Simon Calder: Perfect place for a pick-me-up

The Man Who Pays His Way

"If all you picked up tonight was this postcard...", reads the slogan for what could easily be a Club 18-30 holiday, "...it's time you flew to Marseilles." This message is scrawled on a postcard that is being given away at pubs and clubs across Britain. The sponsors of the free card turn out to be two hitherto respectable travel bodies: the no-frills airline, Buzz, and Maison de la France – the French tourist office by any other
nom.

"If all you picked up tonight was this postcard...", reads the slogan for what could easily be a Club 18-30 holiday, "...it's time you flew to Marseilles." This message is scrawled on a postcard that is being given away at pubs and clubs across Britain. The sponsors of the free card turn out to be two hitherto respectable travel bodies: the no-frills airline, Buzz, and Maison de la France – the French tourist office by any other nom.

The Greeks and Romans picked up on the trading opportunities presented by the superb natural harbour of Marseilles. Ever since, the second city of France has absorbed influences from all over the Mediterranean, and expanded in a magnificently chaotic manner across the hills that rise up against the sea. Alexander Dumas described Marseilles as "the meeting place of the entire world". It is certainly the rendezvous for many of Europe's smugglers.

From the front door of the hilltop Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde (the interior is temporarily inaccessible owing to building work) you may gasp at the splendid chaos unravelling beneath you. And you may also wonder what, precisely, you might pick up in the teeming, chaotic streets of France's second city?

"Racial hostility to whoever was last off the boat." So begins the list compiled by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls, guidebook writers par excellence. Their list of civic features in the Cadogan Guide to the South of France continues with "the petty crooks and hardened gangsters of the French mafia, heroin and prostitution rings". The French tourist office, meanwhile, says, "The postcards are a tongue-in-cheek way of saying 'put some excitement back in your life'."

* So why are a low-cost airline and the French tourist office trying to persuade young travellers to head south to a city where Lonely Planet warns, " Never leave anything you value in a parked car", and even the Foreign Office says, "It is common for bags to be snatched from the front passenger seat, often when the vehicle is stationary at traffic lights, usually by individuals on motorbikes."

Apparently, much of the blame is directed at the author of A Year in Provence. "In the past, Provence has tended to attract the more mature visitor in search of the sunsoaked landscapes as described by Peter Mayle," says the French tourist office. "Many people are unaware of what the region can offer a younger crowd. The city of Marseilles has a vibrant club and bar scene."

*

All I picked up in the city – besides a fine, semolina-based dinner at the justifiably named Roi du Couscous – was the 5.30 train to Paris. You can book on this express, and many other rail services in France, on the French Railways website, www.sncf.fr.

Across in Germany, Deutsche Bahn chose yesterday to reveal how its rail system delivers fast, cheap and reliable train travel to five million people a day. One in 10 trains runs late, but "late" in Germany means five minutes behind schedule (British trains are deemed to be "on time" if they can make it to the destination anything up to 10 minutes late.)

The Germans also undertake to offer free online schedules for rail journeys anywhere in Europe. In five seconds flat, www.bahn.de will tell you the fastest way from Thurso to Thessalonika (three and a half days, change at Inverness, London, Paris, Vienna and Budapest, since you ask).

*

Here in privatised Britain, pity Harry Potter and his pals should they try to book on Hogwarts Express through the Railtrack website. As you no doubt know, the train to magic school departs from a little-known corner of King's Cross station in London. According to the organisation's computer, no such terminus exists – though it does allow the station if the apostrophe is omitted.

What the Railtrack mainframe will suggest, however, is a series of spectacularly ambitious journeys – in duration, if not achievement. Suppose you land at Britain's leading no-frills airport, Stansted, in the evening and wish to travel to Manchester. The Railtrack computer suggests several inviting alternatives. The most appealing option is the 10pm that will take you on two trains, a Tube and two buses, getting you to Manchester Piccadilly shortly before 5am (the fiendish German website gets you there half an hour earlier).

Next up is the 11pm, a voyage that involves a four-hour wait in Oxford in the middle of the night. A glance at a map suggests this is a surprising option, but it is better than the midnight train. This itinerary demands you spend six hours waiting outside Tottenham Hale tube station in north London.

* Twenty years ago the book Alternative London offered travellers advice on how, illegally, to improve the pound's exchange rate in their favour: "5p pieces work as one Deutschmark in German vending machines", a happy coincidence that multiplied their value seven-fold. Visitors to France were urged to take plenty of low-value coins: "English 2p pieces work in most French Space Invaders machines." But anyone at a loose end in Marseilles these days will find that the euro has eradicated all such mischief.

Simon.Calder@independent.co.uk

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