With her notorious gangster past, Marseille has been called Chicago-sur-Rhône. But now the grand old lady of the Mediterranean is having a 21st-century facelift. Will it make her more attractive to visitors? asks Philip Sweeney

There comes a time when elderly European ports become the subject of the grand project and spectacular titanium silhouettes begin to sprout amid decaying landscapes. Marseille, France's oldest city and biggest port, has waited through half a century of decline for that moment, and now it has arrived.

Zaha Hadid, star of the architectural world, has been commissioned to design the city's first skyscraper, a curvilinear glass headquarters for Marseille's leading shipping company. It will be the crowning glory of a huge redevelopment, the Euroméditerranée project, which will rejuvenate acres of old dockland into prime real estate, with a new tramway linking the area to the city centre.

Marseille is shunned by Francophile tourists more interested in the olive groves of rural Provence. Yet it has long been one of the south's most grittily fascinating destinations, and only a three-hour train ride from Paris.

As the TGV pulls into the Gare St Charles, visitors are plunged into Marseille both old and new. Within five minutes you can be strolling on the Canebière, Marseille's Piccadilly. Originally a 17th-century port access road, in the 1800s the Canebière acquired the opulent travellers' hotels, banks and cafés that made it famous. Now it is a building site, courtesy of the Métro.

But traces of its past glory remain. The C&A store bears the great stone-carved name panel of the Hotel du Louvre et de la Paix, and a Monoprix façade is adorned with the winged head of Chronos, god of time, flanked by two zephyrs blowing mistrals out of puffed cheeks.

By the turn of the century the Canebière was the place where all Marseille came to stroll in the evenings, dressed to kill. Sometimes literally, because Marseille has a long reputation as a playground for the local pègre mafia.

The celebrated 1930s duo of Paul Carbone and Lydro Spirito, with their bent friends in the Mairie, founded the legend of Marseille as Chicago-sur-Rhône, subsequently maintained with aplomb and 11.43 calibre bullets by characters such as Gaëtan " Tony" Zampa, Jacky le Mat and Francis le Belge, not to mention the cast of The French Connection. Read the detective novels of the Marseille writer Jean-Claude Izzo for atmosphere, or buy the excellent Guide du Marseille des Faits Divers, which reveals the city's crime locations.

Quai de la Joliette, for example, starting point of all that is sleek and chic in the Euroméditerranée zone, turns out to be the scene of the January 2002 disappearance of Edmond Goubert, dock boss and local notable also known as a cigarette-smuggling partner of the Neapolitan Camorra gangs and close associate of Francis le Belge. The Quai de la Joliette was the transit point of half the goods of the Mediterranean, licit and otherwise. Old Peugeots and Toyotas throughout Algeria today bear on their windscreens the decal of La Joliette Export, used-car supplier extraordinaire. The ferries to North Africa and Corsica still dock here, but the stone 19th-century warehouses of La Joliette now host smart offices, studios and restaurants.

Hang on a minute, it's lunchtime, and we haven't even mentioned bouillabaisse. Back to the Vieux Port, the heart of Marseille, down the long straight Rue de la République, with its newly restored Hausmann-style apartments, to the Quai des Belges, where the fish stalls set up every morning. Around the great rectangle of massed pleasure boats, the restaurant terraces stretch, some fronted by waiter touts as persistent as souk salesmen.

Bouillabaisse has come a long way from fisherman's staple to luxury dish. Of a dozen top-notch bouillabaisse purveyors, the Miramar stands out, a 1960s classic taken over by a dynamic young chef named Christian Buffa, who has graduated from the kitchens of Paul Bocuse. He has shrewdly kept the original red-velvet upholstery, piscine murals and bow-tied staff and simply polished the cooking and the service till they gleam. The Miramar bouillabaisse comes in two stages. First, the dense brown broth, with croutons, cloves of garlic to rub on them and a gorgeously smooth rouille. Then the seven fish, shown first on a silver salver before filleting, with more broth. There are superb fruits de mer, including sea urchins, to begin, perfect fraises Chantilly to finish, cool white Cassis to drink, and an ambience redolent of 1950s pègre godfathers and bent sénateurs. It would help to have a modest extortion racket behind you when it comes to l'addition.

Time for a stroll. Behind the Miramar rises the old quarter of Le Panier, a mesh of narrow streets and little squares leading up to the great Byzantine cathedral Nouvelle-Major, and then the docks.

Le Panier was the haunt of successive waves of poor immigrants - Maltese, Corsicans, Italians, and later Algerians. Despite the occasional theatre and bohemian-chic bistro, the quarter hasn't yet been gentrified.

Strangely, the old streets stop clear of the Vieux Port, where a series of big square granite 1960s apartment blocks, courtesy of the noted post-war architect Fernand Pouillon, line the quayside. They mark the great swathe of Le Panier, dynamited in 1942 by the occupying German army, thus terminating the existence of a red-light district of global reputation.

Other post-war blocks distinguish (depending on your taste) the Marseille cityscape. Out in the Prado suburb, Le Corbusier's huge liner-like Cité Radieuse, complete with onboard hotel and gym, is a place of architectural pilgrimage. While bang in the middle of the Canebière, the four great tower blocks built to house the flood of French pieds noirs fleeing newly independent Algeria in 1962 look as startling as a northern Paris slum plonked on the Champs-Elysées.

At the foot of this mini estate, the once-grand Cours Belsunce is a place of pilgrimage for showbusiness archaeologists. An ornate orange door frame is all that remains of the Alcazar, Marseille's most famous music hall. Until the Second World War, Marseille was a theatre and musical centre to rival Paris, with stars such as Fernandel and Raimu, composers such as Vincent Scotto, and film-makers, notably Marcel Pagnol, building the image of a Marseille of sun, fishing, and lovable rogues with twanging southern accents.

The theatre scene still thrives, and a Marseille popular musical revival is in full swing, thanks to groups including IAM, the Massilia Sound System and Moussu T and the Jovents, the last a sort of musical antidote to Euroméditerranée, writing songs that celebrate the rough salty old Marseille of yore. And also reprising items from the famous Scotto opérettes (revues) such as Les Gangsters du Château d'If, a daft romp with faux gangsters and a ghost set on the old prison island in front of the Vieux Port. Château d'If is open for visits, incidentally, as are numerous other parts of the city equally little known to foreign tourists.

With the completion of Euroméditerranée and the arrival of Ryanair, the city's tourism authorities seem to be hoping for a Barcelona-style boom. Marseille may have withstood Hitler, Jacky le Mat and Francis le Belge, but a prolonged onslaught by British hen parties could bring the place to its knees.

HOW TO GET THERE

Philip Sweeney travelled as a guest of Rail Europe (0870-830 4862; raileurope.co.uk). It offers return train fares from London Waterloo to Marseille using the Eurostar service with an onward connection on the TGV via Lille or Paris from £109.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Maison de la France (0906-824 4123, calls cost 60p per minute; franceguide.com). Marseille Tourisme (00 33 491 13 89 00; marseille-tourisme.com).

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