48 hours in Marseilles

Sip pastis in the Vieux-Port, watch the boats bob in the autumn sun, and imagine that you are a character in a Pagnol novel...
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The Independent Travel

Why go now?

The infernal summer temperatures have fallen to a pleasant, autumnal warmth, and frayed southern tempers, provoked by high-season congestion, are mellowing. Not that Marseilles will have lost its raw, inner-city energy, familiar to admirers and detractors alike.

Beam down

Marseille-Provence airport is 20km north-west of the city centre. Trailfinders (020-7937 1234) currently has return flights on BA from Gatwick from £99, valid for travel during September and October. Buzz ( www.buzzaway.com; 0870 240 7070) has return flights from Stansted from £85. Coaches leave the airport every 20 minutes between 6.30am and 8.50pm, depositing travellers at the central Gare St Charles for a one-way fare of Fr47 (about £4.50). Taxis cost approximately Fr250 (£24) for a central destination. Alternatively, arrive at the same station after a pleasantly smooth seven-hour train journey from London via Lille on the TGV. A train departs from Waterloo at 8.30am daily, arriving in Marseilles at 4.45pm. Prices from Rail Europe (08705 848848; www.raileurope.co.uk) are from £114 return.

Check in

The heart of Marseilles is the Vieux-Port, a rectangular stretch of seawater surrounded on three sides by restaurants, cafés and hotels. Some of Marseilles' best hotels look out on to sailing boats and crowded waterside pavements, including the Résidence du Vieux-Port, 18 Quai du Port (00 33 4 91 91 91 22). The plain modern exterior belies cool and spacious rooms with great balcony views of the action. A double costs Fr656 (£63), excluding breakfast. Four blocks inland from the Vieux-Port, and nearer the station, is the recently renovated Saint-Louis, 2 Rue des Récolettes (00 33 4 91 54 02 74), which has doubles for a mere Fr310 (£30), including breakfast. Slightly out of the mêlée, on the coastal Corniche, the 1930s Hôtel Péron, 119 Corniche JF Kennedy (00 33 4 91 31 01 41), offers, among other attractions, a Moorish-style room with wonderful views over distant islands and the Mediterranean. A double here costs Fr300 (£29), and an extra Fr40 (£3.85) for a basic breakfast.

Get your bearings

You don't appreciate how big Marseilles is until you climb (or take the tourist train) up to Notre Dame de la Garde, the 19th-century basilica whose enormous gilded statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus watches over the city. From this 135m vantage point, you can see how the city merges old and poor inner-city quarters, clustered around the Vieux-Port, with more elegant residential areas spreading inland from the coastal Corniche. Seek information at the Office du Tourisme, 6 La Canebière (00 33 4 91 13 89 00; www.marseille-tourisme.com), open Monday-Saturday from 9am-7pm, and Sunday 10am-5pm.

Take a hike

Or rather a climb, as you scale the steep streets of the district known as Le Panier (the bread basket). Start on the Quai du Port at the baroque Hôtel de Ville, and head inland until you find the Place des Augustins. Here, you'll find the hundreds of steps that make up the Montée des Accoules, a vertiginous alley leading into Le Panier's warren of streets. This is the Marseilles of the novelist Marcel Pagnol, a tough place of pastis and passions, and once the heartland of the city's homegrown Mafia. Dominating this mini-Naples is La Vieille Charité, a former poorhouse, built in the 17th century, with a beautiful domed chapel.

Take a hike

There is a good Métro system, and a network of buses with great-value day passes (information on 00 33 4 91 91 92 10). More fun, however, is the little ferry that plies the Vieux- Port, between the Hôtel de Ville and the opposite Quai de Rive Neuve. Admittedly, the ride only takes five minutes, but at Fr3 (about 28p) single or Fr5 (48p) return, you can afford to spend half an hour going to and fro, admiring the moored yachts.

Lunch on the run

The up-and-coming Greenwich Village-style area of Marseilles, the Cours Julien, is a 10-minute walk up the Canebière, the city's brash main artery, and then a right turn. Once a vegetable market, the area has been cleaned up (and then daubed with graffiti), and has an attractive pedestrianised square with fashionable shops and a wide range of restaurants with outdoor seating. Le Palais du Liban, 40 Cours Julien (00 33 4 91 92 37 38) offers Lebanese specialities, with an emphasis on vegetarian dishes, for about Fr85 (£8) a head.

