Le weekend in Marseilles

By Philip Jacobson, The Mail On Sunday

Last updated at 12:04 26 September 2005


Marseilles: France's unruly southern son

Strolling through the bustling Vieux Port area of Marseilles not long ago I was beckoned over to a waterside cafe by a burly, crew-cut man enjoying an evening pastis. He looked vaguely familiar, then I realised he was a former police officer whom visiting journalists would occasionally interview about the Marseilles organised crime scene, usually after some dramatic mob killing or bank heist.

In return for a slap-up dinner, he provided lurid - and probably exaggerated - accounts of what gangland figures like 'Frankie le Belge' were up to.

In those days, Marseilles secretly enjoyed its reputation as an 'in-your-face' sort of town, where nobody gave a damn about the outside world. I remember friends taking me to see a backstreet pizza parlour in which a burst of sub-machine-gun fire had recently settled a falling out between rival drug barons. They seemed proud that the shooters had taken pains to avoid harming 'civilians' who were present.

Marseilles has not entirely shaken off this French Connection image, but over the past decade it has made huge strides towards becoming a genuinely visitor-friendly destination. 'Tourism had never really been on our map before,' says a municipal official. 'There was a widespread belief that nobody in their right mind would come here for pleasure.'

Well, I do; have done for 20 years, in fact. And, to my delight, the reinvention of Marseilles is being achieved without any sacrifice of the raw vitality and rich diversity that makes Paris, Lyons, Toulouse and the rest appear tame by comparison.

The 19th Century writer Guy de Maupassant got it about right when he wrote that the city 'perspires in the sun like a beautiful girl who does not take good care of herself'.

Like any great port, it has its rough edges - steer clear of the northern suburbs - and the Marseillais will always be a prickly lot. But I couldn't agree more with the visitor who observed that this won't bother those 'who want a little grit with their pearl'. Entirely in character, while the rest of France hung out the flags for the Millennium, Marseilles was ostentatiously celebrating the 2,600th anniversary of a city where Phoenician civilisation had flourished when Parisians still lived in mud huts.

Unlike some other French cities, Marseilles has been highly successful in preserving its architectural heritage. A reward for the stiffish climb up to the Le Panier neighbourhood is the beautifully restored baroque Vieille Charite, originally a hospital for the poor, now a lively centre for the arts: its canteen serves the best coffee and croissants in town.

Le Panier was first populated by poor immigrants whose hard work and vigorous intermarriage contributed hugely to the development of France's most cosmopolitan city. The narrow winding streets still retain some of the original character of an 'urban village' and the area is popular with young artists and musicians. In recent years, however, many of the graceful older houses, with tiled roofs and wrought-iron balconies, have been restored by middle-class families attracted by the relaxed feel of the area.

Another worthwhile excursion takes in Belsunce, off the Canebiere, the broad avenue that bisects the city centre and was once known as the Champs Elysees of the South. Belsunce feels like an Arab souk, its warren of alleys teeming with shoppers and street vendors hawking everything from pungent spices to earsplitting North Africa pop music. Visitors should take sensible precautions against pickpockets and bag snatchers, but are unlikely to encounter overt hostility.

On the cultural front, Marseilles boasts more theatres per head of population than Paris and an array of galleries and first-class museums: two can be found in the Vielle Charite complex, while the Museum of Marseilles History in the Centre Bourse (stock exchange) houses a fascinating collection that charts the city's Greek and Roman ancestry.

Live music is making a big comeback, with venues including the Espace Julien auditorium for rock, rai and the special brand of Marseilles rap. The more intimate Caravelle features jazz and blues, and new clubs are springing up in the old southern port area.

Eating out has always been one of the great pleasures of Marseilles, especially on languorous summer evenings when the smell of grilled sardines, thyme and aioli hangs in the air. The range of restaurants is remarkable, from the double Michelin-starred Le Petit Nice Passedat for pricey but superb seafood to Le Miramar for a traditional Marseilles bouillabaisse (not cheap but vast, so forget starters). A gaggle of less expensive bistros open until the small hours can be found around the lively Place Thiars, near the waterfront.

The Vieux Port offers some agreeably raffish bars from which to watch the world go by: an old favourite of mine is the Brasserie New York, while the OM - named for the city's beloved football club, Olympique de Marseilles, and owned by a former goalie - gets fairly hectic after home games.

Joining 60,000 passionate fans at the team's magnificent Velodrome stadium reminds you what a cultural melting pot the city has been: referees can expect abuse in Italian, Spanish, Greek and Arabic, as well as the thickly accented French of Marseilles that so amuses the rest of the country.

While few visitors come to Marseilles for the beaches, the nearby Plage du Prado is always heaving in summer and it's an easy drive to popular seaside resorts such as Cassis and Bandol.

For many Marseillais, the perfect escape from the heat and noise of the city is a day at one of the calanques, the little creeks with sandy beaches that riddle the surrounding coastline. Tour cruises run regularly from the Vieux Port, but I prefer hiring a motor boat to drop me off and collect me later.

There are cheap and cheerful restaurants in some of the calanques, where boisterous family parties enjoy prolonged lunches of freshly caught fish, washed down with carafes of the excellent local rosé.

The afternoon drifts lazily by with a swim in the azure water, a game of boules, animated card schools or simply a doze in the shade.

Some of the cruises take in the Chateau d'If, the grim island stronghold where Alexandre Dumas set his story The Count Of Monte Christo. From there you get a wonderful vista of Marseilles, especially in the stunning evening light of summer. An even better panoramic view, from sea to mountains, can be found at the church of Notre Dame de la Garde, perched on the top of a limestone peak that local fishermen used to trudge up to say a prayer before setting sail.

There was a time in the late Eighties and early Nineties when a combination of economic decline and ugly racial tensions seemed to have knocked the stuffing out of Marseilles. But this is a city with a big heart and a history of bouncing back from adversity, from the Great Plague to the Nazi occupation, and its ongoing revival today is heart-warming for confirmed admirers.

Travel Facts

Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) offers return flights from Gatwick to Marseilles from £37. Tour operators providing short breaks to Marseilles include French Travel Service (08702 414243, www.frenchtravel service. co.uk) which has a three-night break from £281, including return rail fares and B&B accommodation.

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