Wednesday, 19 September 2012


I first came to the capital of Provence as a 20 year old girl, not knowing a soul in town; and after a matter of days, I was head-over-heels in love with the city of Marseille.

Marseille has a bad reputation, let's not pretend. We've all seen the films and read the newspapers... Some of these representations are founded, many are not. I firmly believe that Marseille is no more dangerous or threatening than any other big city. Like any city, there are parts of town into which I do not stray; I drive with my car doors locked, buy practical handbags that can't be snatched and don't leave my phone on café tables for passers-by to slip into their pocket. But I would behave in the same wary way in London, Paris, Lille or Lyon. 

In France, the socially-deprived areas tend to be built around the outskirts of cities, thereby (in theory) making the city centre a safer, more friendly environment. This is how Marseille has been constructed, with huge council high-rises colonizing the quartiers nords on the fringes of the city. It is in these concentrated districts that a lot of the crime, drug-dealing etc takes place. It's a sad fact of society, but these things have to happen somewhere. But the city itself is far from the gang land territory that the media make it out to be.

Need convincing? Let me take on a little walking tour of Marseille, you'll see what I mean.

The view from St Charles station

 Most people's first contact with Marseille is the enormous St Charles station, bang in the centre of town. This vast building is perched on top of a hill, giving the traveller a spectacular first view over the rooftops as he leaves the station to descend the 50-odd stone steps down to the road.

The St Charles station

In the shadow of the station lies the long boulevard of the Canebière, Marseille central street. Sloping gently down to the portside, the Canebière draws its name from a time when the large mechant ships would lay their hemp ropes out straight along the street to dry, after the long crossing from North Africa.
Trams, buses, cars and scooters all fight for right of way along the Canebière, and you really get the impression that you are in the nerve of the city.

A large pedestrianized shopping street, the Rue St Ferréol,  runs perpendicular to the Canebière, as does the Rue de Rome, leading straight up to the busy roundabout of Castellane.
At the top of the Canebière, the church of Réformés, with its two proud spires, stands watch over the city centre. When I first moved to Marseille, I lived in the shadow of this spectacular building, and was awoken by its bells each morning.

Réformés church

On the other side of the Canebière, up a steep hill, lies the bohemian district of Cours Julien, a network of small streets packed with artisan workshops, boutiques, tattoo parlours, clothes and jewellery shops, and interesting and unusual bars and restaurants. The streets are papered with spectacular, original and witty street art.  

The Cours Julien is an excellent place for a night out, especially in the summer months, when you can drift from one café terrace or boutique to the next, and then take your pick of café concerts, small clubs or cocktail bars.

Down the hill from the Cours Julien is the arab district of Noailles, which plays host to one of the busiest permanent markets in town. Small shops crowd the narrow streets of Noailles, offering exotic spices, unusual fruit and Japanese soft drinks. A place to watch out for your wallet, and not flash your camera about, but certainly worth a visit for the sights, smells and sounds. And north african pastries, sold by the kilo and dripping with honey...

Cour Julien's main square
One of Marseille's largest markets, La Plaine, can be found just off the Cours Julien, on a Saturday and Thursday morning.
Selling everything from fruit and veg, to clothes, jewellery, kitchen ware, radios, leather bags, books... it is well worth braving the crowds to browse the hundreds of stalls - there's no way you can't come away with a bargain.

Let's return to the Canebière, and make our way down to the Vieux Port, around 1km down from the Réformés church, pretty much due south.

What to say about the Vieux Port?
It's enormous, it's beautiful, it play host to hundreds of hotels, bars, cafés and restaurants, for all tastes and budgets. Its fish market (every morning, except Mondays) attracts tourists, local chefs and residents alike. It is surrounded by spectacular monuments, including the Fort St Nicolas, the town hall, the cathedral and the Palais du Pharo.   All of these places merit visits, time...

