Sit and relax on the docks of Marsaille’s bay

Whether you’re soaking in the culture or enjoying its relaxing waterside scenes, France’s oldest metropolis is a gem, says Philippe Barbour

Loud, lippy, trendy, staggeringly beautiful, but grubby too and sometimes violent, Marseille bursts with energy, character and bravado, as well as with tensions and frustrations. For a first-time tourist, its looks take the breath away. Mountain-backed, Marseille effectively stands at the end of Provence’s dramatic Côte d’Azur; just west start the Camargue and low lagoons lining the Languedoc coast to Spain.

Marseille may be a complex, multi-ethnic, many-sided city, but the great bay stretching in front of it is its unifying factor. This site attracted Greek settlers over 2,600 years ago; here, they founded the first-ever town in what is now France. Today, as the country’s second city, Marseille may share some traits with England’s no.2, Birmingham, but a sublime setting on a stunning shore clearly isn’t one of them.

Watching vessels crossing Marseille’s bay is a joy. The boats include ferries to Corsica and North Africa. This city looks determinedly southwards. Yet, as of this spring, it’ll be directly connected to London by rail. On certain days, you’ll be able to go from St Pancras to St-Charles, over 1,200 km, in c.6.5 hours. In snail-train Britain, this seems miraculous.

With the news media’s addiction to violence, for most Brits, the overriding impression may be of a Marseille dominated by crime. Just as with London, local turf wars are highly unlikely to affect a tourist, but guard against petty criminals.

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In fact, Marseille means many different things to different people. For French people I know, it means participating in boules tournaments, or turning into a coach potato, watching l’OM, with its glitzy new football stadium, or Plus Belle la Vie, the country’s national soap opera, its backdrop slightly more enticing than the East End. Architectural aficionados head to Le Corbusier’s ground-breaking post-war Cité Radieuse apartment block, which even melted the heart of acerbic English art critic Jonathan Meades. Savour the exhilarating museum on its roof, or its hotel.

English friends are surprised to hear that I regularly go to Marseille to rest. My ritual in early summer is to book in at the Hôtel Richelieu, a simple hotel in a thrilling spot, at the start of the city’s Corniche, just south of Marseille’s centrepiece, the Vieux Port. The Richelieu also stands beside the most central beach, Plage des Catalans, where the colours of the world unite, on a patch of sand scarcely larger than a pocket-handkerchief.

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Getting to my room, I take happily to my bed to watch the craft crisscrossing the bay. The air is filled with the joyous yelps of youngsters splashing about in the water. I can spy on the Château d’If, an island fort that looks like the real-life inspiration for the traditional sandcastle; Dumas transformed it into a dark prison for the Count of Monte Cristo, but now it attracts day-trippers.

Marseille was thrust into the limelight as European Capital of Culture in 2013. The makeover was colossal. The flagship initiative was the creation of a brand-new museum devoted to Mediterranean civilizations, MuCEM. Joining the crowds for its inaugural weekend, it was uplifting to see the mixture of races and religions attending. While the permanent exhibition is interesting, its reasonableness seems restrictive. The temporary exhibitions prove more daring.

As to MuCEM’s architecture, its black-lace cement garment, designed by Riviera-based Rudy Ricciotti, grabs the attention, veiled and seductive at the same time. A footbridge in the sky links MuCEM to Fort St-Jean, gloriously transformed from police station to people’s palace. This historic fort guards the entrance to the Vieux Port, the oriental-looking harbour where those Greeks settled millennia ago.

Remarkable churches mark the hills overseeing the Vieux Port. St-Victor, the most ancient, resembles a crenellated crusader castle. Up a greater hill stands Marseille’s most symbolic building, Notre-Dame de la Garde, a 19th-century pilgrimage extravaganza that most tourists today tackle by a little tourist train. Back down on the waterside, the vast, zebra-striped cathedral, Notre-Dame de la Major, rivals La Garde for show. Opposite it, the former quarantine house now takes in temporary exhibitions on Provence in the arts.

Beside MuCEM, the battered old church of St-Laurent conceals one entrance to the salty, slightly seedy Panier hill district. A hideout for the persecuted and resisters during World War II, it suffered terrible consequences. Now, alternative craft shops and restaurants on secretive squares attract visitors. La Vieille Charité is the architectural jewel to unearth here, centred around a church topped by an oval dome like a magical stone egg. It was designed by Panier-born Pierre Puget as the most palatial-looking poorhouse in France. Today, it entices with cultural activities.

Returning to landmark churches, the main, immodest Protestant edifice boasts huge twin spires, signalling its presence on La Canebière, Marseille’s best-known shopping street. The boutiques around the nearby Opera House have more style, though. Among other favourite spots, visit graffiti-tattoed Cours Julien, with laid-back eateries sprawled in the shade of flaky trees, or much more formal Palais Longchamp, a wedding-cake of a monument celebrating the provision of precious water to Marseille, with a major museum-space attached. North of St-Charles station, ultra-trendy Friche Belle de Mai hosts arty and musical happenings in converted industrial buildings.

For seaside pleasures, head down the Corniche. The road ends before tiny, hidden Port des Croisettes, haunt of fishermen and divers, reached by rough paths.

Huge, elephantine rocks rise up around it, heralding the start of the Calanques, Mediterranean sun-bleached fjords dominated by France’s highest cliffs. Local sea-life has been damaged by pollution, but the Calanques are now protected as one of the country’s newest National Parks, offering a staggering natural attraction, or perhaps antidote, to France’s oldest metropolis.

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