A day in Marseille

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.

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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…

Ancient quarters
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.

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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.

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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.

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Modern moves
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.

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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
Big budget:
Intercontinental Marseille
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
www.ihg.com

shoestring spender:
Mama Shelter
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
www.mamashelter.com

Turkish delight: A break to celebrate

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As my mum’s 60th birthday loomed closer, she proved her aged wisdom by forfeiting the customary birthday bash for a week-long celebratory holiday and decided to take her three grown-up girls along for good measure. The first family holiday in years seemed like a good way to begin the benchmark year.

After drawing up a bucket list, we squabbled over various suggestions, ruling out India (too hectic), Greece (too obvious), and Mexico (too far away), before finally agreeing on the Turkish Mediterranean coast. The promise of turquoise waters, late-season sunshine and tasty meze all helped sway our decision. Thankfully, it turned out to be a pretty good one, and us four girls spent a wonderful week together there this October.

PART I: DALYAN
After flying into Dalaman airport, we had a quick twenty-minute drive to central Dalyan. In high season, it’s a mecca for rowdy charter flight holidaymakers, but thankfully by October we almost had the place to ourselves. The main street still bore some remnants of its Brits-abroad alter ego – think neon-lit bars and happy hour cocktails – but these were easily forgiven in light of its family-run pensions, atmospheric restaurants and authentic marketplace. The town also made a good base to explore the surrounding sights.

SHOP TILL YOU DROP
Dalyan’s lively Saturday market offers an insight into local life, with stalls selling all sorts of exotic spices, sun-swollen fruit and veg and local linens.  After picking up the staples, we tracked down the harem trouser-clad women frying up gozlemas– a speciality pancake stuffed with spinach, local goats’ cheese and fresh herbs that made a perfect mid-morning snack. pancake1
ANCIENT RUINS
On Dalyan’s riverbank we found a fleet of local boatmen vying to transport tourists to the various sites down the water. The four of us collectively paid a water taxi 50 Turkish Lire return (about £15) for a trip to the ancient ruins of Kaunos. The boat trip was also a good way to get a closer look at the series of mystifying Lycian tombs that are carved into the cliff opposite Dalyan centre and date back to 400 BC.

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From the drop-off jetty a short, dusty walk past pomegranate groves took us to crumbling Kauonos, with its best remains being the Byzantine basilica, Roman baths and well-preserved semi-circular amphitheatre sunk into the hillside (entrance 8 TL).  By early afternoon it’s a sun trap, and we spent a happy hour soaking up rays on the ancient stalls of its stadium, taking in the panoramic views on the sea and the mountains.

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BEACH TIME
The best beach around is Itzuzu – a 5-km stretch of pristine coastline, accessed by water taxi or road. We followed the mountain pass by car, stealing looks over the vertiginous cliff edge to where a fresh water lagoon met the seascape.

The beach itself is a protected breeding ground for caretta caretta, the native loggerhead turtles. Lucky swimmers may find themselves sidling up to a giant shell in the deeper waters – quite an experience! Next to the beach, a turtle hospital is a sobering reminder of the damage caused by human interference; in giant tanks we saw turtles recovering from fungal infections and smashed shells from collisions with boats.

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MUCK AROUND
After a hot afternoon on the beach, the best way to cool off is by wallowing around in the nearby mud baths.  Although I fear the sulphur-laced sludge may have stained my swimsuit beyond repair, I was assured by the locals that the mineral-rich mud would cleanse both skin and soul.

CAFE STOP-OFF
On the way home, we stopped at Nar Danesi bar for a freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (or for those with a sweet tooth, a home-made pomegranate ice cream). The bar is made atmospheric by a canopied open roof and low-level tables, seated with traditional Turkish cushions. Otherwise, a tree house shack in the garden offers a more secluded hangout. www.nardanesi.com

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DINING OUT
Our very favourite restaurant in Kalkan was the riverside Beyazgul – meaning ‘White Rose’. Sitting out on a balmy evening under a canopy of lemon trees and knotty vines, we feasted on fresh sea bream, Turkish meatballs and delicious stuffed aubergine. The low-hanging lanterns, sultry jazz music and views across the river towards the lit-up Lycian tombs, eerily suspended in blackness, all contributed to the magical atmosphere of the evening. www.beyazgul.info

PART II: KALKAN
After a couple of nights in Dalyan, we drove two hours to the bustling harbour town of Kalkan. Built around a curling bay at the foot of the Tauras mountains, the town is flashier than Dalyan and attracts both tourists and affluent Turks who can be found dining in the swanky harbour-side restaurants.

