Marseille, Montpellier or Nîmes?

by Anthony.Peregrine

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?


MARSEILLE

Why go?

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

Vieux Port
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.

Coast
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.

Islands
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.

To stay

From a rash of decent contemporary hotels, the Tonic Hotel (doubles from €85) stands out as stylish and central – right by the Vieux Port.

To eat

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.

MONTPELLIER

Why go?

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.

Fabre Museum
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.

Ancien Courrier
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.

Antigone
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.

To stay

The 16th-century Hotel Le Guilhem (doubles from €87) is warm and welcoming on a quiet street in the old centre.

To eat

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.

NIMES

Why go?

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

Roman arena
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.

Old centre
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.

Le Pont-du-Gard
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.

To stay

Bang central, the Royal Hotel (doubles from €75) is a lively mix of clear contemporary décor and veteran furniture. Decent bar and restaurant, too.

To eat

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.

Anthony.Peregrine

For generations, the rich, noble and celebrated among English-speaking peoples have had their foot-holds in the South of France. In 1988, I was among a subsequent wave of the poor, common and unknown. I arrived as a freelance journalist, working for the wine and food press, then the travel pages of the Sunday Times  and Daily Telegraph. None of these materially altered my condition but, frankly, I'd had no choice in the move. My French wife had insisted. She loved England and, more particularly, Lancashire – where we lived. Still does. But, after a few years, she’d forgotten what the sun looked like. “That’s acceptable in November, not in August,” she said.

So we left in search of heat, and found a lot more besides. Space, for a start. (France is two and a quarter times the size of the UK, for roughly the same population). And crystal-clear light. Long meals, longer beaches and a lifting of restraints. The kids could play outside pretty much all the time, and we, too, felt freer.

Of course, the French authorities can be as meddlesome as any but, as I discovered, French people will only put up with so much. On a micro-level, they insist on being left alone. Heaven knows what a British local council would make of the bulls which charge through our village streets at festival times. Or the mountain roads where barriers are placed, at best, whimsically. Or the summer friskiness for which certain remoter beaches are famed. There are busybodies in France but they get less of a hearing than in health-and-safety-crazed nations.

Felicity Kendall

Over two decades of reporting from the country, this is something I have come to appreciate quite as much as I appreciate grandeur of the mountains or of the beauty of a sunset over the sea. I also admire the French respect for their past, its protagonists and the sites which history has left. This can get out of hand; sometimes it seems that every wall more than 20 years old has a preservation order. But both landscape and the nation are deeper for it.

In Provence – even amid the glitz of the Côte-d’Azur – you’re never far from a reminder that man has been on this land for millennia. It’s a great sub-plot to pleasure-seeking. Talking of which … sometimes, the finest pleasures are the simplest. A good day for me would involve a decent walk in the hills or along the coastal path, followed by a early-evening dip in the sea. Then on to town for dinner on a warm evening terrace. We might later take in other terraces for a night-cap or two, safe in the knowledge that we shall not be inconvenienced by excitable youths falling into flower tubs, showing their bottoms or vomiting upon us.

By and large, Southern French cities remain the preserve of everyone – grandparents, strolling couples, kids – until well past the time that I want to go to bed. It’s the Latin way, and quite a surprise after Friday nights in Lancashire.

There are elements of France which drive me nuts. (Only innate decency stops me mowing down French civil servants whenever I’m called upon to deal with them.)

And there are aspects of Britain I miss – Sandwich Spread, Felicity Kendall, Preston North End and, not least, the newspapers. No paper in France has the variety, depth, wit and colour of the Sunday Times or Daily Telegraph, to pluck two examples at random. (By an astonishing coincidence, also the two I tend to write for.) The stilted tedium of most French papers tells us a lot about public life in France, but you’ll not want to hear that. What you want to hear is that France in general, and Provence-Côte-d’Azur in particular, are terrific places. As they are. I’ve been roaming all over them for 20 years and wish I’d started earlier.

I would return to GB only if Felcity Kendall beckoned me back to play for PNE, a jar of Sandwich Spread in her hand. And even then it’s not certain.

My Provence

Where I get a coffee: To do it for me, a French café needs to be a French café and not a lounge bar. It needs the scrape of metal chairs on a wooden floor, blokes at the bar talking horses over mid-morning beers and photos of an amateur soccer team c. 1974 on the wall. It’s an extension of the street by other means; local life must flow through. No point in picking out a particular favourite. They’re all over the south of France, usually called Café du Commerce, Café des Sports or Chez Juju. Coffee’s much cheaper too, especially if you stand at the counter.