Cultural afternoon

The city authorities are rightly proud of their museums and galleries. The Musée de la Mode, at 11 La Canebière (00 33 4 91 56 59 57), is one of the most unusual, devoted to the history of high fashion. A paradise for lingerie fetishists as well as students of haute couture, it is open from noon to 7pm daily and costs Fr18 (£1.70) to get in. The nearby Musée d'Histoire de Marseille, next to the modern Bourse shopping centre (00 33 4 91 90 42 22), tells the story of the city's Greek, Roman and medieval past. Entry costs Fr12 (£1.15) and it is open every day from noon to 7pm, except Sundays.

Window shopping

The Bourse is full of high-street names (Habitat et al), while across the Canebière, the area around Rue Saint-Ferréol offers Galeries Lafayette and Marks & Spencer (until the end of the year), among other well-known outlets. Less familiar is the pungent frenzy of commerce around the Rue Longue des Capucins, where Halal butchers and souk-like emporia remind you that Marseilles is home to a big Arab and African population. Look for cheap spices and exotic fruits, and avoid the counterfeit designer labels.

An aperitif

Pastis fuels Marseilles' particular sort of vivacity, and you can buy an addictive, appetite-enhancing glass for Fr10 (96p) at any of the scores of bars around the Vieux-Port. The legendary Bar de la Marine, 15 Quai de Rive-Neuve (00 33 4 91 54 95 42) is decorated in 1930s Pagnol style, and wouldn't look out of place in a gangster movie.

Dinner with the locals

Escape the crowds at the Vieux-Port and take a bus (no 83) or taxi from the Quai along the Corniche to the Vallon des Auffes, a tiny inlet and fishing port hidden in the middle of the city and dwarfed by tower blocks behind. Chez Jeannot, 129 Vallon des Auffes (00 33 4 91 52 11 28) specialises in upmarket pizzas and seafood at about Fr150 (£14.50) a head.

Sunday morning, go to church

The monumentally ugly Byzantine Cathédrale de la Major, dating from the mid-19th century, celebrates Mass on the hour from 8am, but there are another 14 Catholic churches in the centre of the city alone, plus a number of Orthodox churches, one Anglican, 12 synagogues and a mosque. If in need of a miracle, return to Notre Dame de la Garde, where scores of paintings depicting examples of Mary's intervention cover the church walls.

Bracing brunch

You can't leave Marseilles without tasting the famous bouillabaisse fish soup, so important to the city that approved chefs boast an official plaque. Miramar, 12 Quai du Port (00 33 4 91 91 10 40) is among the best-known of the Vieux-Port fish restaurants, but is closed on Sundays. Or there is Chez Caruso, 158 Quai du Port (00 33 4 91 90 94 04), where you can also sample home-made foie gras and a fish carpaccio for about Fr200 (£20) per head.

A walk in the park

Preferably after a siesta, join Marseilles' bronzed joggers and skateboarders in the Parc Borély, the city's biggest and best green space. It's a 15-minute bus ride (no 83) along the Corniche, but the park reveals another dimension of Marseilles life, with its well-dressed strollers and surrounding mansions. Expect to see pétanque being played here, and there's also a well laid-out botanical garden attached to the park.

The icing on the cake

For a final panoramic view of the Vieux-Port, treat yourself to a drink at the four-star Sofitel, 36 Boulevard Charles Livon (00 33 4 91 15 59 00). The building itself is nothing special, but from the Verandah cocktail bar, you gaze over the vista of forts, churches and modern buildings that surrounds the port. If possible, go at sunset and watch the lights of the pavement cafés reflected in the placid water of the harbour. A cocktail should cost no more than Fr50 (£4.80), and the location is priceless.

Write a postcard

A 20-minute boat ride (Fr50 or £4.80 return) from the Vieux-Port takes you to the Château d'If, a formidable-looking bastion set on a barren island. This local equivalent of Robben Island was immortalised by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo, and has held plenty of its own political prisoners. After a tour of the suitably gruesome dungeons (Fr25 or £2.40), you can buy a postcard in the rather more cheerful souvenir shop/bar and write it on the return journey.