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.
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