PRODUCED IN ASSOCIATION WITH MAISON DE LA FRANCE

On the waterfront

For fruits of the sea and the city, Marseille is the port to call on

Where?

The Mediterranean city of Marseille - France's oldest city and chief port - is a magnificent mix of urban and marine. Some 40km of seaboard stretch from the fishing port and industrial suburb of L'Estaque in the north, which provided source material for Cézanne, Braque, Derain and Dufy, past the docks, ferry terminal, fishing inlets and long expanse of the Prado beach to tiny Les Goudes. Even the remote, fjord-like Calanques that stretch east between Marseille and Cassis mostly fall within the urban limits of Marseille.

The geographical, historic and emotional heart of Marseille is the Vieux Port, with its tightly packed boats in the marina and two forts on either side. It is here that football supporters celebrate victories of Olympique Marseille; that locals bask on café terraces in the morning sun; that you should come to get your bearings (if you arrive by train at the Gare Marseille St-Charles, then take the Métro to Vieux Port), and it is also a great place to stay.

The Mercure Grand Hôtel Beauvau (4 Rue Beauvau, 00 33 4 91 54 91 00; www.mercure.com; doubles from €175/£125) - the grand hotel where George Sand, Chopin, De Musset all stayed in the 19th century - has recently come out of rehab in a state of luxury four-star comfort; many of the rooms, including some comfortable duplexes with a balcony, overlook the Vieux Port.

For almost the same view at a fraction of the price, ask for a room at the front of the more functional Provençal-style Hôtel Alizé (35 Quai des Belges, 00 33 4 91 33 66 97; www.alize-hotel.com, doubles from €63/£45) or go for the balconies of the comfortable 1950s La Résidence du Vieux-Port (18 Quai du Port, 0033 4 91 91 91 22; www.hotelmarseille.com; doubles from €119/£85).

If you feel that the Vieux Port might be a bit too lively for you, another option are the hotels along the Corniche -- not quite as central but with stunning sea views. Try the discreet luxury of Le Petit Nice (Anse de Maldormé, Corniche J F Kennedy, 00 33 4 91 59 25 92; www.passedat.fr; double from €180/£127), a belle époque villa which sits on its own little promontory and has a first-rate restaurant, or the simpler but pleasant Hôtel Ruhl (269 Corniche J F Kennedy, 00 33 4 91 52 01 77; doubles from €90/£64); some rooms have spacious balconies.

Striking inland from the port is the Canebière, the Marseille version of the Champs-Elysées built up with grand hotels and department stores when the port of Marseille was at its height to serve the French empire. Decidedly scruffier today, on one side lies Cours Belsunce, on the other the opera, the shopping streets of Rue de Rome and Rue Paradis, leading towards the Préfecture and the boho restaurants and shops of Cours Julien. Rising above the northern side of the port is the historic Le Panier quartier; on the south side are broad restaurant-lined Cours Estienne d'Orves and the former arsenal buildings, the ancient abbey of St Victor founded in the fifth century and above it the gaudy church of Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Why?

Marseille is in a way the anti-Riviera and the antithesis of the French tourist destination. It couldn't care less about tourists; yet for all its defiant city mood and often grimy streets, glimpses of the shimmering sea can be seen at almost every turn and with 2,600 years of history, the town abounds in historic monuments, fine churches, old fortresses, interesting museums and some icons of modern architecture. Marseille is a fascinating mix of the grandiose and the intimate, and is one of the most invigorating cities in France: true, it still suffers from a gangster reputation, unemployment is at 14 per cent and many live below the poverty line, but there is also a palpable sense of dynamism. The refurbishment of the 19th-century Joliette docks, flagship of the larger Euroméditerranée redevelopment project, illustrates the transformation of the local economy as design and advertising agencies and service companies replace shipping ones. It is also a melting pot, where France's often uneasy racial mix for once largely seems to work.

