – once vacant and blighted – now overcome with monumental bounds of neo-Classical invention, extending the city centre to the River Lez. It’s elegant with trees and statuary, energetic with kids, bars and markets. No-one has attempted such a thing since the Romans ran the Med.
The 16th-century Hotel Le Guilhem (doubles from €87) is warm and welcoming on a quiet street in the old centre.
Best table in town, no question, is Le Jardin des Sens (11 Ave St Lazare, +33 499 583838, www.jardin-des-sens.com). The Pourcel twins mix Mediterranean and Asian influences with extraordinary flair. When they recently lost their third Michelin star, I hurled my red guide to the floor.
For the outstanding vestiges of Roman times, the guide-books will tell you. They’re not wrong. The mighty arena looks as if the last gladiator just got carried out. Up the street, the Maison Carrée is a startlingly-preserved temple while, out of town, the Pont-du-Gard aqueduct appears to be completing nature’s design for the gorges it crosses. But the Romans didn’t chuck up these items as future museum pieces. They were part of a full-throated southern culture which, glory be and alongside the old stones, Nîmes has kept coursing through its veins. Bullfighting maintains the double-millennial taste for blood sports – but you don’t have to stomach slaughter to appreciate the spin-off sensuality. In their city central warren, the Nîmois wear it proud and loud, switching from fury to laughter in the time it takes you to duck.
Four key visits
The finest outside Italy, it’s utterly imperious – and all the more fascinating now that it’s equipped with audio-guides and multi-media stuff on fighting lions and bulls. The double ticket gets you into the Maison Carrée as well.
A tight-packed pressure cooker of titchy streets, bars, colourful commerce (horse butchers, art, matadors’ requisites), kids kicking footballs, women in spray-on clothes and men you don’t want to argue with. Strange that such a feisty place should also have been a centre of the Reform. Behind the tumult, you’ll spot more sober buildings, evidence of a strong Protestant influence on the town.
France’s finest Roman monument looks absolutely right, from every angle. Water works have never since been so magnificent.
Jardins de la Fontaine
The classical, statue-laden 18th-century park incorporates elements of the Roman sanctuary. Most local marrying couples choose to have their wedding photos here. It’s an intensely happy spectacle.
Bang central, the Royal Hotel (doubles from €75) is a lively mix of clear contemporary décor and veteran furniture. Decent bar and restaurant, too.
You may eat the local brandade (salt-cod purée) or Camargue beef in wine pretty much anywhere in town. Le Lisita (Blvd des Arènes, +33 466 672915, www.lelisita.com) is a step up. Expect an inventive twist to regional fare, on menus from €35.