The mention of Marseille often provokes some or other eyebrow-raised reaction. For those accustomed to the polished streets of the French Riviera, the rough-around-the-edges city is a blemish on an otherwise squeaky-clean coastline. Others are ruffled by what plays out in the headlines, where Marseille is notoriously cast as a drug-trafficking gangland. I decided to make up my own mind and made a fleeting visit there towards the end of the 2013. My trip tied in nicely with the second half of the city’s stint as European Capital of Culture.
I instantly fell for Marseille. Gritty; yes, unsafe; most likely, but the port town can never be accused of lacking character. With its light and breezy Mediterranean air, Marseille combines age-old monuments with innovative art projects, making it a compelling visit for history lovers and hipsters alike. And not a bullet hole in sight, honest…
Set back behind the harbour is the Quartier du Panier; Marseille’s oldest district and my favourite part of the city. Founded in 600 BC, it has traditionally been a working-class neighbourhood, where waves of immigrant settlers congregated. This history has given the area its distinctly cosmopolitan vibe, bustling with ethnic shops, exotic cafes and restaurants. I spent the morning getting lost amid the tangle of tiny alleyways, admiring the street art, colourful doorways and faded ochre houses.
The district is how I imagine Montmartre might have been before the tourists conquered and the bohemians cleared out. Every second building is a makeshift atelier, where young, dishevelled artists sell their urban prints and wacky artworks (or rather, lett the art speak for itself while they chain-smoke outside). Narrow streets open out onto wide, sun-drenched squares, where us tourists can make like the locals and opt for a bright and breezy Cagole – the local blond beer.
Among these labyrinthine streets is the impressive Veille Charité – a baroque-style building that served as a 17th century poorhouse but today it’s a cultural centre. The impressive arched courtyard and domed central complex are well worth a walk-around.
Down by the old port I found some of the newer fixtures that have sprung out of Marseille’s stint as culture capital. L’Ombrière is the best of the bunch. Designed by Norman Foster, it’s a mirrored pavilion that reflects upside-down fishing boats and passing pedestrians – simple yet compelling in the way it cleverly creates snapshot of quayside life. Best known to us Brits as the man behind the Gherkin and Millennium Bridge, Fosters also has an impressive repertoire in southern France, boasting such architectural marvels as the Millau Viaduct and the Carré d’Art in Nîmes.
The two new gleaming museums, the Villa Méditerranée and Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation, found slap-bang on the waterfront are further symbols of Marseille’s ambitious cultural makeover. Walking up, down and around the sprawling MuCem delivers you across the Fort Saint-Jean, with a great view across the outstretching blue.
I finished the day on a high, at the ornate Notre-Dame basilica that towers over the city sprawl. It’s the perfect place to admire the city at dusk, before wondering back down in search of an evening aperitif – pastis anyone?
WHERE TO STAY
This recently opened showstopper offers luxury lodgings in a renovated 18th-century hospital building overlooking the old port. For those unable to foot the hefty room bill, the vast terrace has a restaurant and bar, great for an indulgent evening of swanky cocktails and killer views.
1 Place Daviel, 13002 Marseille
Tel: (Fr) 4 13 42 42 42
This Philippe Starck-designed boutique hotel makes a cool and quirky base that won’t break the bank. With beds from €49, the hotel offers eccentric decor and a bar specialising in oh-so-potent pastis, which contribute to a fun and young vibe.
64 Rue de la Loubière, 13006 Marseille
Tel: (Fr) 4 84 35 20 00