HOTEL HEAVEN
The lovely boutique hotel Fidanka lived up to all expectations. Set high up above the harbour, we nearly missed the hotel entrance, draped in brilliant pink bougainvillea. Up the steps we found the bar and restaurant terrace beside a swimming pool, overlooking the bay.

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The hotel’s stone façade was spruced up with rustic timber cabins that serve as hotel room balconies. Countless pot plants, tangled shrubbery and fruit-laden lime trees flanked the passage to our family suites.

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Quirky details gave Fidanka that special something; I loved the hand-painted mirrors, the wall-hanging plates, the rough-hewn tabletops decorated with colourful beads. The staff – like all the Turkish people we met – were gracious and welcoming and the generous breakfast buffet and supper menu, offering authentic local dishes, were both excellent. www.fidanka.com

GREECE IN A DAY
We spent a blissful day visiting the little Greek island of Meis (Kastellorizo in Greek). One of the easternmost islands of Greece, it’s just a couple of miles off the Turkish coast. The 10am ferry leaves from the harbour town of Kaş – a 25 minute-long scenic coastal drive from Kalkan. From the port, it took less than half an hour before the island came into view.

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With a backdrop of craggy mountains, the port is truly idyllic. We sauntered slowly along the central walkway, admiring the colourful little fishing boats that bobbed around in the crystalline waters and peering into the shutters of traditional tiled-roofed houses painted in a pastel hues. door2
Although the port has no beach, we happily wiled away the day exploring the cobbled backstreet, basking in the scorching sun, and feasting on grilled octopus and Greek salad in a waterside Tavernas.  When 3pm and the return journey to Kaş arrived, we were very sad to say goodbye to the little piece of paradise.

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BEACH BREAK
Two sandy beaches near Kalkan provided plenty of opportunity to top up on Vit D. Purist sun worshippers (like my older sister) will find nothing to detract them from the sun and sea at Kaputas. Formed by a plummeting gorge that opens out into a stretch of golden sand and turquoise water, it’s astonishingly picturesque. Alternatively, for fidgeter like me who need a distraction to break up the sunbathing, the 18km-long Patara beach charges for entry, but is well worth it for the chance to visit the atmospheric Roman amphitheatre located beside the beach.

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SUNKEN CITY
From Kaş there are daily morning boat trips to Kekova and the Sunken City. If you decide to go with a group, be aware that boats can be crowded and blaring music on board can sometimes detract from the scenic surroundings. We preferred to drive further along the coastal road and picked up a local water taxi from the nearest point to the island – the little fishing village of Üçağiz . With just a few ram-shackled buildings and a handful of low-key pensions, shops and waterside restaurants, Üçağiz is an authentic retreat that seems virtually untouched by modern life.

Within minutes of arriving, we met local boatmen Abdullah who proved to me a knowledgeable guide and affable host. As we cruised the limpid waters in his wooden boat, we peered over the side to see giant turtles swimming nearby and the the sunken city below us. An eroded hammam, submerged columns and remains of mosaic hinted of the ancient civilisation’s former splendour before it was worn away by the sea and the corrosion of time.

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We moored at the beautiful island of Kaleköy (known as Kale) to climb up to the crumbling Simena fortress that was built in the middle-ages, supposedly to protect the land from pirates.  Reaching the top rewarded us with a vantage point over the ancient city walls, littered with ubiquitous Lycian tombs.

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BIRTHDAY FINALE
On our last night in Kalkan, we planned a little birthday surprise for our mum at Hotel Villa Mahal (villamahal.com). Gloriously glamorous, the hotel is spread over various levels that are built into the scarped cliff face overhanging the bay. Past the sleek cocktail bar, we edged down steep steps passed a infinity pool that jutted out over the sea.  At the  spa below, mum enjoyed an hour-long massage from a treatment room with a sunset view. We enjoyed a similar view from nearby hammock swings  before heading to the bar in search of cocktails.

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supper
An hour later and with a Piña Colada in hand, mum looked in a pretty good position for sixty. During a delicious supper, she was spoiled rotten by the charismatic waiters who dedicated themselves to making the evening special. As mum unwittingly sat expecting the dessert menu, the restaurant was plunged into darkness, the bluesy music  switched for a happy birthday chorus, and a troupe of staff holding giant sparklers emerged with an elaborate cream-heavy birthday cake. It was literally the icing on the cake to what had been a wonderful holiday.

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