With an enviable location by the Mediterranean, France’s oldest and second-largest city oozes character from the terracotta-roofed buildings lining the Vieux Port to the cathedral perched impossibly high up, peering down on the city. Marseille offers a taste of France that is resolutely not the Parisian lifestyle many will know. Here, the pace of life can be as hectic, but Marseille dances to a different tune; one that pays homage to its southern roots and melting-pot diversity.
While the region in which Marseille is situated, the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, is visited by a phenomenal 34 million tourists per year, it is unlikely that Marseille is at the top of many people’s list of French destinations. Lonely Planet doesn’t even list the city as one of the top 14 destinations in France on its website, but there’s something gripping about it.
Marseille offers a number of distinct sightseeing opportunities. For example, the Vieux Port and Old Town: much of the city was dynamited in the Battle of Marseille during the Second World War, but the history of the place stills feels palpable. There is the important architecture of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse and the natural landscape of the Calanques in nearby Cassis; a stunning series of rocks and deep valleys, looking like a Mediterranean fjord with beautiful clear water. Combining these three features alone, Marseille packs a punch of which other cities should be rightfully jealous. Add to that excellent food, a sunny climate and wonderful people and you’ve got a great destination. Best of all, flights there can be very cheap and it’s a mere two hours from London.
Vieux Port is the old harbour and is quite simply stunning; the first glimpse of it is likely to send your inner adventurer into a frenzy. Every direction looks tempting, every alleyway and road leads to a wonderful vista. The harbour and boats within the Vieux Port are reminders that the Mediterranean is always close by, and from here you can take boats out to some wonderful islands, such as If (in the Frioul Archipelago), with its prison Chateau – the setting for The Count of Monte Cristo and a great destination for views back to Marseille. It is also home to many Italian lizards, which are easy to spot but trickier to photograph. Back at the Vieux Port you can also observe the fishermen bringing in the catch of the day, check out the soaps and crafts at the stalls (while Marseille soap is famous, it is Savon d’Alep that is worth the purchase; Syrian soap is excellent stuff!) or have a drink in the many bars along the harbour.
Le Corbusier – La Cité Radieuse
Anyone with an interest in modern architecture should visit Le Corbusier’s landmark building. It is a stunning example of early Brutalist architecture – Le Corbusier described his techniques as breton brut – which translates as ‘raw concrete’ – and as ugly as it can look in Britain, this style of architecture just looks better by the Med. The sunshine helps, as does the physical build quality, which is a world away from badly built estates across the UK. If you fancy seeing some Le Corbusier-inspired housing in London, look at English Heritage or just read the brilliant Estates by Lynsey Hanley.
The building features his five points of architecture, and offers a brilliant roof garden that replaces the land lost in making the building. This works so well in Marseille; the building is breath-taking, and you can visit the Restaurant to admire the glorious interior design, which features the Corbusier sofas for good measure. The balcony offers views out to the sea, and is a pretty magical place to drink a glass of wine at sunset. While the food on offer may not be to everyone’s taste – when we visited it was two taster menus, each at €65, including delicacies such as foie gras, crab, and pigeon – the building itself it still worth the trip.
The Calanques and Cassis.
The Calanques and Cassis make for a great day out, but could easily make for a good weekend away. The Calanques is an area between Marseille and the town of Cassis that consists of cliffs forming many small bays, much like fjords. The landscape can be quite barren due to the lack of soil; the Calanques are mostly limestone but where there is vegetation, it is mostly shrubbery. It is a sight to behold, seeing busy harbours hundreds of feet down the cliff in the turquoise waters. There are a number of ways to get to the Calanques, but it has been suggested that the best way is to take a boat from Vieux Port in Marseille; similarly you could take a short train journey to Cassis and walk to the nature reserve from there. Time and bad planning meant we missed out on lunch at Le Lunch in Sormiou, which is said to be one of the most picturesque spots for an afternoon meal in the south of France.
Cassis has a number of great beach spots – but as you head into the Calanques nature reserve you’ll find many secluded rocky bays to lounge in. Don’t forget to try out a glass of cassis in the main town, too!
Affordable accommodation is available at the Le Corbusier hotel, where you can have a cell-like room from €69; many of the rooms boast original features such as parquet floors and a shower cabin inspired by a ship.
We stayed at The Grand Hotel Beauvau, which is situated right in the centre of town, about 30 seconds from the Vieux Port. Prices start from about £120 per night, which is reasonable for a four-star hotel in an enviable location.
Cafes and drinks
Breakfast was not included in the rate at Grand Hotel Beauvau, and at something approaching €20, it is best to head elsewhere. Pain & Cie was an ideal spot for breakfast or brunch with the best soft-poached eggs and a great tray of spreads to go with your breads and croissant. Never has a continental breakfast been so good! Cup of Tea was that rare find; a tea shop in Europe that doesn’t destroy the art of tea through Liptons. This was glorious leaf tea, and the cafe also served a pretty fantastic rhubarb and raspberry pie, too.
The Hotel Belle-Vue facing the Vieux Port is a great spot for a cocktail; there is something simply elegant about sipping a good drink on the tiny balcony, enjoying the glorious views up to the magnificent Notre-Dame de le Garde cathedral. Equally good is Longchamp Palace for food; renovated in 2006 from a dingy drinking den into a chic brasserie. The meal was reasonably priced, with a steak that was nigh-on perfect.
All in all, Marseille and the surrounding area offers so much, it’s hard not to fall a little in love and let people’s misconceptions of the city fall by the wayside. It’s not Barcelona, granted, and yes, sometimes the bins seem to exist just to overflow, but these are merely minor inconveniences in the grand scheme of things.