Travel: France - 48 hours in Marseilles

Click to follow
The Independent Online
You don't need to be a football fan to visit Marseilles in the next month. The Mediterranean port is also the home of bouillabaisse, eye-opening architecture, comfortable hotels - and too many museums to visit in a weekend. Natasha Edwards makes a selection

Why go now?

Thirty days from today, Marseilles hosts England's first World Cup match - against, as luck would have it, Tunisia. This is a Mediterranean city that in parts is almost as north African as it is French. Today's city is a mix of historic buildings and modern developments of run-down and renovated, eyesore and beauty.

Beam down

The best availability at low fares is on Eurostar (0345 303030) from London Waterloo via Lille or Paris to Marseilles St-Charles station for pounds 119 return. British Airways (0345 303030) flies three times daily from Gatwick to Marseilles, with a lowest return fare of pounds 227.20 including tax. Flights arrive at the Marseilles Marignac airport west of the city, connected by bus (45F) every 20 minutes to the station.

Get your bearings

Marseilles is spread out and surprisingly hilly. Yet much of what you will want to see can be visited on foot, and there are also a metro system (two lines), a tramway and a decent bus network. South of the station stretch some 37km of seafront, with the Vieux Port at the heart, the modern docks to the west and the Corniche to the east.

The wide La Canabiere cuts north-south through the centre of town. Although now full of discount stores and fast-food outlets, it was once the Champs- Elysees of the south, and a few grand remnants include the Bourse, which contains a maritime museum.

Check in

The best option is one of several hotels on the Vieux Port. The comfortable Tonic Hotel (00 33 4 91 55 67 46) at 43 quai des Belges (double rooms 410F-590F) and the slightly simpler Hotel Alize (00 33 4 91 33 66 97) at 35 quai des Belges (rooms 295F-355F) are both agreeable. Make sure to ask for a room with a view of the port if you want an eye on to local life. The modern Hotel Sofitel (00 33 4 91 15 59 00), out by the fortress at 36 boulevard Charles Livon, is more luxurious and spacious, at 660F- 960F a night, but less convenient.

Architecture buffs will want to stay somewhere rather different: the hotel located among the flats inside Le Corbusier's influential Unite d'Habitation (00 33 4 91 16 78 00), built in 1952 in the eastern suburbs, at 280 boulevard Michelet. Its sculptural roof can be seen from afar; up close it is marked by the primary colours on the balconies and the giant V-shaped concrete pilotis. Rooms cost 190F-285F a night, or you can simply eat lunch in the restaurant.

A hike

Begin a stroll around Old Marseilles with the Vieux Port. This is now a yachting marina but is still the core of the city, with its fortresses enclosing either end and quays lined with cafes, ships' chandlers and restaurants.

The Stade Velodrome, home to Marseilles' adored football team Olympic Marseille (and the England vs Tunisia game) may be on the hills to the north east, but supporters still parade round here after matches and there's even now an OM Cafe on the quay.

You can nip across the harbour in a little ferry shuttle (3F), in pretty much the same time it takes to walk. Take a look at the decorative 17th- century Mairie (town hall) on the quai du Port. Beyond here the western side of the port was bombed in the war, but in the basement of one of the new buildings, opened as the Roman Docks Museum (place Vivaux, open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am-6pm), you can look down on the excavations of a Roman warehouse.

For an interesting insight into today's Marseilles, explore the narrow streets north of the broad Cours Belsunce. Here you might think yourself in a north African city, with its Arab grocers, cafes where an all-male clientele watches TV, and decrepit-looking hotels.

Then climb up between the rue de la Republique and the quai du Port to explore the historic quartier du Panier. Although the houses are beginning to be restored, this area of melting-pot Marseilles, where French, Moroccans and Africans live side by side, can still feel slightly dodgy - with the occasional burnt-out car hidden down an alley.