Favourite stroll: Tempting to say that the best walk is wherever you happen to park the car; it’s hard not to have an uplifting amble on this outstanding coast. But a real favourite? Well, if you can tackle the coastal path from St-Tropez village round the peninsular via the Rabiou headland and not feel the world is a better place, I’ll be surprised. You’ll have deserved Tahiti beach by the time you arrive, mind: it’s a tidy trek.

Literature for inspiration: The most perceptive account of Provence remains James Pope-Hennessy’s 1952 classic, Aspects Of Provence. The much more recent Seeking Provence by Nicholas Woodsworth comes pretty close, though neither really touch on the Côte-d’Azur.

The best coverage of the Côte that I know is Robert Kanigel’s High Season In Nice. It has its faults but gets the story told eventually. Fiction-wise, you shouldn’t miss Marcel Pagnol. His My Father’s Glory and subsequent My Mother’s Castle may be soft-filtered but they’re mighty heart-warming. For grittier coverage of Marseille, I turn to the crime novels of Jean-Claude Izzo. One Helluva Mess is a stirring place to start.

Breathtaking view: Just open your eyes pretty much anywhere: this coast was created by the Almighty to show what he could do when he really tried. The panoramas from the top of Castle Hill or Mont Boron in Nice, or from Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille are the ones I expect to see when I’m ushered through the Pearly Gates myself.

Peace & quiet: Head out of Cannes, along the Esterel corniche towards St Raphaël. The land grows wild. Red porphyry rocks drop direct to the Med. Tales of the over-development of the Riviera suddenly seem absurd. Here, humanity hangs on where it can. Stop when possible: there’ll be a little-populated creek below and, behind the Esterel mountains. I’ve walked this untamed, savage massif in July and met no-one. You’d never guess you were 30 minutes from a cornetto.

Shopaholics: Bad question for me. I hate shopping more than I hate folk-dancing, and that’s saying something. Except if it’s for food, and except if there’s a market on. You may leave me among the North African uproar of Marseille’s Capucin market, or the sensual promise of the Provençal stalls on St Tropez’s Place-des-Lices for as long as it takes food-lust to overcome me completely.

Soundtrack: There’s a lot of rap from Marseille and Italianate balladeering further along the coast. But a quiet southern mood is best accompanied, I reckon, by jazz-crooner Henri Salvador. The music isn’t specifically Provençal but has a gentle sipping-in-the-shade vibe that’s quite irresistible. Try the Chambre Avec Vue album, recorded in 2000 when old Henri was 83. (He checked out finally in 2008, still performing.) The man is a legend in France. Even in the unlikely event that you don’t like the album, say you do: this will enhance your popularity immeasurably.

Favourite place for regional food: I have a soft spot for the Voyageur Nissart in Nice (19 Rue Alsace-Lorraine, 0493 821960). It’s not hip, star-rated or impressive to look at. And it’s in an indeterminate district, not far from the station.

All it has going for it is an outstandingly friendly welcome (the young owner speaks English better than I do) and the best traditional Niçois food at prices significantly lower than you’ll pay in the Old Town and other busier tourist zones. Fifteen euros sees you fed admirably. I discovered the restaurant only recently. Now it’s my Nice staple.

Don’t leave without…glancing at the gardens: The Côte-d’Azur has horticulture like Venice has canals. It’s a distinguishing feature. Our green-fingered British forebears started gardening down here in the 19th-century – it’s what noble residents did back then – and locals have taken up the trowel with gusto. Pick of the lot is, I’d say, the Domaine du Rayol at Rayol-Canadel (between St Tropez and Hyères, www.domainedurayol.com). Staggering steeply to the sea, the 48-acres are coated in flora from every region of the world sharing a Med climate. It’s a wonder-world. I took my garden-crazed wife there last year – and had to return two months later to find her.

Sport: Along the coast, one may take part in every sea-related activity known to man, short of whaling. But there are times when only a big, professional sporting event will do. For soccer, I go to Marseille and the Vélodrome – the only stadium in France which generates an atmosphere comparable to that at Anfield or the Emirates. For rugby, it has to be Toulon – where our own Jonny (known locally, if oddly, as “Sir Wilkinson”) has punted standards up-field with panache.

Where to be seen this winter: As Sigourney Weaver said recently, real A-listers never go where A-listers are supposed to go, because they only get mobbed and fawned over. I’d suggest you follow this advice. The best place to be seen this winter is, then, wherever you actually want to be. It’s even better if you’re with a loved one – and don’t care a toss whether you’re seen or not.