The Magic of Marseille

Take a trip to the southern city and enjoy everything from delicious seafood to a football match, says Ben Lerwill

 

Take a trip to the southern city and enjoy everything from delicious seafood to a football match, says Ben Lerwill

It is just before midnight in Marseille’s Vieux Port, and the jazz musician has found his groove. In the small, dimly lit confines of Bar La Caravelle, where the tables come prized and the barman fires out highstrength cocktails sans pause, a young saxophonist arches his back and blows. The notes carry outside, over the tiny balcony and down onto the water. When he finishes, in a climax of high trills and stuttering drums, the bar’s wood-panelled walls shake with applause. The scene is full of the vigour of youth. “In Paris I’m old,” the writer and film-maker Marcel Pagnol once said, “but in Marseille, I’m still a child.” What is it that gives Marseille its aura? Garlanded and maligned in equal measure, it’s a self-confident streetwise city that rarely fits in with convenient preconceptions of France. It takes just three hours on a TGV to travel from the capital to the country’s second largest metropolis, but Marseille is emphatically not Paris-on-Sea. Take away the Haussmann architecture, the careering Twingos and the terrace caf�s, in fact, and the similarities tend to dry up rather quickly. You get the impression this is just how the Marseillais intend to keep things.

I was last here in the hot summer of 2002, when the city’s character and swirling energy made quite an impression. It seemed like nowhere else in France I’d experienced – more wild-hearted, I think – and I’d been eager to return ever since. The photos I took back then show an exotic destination, a giant labyrinth of cracked, almond-coloured buildings against a blue sea. This time I’m here in January, a month when the usual influx of cruise passengers and Proven�al holidaymakers is at a low ebb. I want to experience the city with fresh eyes. Marseille is currently preparing to be Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2013, so the timing seems fitting. When I leave La Caravelle to get some sleep, there are still gulls circling in the dark above the boats moored in the Vieux Port. The port has been at the heart of the city since seafaring Greeks settled here in 600BC. They called the town Massalia. Between now and then, the site has witnessed a period of Roman occupation, a long stint as a virtually autonomous citystate (it only became part of France in 1482) and a grand expansion under the direction of Louis XIV, which made it one of the most renowned ports on the Mediterranean. Marseille has always had a sense of independent will. When 500 of its citizens famously marched on Paris in support of the Revolution, the episode neatly summed up the fiery local spirit. Today it is home to around 1.6 million people, and its fortitude is perhaps best summed up by the slang slogan adopted by the city’s revered football team, Olympique de Marseille. On craint d�gun.’We fear no one.

The following morning the port is alive again, in crisp winter sunshine. Lines of vendors are selling fresh fish on the quayside, a scene little changed for centuries. The tubs and trays are full of still-twitching crabs and gurnards. I watch as two grizzled boatmen in rubber overalls greet each other with bisous before untangling a net together.

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Behind them, sloping straight up from the port, is La Canebi�re, the city’s tree-lined central boulevard. Nicknamed Can o’beer’ by GIs in World War II, it has more in common with the multicultural free-for-all of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas than the designer chic of the Champs-�lys�es. France, and Marseille in particular, has long had a close relationship with North Africa, and these days it’s estimated that one in four of the city’s inhabitants has roots in the Maghreb. There are also strong Italian and sub-Saharan influences which, when combined with Marseille’s own strain of French �lan, help to create a fascinating atmosphere.I find several of the key museums closed – preparation for its role in 2013 has begun in earnest – but it feels a more natural option to explore the city by wandering its streets in any case. Over the course of the morning, I witness various sides of the Marseille prism: skull-capped families heading into the synagogue for 10am prayers, bawdy street markets selling everything from flowers to knuckledusters, a peaceable but vocal youth protest about the political situation in Tunisia, and a line of devotees worshipping among flickering candlelight at the �glise des R�form�s. I have a pot of tea and people-watch outside a caf� at the Cinq Avenues junction.Marseille now has a public bicycle system similar to Paris, meaning visitors can, without prior arrangement, pick up and drop off good-quality bikes from any of 130 different locations around the city. I find the initial encounter with the automated credit card machine a bit baffling (“Now you press that button,” says the kindly local who comes to my aid. “Now that one. Oh. I am confused also. What have we done?”) but it’s more than worth it. Marseille has a cycle-friendly layout and, at an hourly fee of a euro, the cost is minimal.

Sunlit courtyards

I pedal up into Le Panier, the historic heart of the city, where narrow lanes strung with washing bend between sunlit courtyards. Even at this time of year, several tourist-targeted restaurants are offering wellpriced light lunches of fried panisse (chickpea flour cakes) and tapenade. After eating I pass the Vieille Charit� – a former almshouse first built in the 17th century to receive beggars and paupers – and the cupola-topped bulk of the cathedral, before at length freewheeling down into the atmospheric Belsunce district. It makes for a very enjoyable couple of hours.