As do many of the bars and restaurants. My favourite place to eat is the restaurant La Nautique. Situated on the first floor of a floating pavillion, which belongs to one of Marseille's most prestigious yacht clubs, you eat surrounded by beautiful classic sailing yachts, watching the deckhands coil ropes and sand the decks. Contrary to appearances, this restaurant is fabulous value for money, and not too snooty - if you want to dress up, you won't be alone, but if you want to join the sailors who prop up the bar in shorts and tattered t-shirts, drinking whisky and swapping stories, nobody will bat an eyelid:

And if you're looking for a night out, the combination of Exit Café (whose happy hour seems to have no real concept of time), Shamrock and Trolleybus, a nightclub in the old winecellars beneath a ship chandler's, has never fallen short of the mark for me.

On the Western side of the Vieux Port, the Rue de la République, a Hausmannien boulevard, leads off to the new business district of La Joliette, where skyscrapers are beginning to emerge from the field of terracotta rooftops. A fabulous conversion project, Les Docks, has recently been completed just off La Joliette's square, and the ground floor is open to visitors.

A little further towards the sea, within easy walking distance of the port, is Le Panier, the oldest residential district in Europe. Saved from the otherwise liberal bombings of Marseille during World War II, Le Panier is built largely around a small hill, on top of which stands the church of Les Accoules. On the Place des Pistoles, a beautifully calm, leafy square spotted with pleasant, reasonably priced restaurants, is the Vieille Charité, a vast old poor house, recently restored as an exhibition centre. Some of the expositions are a bit pricey, but it's free to enter the main courtyard and wander through the cloisters, or into the spectacular domed church. In the summer months, the Panier rivals the Cours Julien for its bohemian atmosphere, with concerts, soirées and chic second hand boutiques, but in the winter it is largely deserted and can feel a little unsafe.  

Let's wind our way back down to the port, and perhaps stop a while on a terrace to rest our weary feet, sip a café au lait and watch the world go by. As we are about to climb up to Notre Dame de la Garde, and you'll need all the energy you can muster.

The church of Notre Dame de la Garde stands on the highest hill over-looking the town. Originally a sea-farers' church, an enormous golden statue of the Madonna and child look out over the waters. The inside of the church is decorated with sea scapes, and model boats hang from the ceiling amid curls of incense. But the climb up to Notre Dame is rewarded also by the spectacular views from its panoramic terraces, from one end of Marseille to the other. If you only spend one day in Marseille, you must go there.

Let's turn now towards the sea. Marseille has some 13km of coastline, including some wonderful sandy beaches. The main beach area of Provence, l'Escale Borely, is completely artificial, and was apparently constructed using the earth and debris dug out in the making of the metro. It's now a haven for wind- and kite-surfers, fishermen and sunbathers alike.

The best way to get to the beaches is via La Corniche, a road clinging to the cliffside, offering an unparelled view over the sea. Around halfway round is the beautiful fishing cove of Vallon des Auffes, hidden beneath the road, with two of Marseille's most famous fish restaurants, L'Epuisette and Chez Fon-Fon.

And finally, as we laze on the beach gazing out to sea, let me tell you a little about the islands in the bay of Marseille. The islands of Frioul, around 4kms out to sea from the Vieux Port (although you'd think they were closer), were formally a military base, and the old military hospital there is currently undergoing renovation.

There are a total of four islands, the most famous of which being If, home to the famous Chateau d'If, the prison from which Dumas' fictional Count of Monte Cristo escapes.
The Frioul islands are now a residential district of Marseille, despite the fact that they are only accessible by boat. Navettes run from the Vieux Port several times a day, ferrying tourists and residents to and fro.

Whilst there are several restaurants open on the quayside of Frioul's largest island, I would recommend taking a picnic, wandering around the island and settling down on a pebbly beach somewhere, either to gaze out at miles and miles of uninterrupted sea, or back towards the hubbub of Marseille.

View from inside the Chateau d'If, looking back towards Notre Dame de la Garde

Thus ends our whistlestop tour of the sights of Marseille. There are many that I have not had time to tell you about, and some that I have surely forgotten. Why don't you come and find out for yourself? You won't regret it.


  1. Oh! I only just saw this... Marseille certainly does get under your skin :*)