Marseille's marvellous

by Solange.Hando

The people of Marseille are justly proud of their city. On a sweeping bay facing the setting sun, it is the oldest in France and covers an area twice the size of Paris

‘We have 14 marinas,’ said my friend, ‘and see these forts at the entrance to the harbour? They date from Louis XIV’. The pink sandstone glowed in the southern light as we made our way to the Phare promontory for an overall view of this amazing harbour. I had never seen so many boats in one spot, from nostalgic galleons and gleaming yachts to the humble trawlers that still land their catch every morning. Lined with flower stalls, restaurants and cafés, the old harbour is the heart of town, a place to relax under the parasols or watch the nostalgic ferry chug back and forth across the water. In the evening, buskers and pedlars take over the quay, while crowds linger late into the night.
Marseille is a city on the move. The old Canebière avenue has had a face-lift, while the shaded boulevards of the Prado almost make you dream of the Champs-Elysées. There are elegant boutiques and department stores, and quiet gardens, such as the Millennium Park where, around the Tree of Hope, 300,000 Marseillais inscribed their names for posterity. Museums, galleries, sporting and cultural events abound, top of the list the World Pétanque Tournament, which attracts over 14,000 players. This French-style bowling game was invented in the nearby resort of La Ciotat.
Marseille may be the second city in France, population-wise, but it is made up of 111 villages, many retaining a distinct identity. Just minutes from the harbour, we strolled around Les Accoules, St Jean and Le Panier, where washing hangs from the balconies and cicadas sing in the trees. Little shops sell traditional nativity figures, oil-rich Marseille soap, pastis and biscuits flavoured with orange blossom. It’s easy to find your way around ancient buildings and monuments: just follow the red line painted on the pavements. Most of all, we enjoyed L’Estaque, with its steep alleyways and painters’ trail in the footsteps of Cézanne and Braque. Artists still set up their easels under the trees overlooking the luminous bay.
Wherever you are in Marseille, one of life’s greatest pleasures is dining al fresco in a waterside café or a sumptuous venue. Seafood features high on the menu, fresh from the harbour, including the traditional bouillabaisse, a saffron fish broth accompanied by rock fish, croutons and garlic. I had never tasted anything quite like it but also loved the bourride, a mussel (or fish) dish, with no fewer than 15 variants. To quench your thirst, try the local wine, AOC Cassis, or the aniseed-flavoured pastis invented by a local monk. It is made from 50 different herbs and replaced absinthe when it was banned by law.
Meanwhile, up on the hill, 154 metres above the harbour, the ‘Good Mother’ of every Marseillais keeps watch over the town. The basilica was built by an architect aptly named ‘Hope in God’ and is topped with gold leaf statues of Virgin and Child. If you don’t fancy the climb, you can hop on the land train or the Grand Tour open-top bus but allow an hour or more to explore the Romanesque-Byzantine church and enjoy the panorama from the esplanade, stretching from the city to hills and beaches and the cruise terminal below.
Marseille has its share of beaches, most of them reclaimed land, pebble or sand. But parasols aside, you won’t find much shade, and we were soon tempted by the open sea and the promise of a cool breeze. The Frioul Islands are just a 20-minute boat-ride away, a haven for rare plants and seabirds but best known for the Château d’If, once a VIP jail, which set the scene for The Count of Monte-Cristo. But the ultimate trip is sailing along the calanques, the fabulous creeks indenting the coast with a string of turquoise inlets, all the way to Cassis and La Ciotat. You can trek in the calanques but the best views are from the sea, all dramatic rocks and towering cliffs, a world away from the bustling streets of Marseille, yet just on the doorstep.


Where to stay
New Hotel of Marseille Le Pharo: modern four-star hotel close to the Old Harbour.
Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port: luxury hotel with a panoramic restaurant overlooking the harbour.
Where to eat
Le Miramar: bouillabaisse and seafood (12 Quai du Port).
Chez Toinou: mix and match seafood restaurant (3 cours St Louis).