By sunset, having deposited the bike, I’ve made my way to the city’s highest point. The Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica is the Marseille landmark, its gleaming Madonna and Child statue looking out over the sea and the terracotta rooftops from a height of more than 150m. This hilltop has been a place of pilgrimage since long before the basilica was built in 1853, and the panorama it affords is genuinely spectacular. My only regret is that, by leaving it late in the day, I’m unable to wallow in the view for longer than 45 minutes.

Everything I’ve ever read on Marseille makes mention of its most celebrated dish: bouillabaisse. It seems almost obligatory to draw an analogy between the city’s cultural melting pot and its most famous culinary creation.

I have dinner that night at the Miramar, a restaurant that most gourmands point to as offering the best bouillabaisse in Marseille and, by definition, France itself. The dish originated as a kind of leftovers stew popular with the city’s fishermen, but it now stands as an iconic dish – with a price to match. No less than six different kinds of fish are included in the Miramar’s vraie bouillabaisse’ and, when complemented by a nicely chilled white wine, it’s a meal that easily matches its billing.

Marseille is a city of diverse faces: five minutes’ walk from its chichi Lanc�me and Chanel beauty outlets and you’re in the spice-filled, souk-like streets around Noailles m�tro station – so it seems appropriate to dedicate my final day to two of its most contrasting attractions.

In late morning, I take a passenger ferry. The voyage only lasts 25 minutes or so, but transports me from the clamour of the portside to the sparsely vegetated, remotely populated archipelago of the �les du Frioul. The chain comprises four craggy islands, and provides a brilliant option for adding a new dimension to a city break. The ferry docks at Ratonneau, one of the larger islands, although still under two miles in length. Its high cliffs and walking  trails are the same off-cream colour as Marseille itself. There’s a phenomenal view back towards the city and the hills of the mainland. Ratonneau plays host to a couple of notable ruins – a former quarantine hospital and a fort once occupied by the Nazis – but the real treats lie in its seclusion and raw beauty. It has a landscape that’s been gnawed and gnarled over time by the ocean and, as you walk, every one of its bays and beaches seems more appealing than the last.  From way up above, I see cormorants and gulls skimming the waves. I could happily wander around the islands all day – there’s a small line of eateries near the ferry drop-off for sustenance – but I have a final appointment back in the city that I don’t want to miss.

I’d been told by a friend that Marseille comes to life most vividly during football matches at the Stade V�lodrome. I’m very glad I listened. It proves simple to arrange a ticket for the game taking place that evening, and the experience is fantastic. An hour before kick-off, the caf�s outside are heaving with trays of pastis, beer and merguez-frites. Inside, meanwhile, massed crowds behind either goal spend the entire 90 minutes bouncing, singing and bawling beneath oversized banners. The local heroes win 2-1. It’s an apt way to round off the weekend.

Alexandre Dumas called Marseille the meeting place of the whole world’. I can add this much: no matter what time of year you come calling, it’s a city bursting with life.

 

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GETTING THERE

By train:

Return fares from London to Marseille start at �119 per person in standard class.

To book or for more information, contact Rail Europe on 0844 848 4070, visit

www.raileurope.co.uk or call into the Rail Europe Travel

Centre at 1 Regent Street, London SW1.

 

WHERE TO STAY

H�tel Escale Oceania

Marseille Vieux Port, 5 La Canebi�re, 13001 Marseille

Tel: (Fr) 4 91 90 61 61

www.oceaniahotels.com

Room prices: Special weekend rates currently from €105 per night for two guests, including breakfast. Handily located on La Canebi�re, just a few paces from the Vieux Port, the

Escale Oceania is a solid bet if you’re looking for clean rooms, friendly staff and a decent rate.

 

WHERE TO EAT

Restaurant Miramar

12 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille

Tel: (Fr) 4 91 91 10 40

www.bouillabaisse.com

The vraie bouillabaisse’ costs a hefty €58, although there’s a full ritual (explained by

the waiters) and it comes in two courses. It would be an understatement to say it fills you up.

 

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Bar La Caravelle

34 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille

Tel: (Fr) 4 91 90 36 64

Regular jazz concerts – call ahead or pop in for listings. No entry charge.

 

�les du Frioul

The Frioul If Express runs regular services to the �les du Frioul, as well as services to Ch�teau d’If (of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo fame). There are up to 11 services a day, depending on the season and weather conditions. A return ticket costs €10.

www.frioul-if-express.com

 

Stade V�lodrome

3 Boulevard Michelet

13008 Marseille

For match tickets, call in at the OM boutique at 31 Rue Saint Ferr�ol (off La Canebi�re) A full fixture list is available from the club website at www.om.net

 

TOURIST BOARDS

Marseille Tourist Office

4 La Canebi�re, Vieux Port,

13001 Marseille

Tel: (Fr) 8 26 50 05 00

(€0.15 per minute)

www.marseille-tourisme.com

There’s also a very informative Marseille website run by the former editor of Ouest-France newspaper. The site is French-language only: www.lemeilleurdemarseille.fr