It is France’s old­est city, but this Mediter­ranean port has a young, cre­ative buzz and many in­vig­o­rat­ing sights, says Zoë Mcin­tyre


En­joy a fas­ci­nat­ing blend of her­itage and cut­ting-edge de­sign in France’s old­est city.

It is early morn­ing and the fish mar­ket on the Quai des Belges is packed with knife-wield­ing traders sport­ing blood-flecked boots and weath­ered tans. They hag­gle in brusque ar­got with cus­tomers over hulk­ing tuna car­casses, gelati­nous oc­to­pus and eels squirm­ing in buck­ets. The Vieux-port bobs with sail­ing boats, the tempo set by a pair of nearby per­form­ers rhyth­mi­cally beat­ing African drums.

This lively scene seems a fit­ting wel­come to Mar­seille, France’s Mediter­ranean me­trop­o­lis shaped by age-old sea trade and thriv­ing mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. It has been a bustling maritime cen­tre since an­tiq­uity, when Greek set­tlers founded ‘Mas­salia’ as early as 600 BC. In the Age of Em­pire, the port pros­pered as the gate­way be­tween France and her colonies, but later gained an un­wel­come rep­u­ta­tion as a hot­bed of or­gan­ised crime

Walk through the cen­tre to­day and you would never guess it had such a shady past. Since I first vis­ited some years ago, the city has un­der­gone a huge re­gen­er­a­tion, spurred by its 2013 reign as Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture. Grit and grime have given way to cut­ting-edge art and cul­ture, with once-de­cay­ing dis­tricts blos­som­ing into hot new hang­outs hum­ming with cre­ative en­ergy. The nov­el­ist Alexan­dre Du­mas’s de­scrip­tion of Mar­seille as “old yet al­ways young” has never been truer.

Em­blems of the city’s rein­ven­tion can be seen across the water­front. Next to the fish mar­ket stands Nor­man Fos­ter’s

pav­il­ion, the Om­brière, topped by a mir­rored panel of stain­less steel that pro­vides shel­ter from the sum­mer rays. Fol­low­ing the quay­side prom­e­nade takes me to the 17th-cen­tury Fort Saint-jean, which now has a soar­ing pedes­trian bridge link­ing it to the fu­tur­is­tic Mu­seum of the Civil­i­sa­tions of Europe and the Mediter­ranean (MUCEM).

Along the walk­way, I gaze at the mu­seum’s cu­bic frame en­cased in a man­tilla-like con­crete shell. It leads to a sunny roof ter­race where glimpses of the Mediter­ranean peek through a lat­ticed screen. In­side, vast ex­hi­bi­tion rooms chart a di­verse re­gional her­itage; there are Greek ce­ram­ics and Egyp­tian farm­ing tools, an­cient olive presses and life-sized shep­herds’ huts. Films project on to walls and songs play from speak­ers in an en­gross­ing as­sault on the senses.

De­spite its newly ac­quired spit and pol­ish, Mar­seille has not lost its soul. Proof lies in the old­est dis­trict, Le Panier, once a work­ing-class neigh­bour­hood with a maze of nar­row, laun­dry-strewn al­leys and colour­ful ter­races. To­day, the area gives off a bobo ( bour­geois-bo­hème) vibe, best soaked up while hop­ping be­tween the tiny bou­tiques and artists’ work­shops that clut­ter its pic­turesque cob­ble­stones. My wan­der­ing even­tu­ally leads to the Vieille Char­ité – a hand­some pink-stone com­plex first built as an almshouse but now home to gal­leries ded­i­cated to ar­chae­ol­ogy and African art. Af­ter ex­plor­ing its ar­caded pas­sage­ways, I stop for a pick-me-up cof­fee on Place de Lenche – a sun­dap­pled square fre­quented by flat-capped lo­cals nurs­ing glasses of cloudy pastis while watch­ing the world go by.

Bou­tique hide­away

My evening din­ing spot is Le Grand Guste, a newly opened eatery ten min­utes’ walk from the Vieux-port. Its menu re­vis­its tra­di­tional French cook­ing, served in a nos­tal­gic din­ing room adorned with pat­terned wall­pa­per and mis­matched lamp­shades. Seated on the balmy ter­race, I tuck into snails drip­ping in gar­licky but­ter, braised beef cheeks and a cream-lashed tarte Tatin that would make any Gal­lic grand-mère proud.

Nearby is my bed for the night at C2, a bou­tique hide­away set in a chic 19th-cen­tury town­house. Down­stairs, I marvel at op­u­lent fres­coes be­fore climb­ing a mar­ble stair­case to my min­i­mal­ist bed­room. Be­fore lights-out, there is time to reap the restora­tive ef­fects of the ho­tel’s sub­ter­ranean spa, pre­par­ing my weary feet for an­other day of sight­see­ing.

Come morn­ing, I am spend­ing en­ergy and earn­ings in the eth­nic en­clave of Noailles, which has the best spe­cial­ity shops in town. I fill my shop­ping bags

along Rue Longue-des-ca­pucins, which heaves with spice sellers, baklava-stacked bak­eries and teashops shrouded in shisha smoke. I then seek out Le Fémina for a plate of its famed bar­ley cous­cous, which has been served by five gen­er­a­tions of the same fam­ily.

Nearby stretches Cours Julien, a thor­ough­fare crammed with sec­ond­hand book­shops, dusty bro­cantes and street art. I seek a respite from the crowds, so head up the Canebière thor­ough­fare to the colon­naded Palais Longchamp. The mon­u­ment was opened in the 1860s to cel­e­brate the build­ing of a canal to sup­ply water to Mar­seille, and has some glo­ri­ously the­atri­cal foun­tains burst­ing with fu­ri­ous bulls and buxom nymphs. It also houses the Nat­u­ral His­tory and Fine Arts mu­se­ums, and over­looks man­i­cured gar­dens that are per­fect for an af­ter­noon stroll.

No trip to Mar­seille would be com­plete with­out a visit to the hill­top basil­ica of Notre-dame de la Garde. I had ad­mired its lofty bel­fry and gilded statue from afar, but up close the build­ing’s striped mar­ble splen­dour is mes­meris­ing. I study its stun­ning mu­rals and mo­saics be­fore head­ing out to the wind-whipped ve­randa for views over the ter­ra­cotta rooftops that tum­ble down to end­less Mediter­ranean blue.

Af­ter a whirl­wind week­end, I have barely scratched the sur­face of Mar­seille. No mat­ter; in this fas­ci­nat­ing port, richly lay­ered in old and new, it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore it beck­ons me back.

CLOCK­WISE FROM FAR LEFT: The water gar­den and foun­tains in the pedes­tri­anised Cours Julien; The stain­less steel Om­brière next to the fish mar­ket; Street art in the Le Panier dis­trict; The Basilique Notre-dame de la Garde

ABOVE: An al­ley in the Le Panier dis­trict

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