The cosmopolitan population is reflected in its Italian pizzerias, its North African patisseries and grocers, and Asian, Greek and African restaurants, but bouillabaisse remains the mythical Marseillaise dish. The saffron-perfumed fish soup is traditionally served in two courses (first the soup accompanied by croutons and rouille, then the fish, usually a number of varieties including scorpion fish, conger, weaver fish, red gurnet, john dory and, often, mussels). Originally a humble meal made by fishermen with the leftover fish that they were unable to sell, it is now a luxurious -- and expensive dish. Although it can be found on countless menus, be prepared to fork out at least €45 (£31) for a good bouillabaisse, ideally order in advance and choose one of the restaurants that adheres to the Bouillabaisse Charter. Its name, derived from quand çà bouille... abaisse - "when it bubbles lower the heat" - in an instruction in how to cook it without the fish disintegrating.

There are plenty of other things to eat, too: simple fresh char-grilled fish, pistou soup (a minestrone-like bean and vegetable soup served with pistou sauce), the grand aï oli (boiled cod, potatoes, vegetables and whelks accompanied by potent garlic mayonnaise), typically a Friday or celebratory dish, and pieds et paquets, a stew of sheep's tripe and trotters, or desserts made with fresh brousse cheese.

What?

Get a fix on local life with a stop at the fabulous daily fish market on the quai des Belges on the Vieux Port. Here you buy flapping fresh fish and shellfish, colourful rockfish and prickly sea urchins unloaded off small fishing boats and sold by vociferous fishwives. There are other markets, too, laden with fruit and veg, fish and general goods, including La Plaine, the broad avenue de Prado and place des Capucins. Rue d'Aubagne is lined with North African grocers, with sacks of couscous, spices, nuts and dates and hanging loofahs. Garlic gets its own special festival on Cours Belsunce in June.

Back down at the Vieux Port, the Quai du Port is where Marseille began. It was heavily bombed in the Sedond World War but sensitively rebuilt by Fernand Pouillon on either side of the ornate town hall. While you're there, stop off at the Maison du Pastis at No 108, with its huge choice of pastis, the quintessential Marseille drink, local liqueurs, non-lethal versions of absinthe and other Provençal treats. Then climb up the steps behind the town hall to explore Le Panier, unashamedly picturesque with its pastel-washed houses, narrow streets and flights of stairs. Traditionally the immigrant quarter, where first Italians then North Africans and Africans arrived, it has more recently been colonised by artists and potters and Parisians in search of a southern pied-à-terre. The Cathédrale de la Major looms over the coastline. The must-see in Le Panier is the beautiful Vieille Charité (open Tues-Sun), the charity hospital that is the masterpiece of local architect Pierre Puget.

Built between 1671 and 1749, the three storeys of galleried arcades and central chapel with its rare oval dome are amazingly serene and beautiful for a building originally destined to round up beggars and other social rejects. The architecture is the highlight here but the Vieille Charité now contains exhibitions and two museums, the Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens, Amérindians, noted for its American Indian artefacts, and the Musée d'Archéologie Méditerranéenne, with well-displayed Egyptian collections and local archaeology.

Other museums in the city include the Musée Cantini (open Tues-Sun), a fine collection of Fauve, Surrealist and postwar art on Rue Grignan, the imaginatively presented fashion exhibitions at the Musée de la Mode on the Canebière, and the contemporary art shows in the hangar-like Musée d'Art Contemporain (open Tues-Sun) on Avenue d'Haïfa.

For an insight into the Marseillaise psyche, climb up to Notre-Dame de la Garde, the stripy black-and-white church with an over-sized golden virgin on the top, which stands on the highest point in the city. Supposedly a look-out post since prehistoric times, and later a fort, it also became a place of worship for seafarers and has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. The current version consecrated in 1864 is a feast of stripy marble, mosaics and naive ex-voto paintings and marble plaques giving thanks to the Virgin for saving loved ones from cyclones, cholera and, more recently, a postal hold-up.

Wow!

The fish is so fresh at the daily market on Quai des Belges that here octopuses and spiny lobster promenade and sole flap their way out of the blue crates.