At the top is the beautiful Centre de la Vieille-Charite (2 rue de la Vieille-Charite), now a collection of museums and well worth visiting for its architecture alone. A three-storey arcade surrounds a central courtyard with strikingly austere oval domed chapel in the centre, built 1671-1741 and the only major surviving work of Pierre Puget, court architect to Louis XIV.

Between the Vieille-Charite and the modern docks is Marseilles' cathedral, actually two cathedrals side by side, one (the Vieille-Major) a fortified medieval basilica, its replacement (the Nouvelle-Major) a garish neo-Byzantine extravagance, dating from the late 19th century when the port prospered after the opening of the Suez Canal.

Lunch on the run

Stop for a quick salad or a quiche at l'Art et des Thes (00 33 4 91 14 58 71), the cafe within the Vieille-Charite complex (open noon-6pm). The room is very simple, but the setting is beautiful and the outdoor tables are perfect for relaxing.

A cultural afternoon

Marseilles has an astonishing number of museums, and you're not going to get round all of them. Make a start with the Centre de la Vieille-Charite, home to two important museums: the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology, noted for its Greek and Roman artefacts and for its Egyptian department, and the Museum of African, Oceanic and American-Indian Arts, a collection of sculpture and masks, skulls and Mexican popular art (both open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am-6pm).

On the other side of the Vieux Port, visit the Musee Cantini (19 rue Grignan, open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am-6pm). The pretty, late-18th-century mansion is the perfect setting for a small but high-quality collection of modern art including Dufy, Ernst, Leger and Matisse.

Liquid culture

The cafe beckons, and the local apero is pastis. The blend of star anise and herbs is an acquired taste, but one that's easier to acquire on a terrace in Marseilles (perhaps the fashionable New York or Bar de la Marine on the Vieux Port) than in a Paris cafe or a London pub. Anyway, the best bit is watching the liquid turn from gold to cloudy yellow when you add water.

Fisherman's dinner

If there's one dish inextricably associated with Marseilles, it is bouillabaisse. Much more than just a fish soup, this is a full meal, usually served first as a soup with garlic, croutons and rouille, followed by the assorted fish and shellfish (a mixture of at least five varieties that has to include rascasse - scorpion fish) and saffron-tinted potatoes, preferably complemented by the white wine of neighbouring Cassis.

Ask any Marseillais(e) and they'll tell you that you can't get a real bouillabaisse anywhere else. They'll also tell you it should be ordered at least 24 hours in advance - and will probably inform you that the one you've just eaten wasn't the real thing. Splurge out at the Miramar (00 33 4 91 91 10 40), a chic Fifties brasserie at 12 quai du Port, which has a much better reputation than the tourist restaurants that line rue Thiars behind the quai de Rive Neuve.

Sunday morning: go to church

Work up an appetite with a steep climb up the steps (the lazy can take the bus up and walk down) to the Eglise Notre Dame de la Garde. Perched on the top of a hill, the wondrously ugly, stripy marble church, built under the Second Empire, is visible from most of the city - with a gigantic gilded statue of the Virgin on the roof and an interior full of ex voto plaques of thanks from those she has miraculously saved.

On the way down, visit the much more historic Abbaye St-Victor, behind a fortified facade. Again, this is two churches on top of each other, with the 11th-to-13th-century church sitting over a labyrinth of crypts housing carved sarcophagi from the third and fourth centuries.

Mediterranean lunch

It's not easy to find a restaurant open for Sunday lunch, but a popular and good-value local spot is Chez Soi (00 33 4 91 54 25 41) at 5 rue Papere, just off La Canebiere in a former dairy, the place for bistro favourites such as leg of lamb and creme caramel.

Icing on the cake

Finish your visit with a whiff of sea air and a panoramic view of Marseilles in a boat trip from the harbour. Two quickie visits leave from the quai des Belges: the le d'If with the 16th-century fortress prison that inspired Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo and, just beyond, the les de Frioule, which, apart from a small marina and a few holiday flats and cafes by the jetty, are mainly windswept rock dotted with clumps of rosemary and thyme - a fragrant reminder that you're in the Med.