Top Five

CHEZ MICHEL (6 Rue des Catalans, 00 33 4 91 52 64 22) A classic destination for bouillabaisse and other fish dishes served by marine-dressed waiters.

L'EPUISETTE (156 Rue du Vallon des Auffes, 00 33 4 91 52 17 82) This venerable restaurant perched at the end of a fishing inlet is now in the hands of a young chef who masters bouillabaisse and adventurous creations.

LA BAIE DES SINGES (Cap Croisette, Les Goudes, 00 33 4 91 73 68 67. Open Apr-Sep.) You have to scramble over the rocks or arrive by boat to this restaurant which draws a showbizzy crowd for wonderfully fresh char-grilled fish.

PIZZERIA ETIENNE (43 Rue de Lorette) A reminder that the Panier was once the Italian quarter, Etienne is a local institution and renowned for the best pizza in town.

UNE TABLE AU SUD (2 Quai du Port, 00 33 4 91 90 63 53) Young Ducasse protegée Lionel Levy, who has just gained a Michelin star, makes inventive, even witty, use of southern produce in a modern restaurant overlooking the Vieux Port.

For more information and bookings, contact the Marseille tourist office on 00 33 4 91 13 89 00; www.marseille-tourisme.com

A Feast Of The Sea

Montpellier

Nostradamus and Rabelais both studied at the medical faculty in Montpellier, which was renowned throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the capital of Languedoc still has a large student population today. At the heart of the town, egg-shaped Place de la Comédie, with its ornate 19th-century theatre, forms the meeting point between historic Montpellier with its hôtels particuliers and the wilfully modern Corum, conference centre and concert hall, and the Antigone quarter, an exercise in postmodern classicism by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill.

Great views can be had from the 18th-century promenade de Peyrou, while the nearby Jardin des Plantes is France's oldest botanical garden, founded in 1593. Montpellier is the culinary fief of the inventive Pourcel twins, with their haute-cuisine restaurant Le Jardin des Sens and the more informal Med-wide Compagnie des Comptoirs. The Pourcels have recently opened a restaurant in London, W'Sens (on Waterloo Place). Although not actually on the sea, the coast is not far away at Villeneuve-les-Maguelone with its cathedral and sandy beach and the modern resort of La Grande Motte. Fresh fish from the picturesque port of Sète plays a large role in the cuisine here. Seek out bourride, the Languedoc's rival to Marseille's bouillabaisse, typically made with a single variety of white fish liaised with garlic aïoli, lamb with anchovies, and light, crispy oreillette pastry biscuits.

Le Havre

At the head of the Seine estuary, the port of Le Havre was almost flattened in World War II but its 1950s reconstruction by Auguste Perret is now considered an exemplary piece of postwar planning. Laid out on a strict grid, the 1950s reinforced concrete architecture mixes housing, offices, garden squares and public buildings, dominated by the beacon-like tower of the Eglise St-Joseph with its brilliantly reflected stained glass.

The Musée Malraux was ground-breaking when it opened in 1961, with its open plan in which historic and modern paintings and sculpture are displayed together. The museum has just gained a generous new donation, including works by Monet, Pissarro and Bonnard, subject of a special exhibition (until 12 June), entitled "From Courbet to Matisse, Senn-Foulds' donation".

A few of the mansions built by the great shipping families have survived, including the 1790s Maison de l'Armateur on Quai de l'Ile, due to open to the public after restoration later this year. Le Havre has the lively atmosphere or a working port that is refreshingly different from Normandy's seaside resorts, with its container port (France's largest), oil tankers and petrochemical refineries, and passenger ferry terminus. To get a sense of the immensity of the docks, take a boat trip to the Ville de Fécamp (00 33 2 35 28 89 53, all year except July and August).

Natasha Edwards

For more information and bookings, contact Le Havre tourist office on 00 33 2 32 74 04 04; www.lehavretourisme.com, or Montpellier tourist office on 00 33 4 67 60 60 60; www.ot-montpellier.fr

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