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

News
Disruption at Waterloo after a person was hit by a train
newsCancellations and disrupted service after person hit by train
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The almost deserted Liverpool Echo Arena on Monday
tvCan X Factor last in the face of plummeting numbers auditioning
News
Kirsty Bertarelli is launching a singing career with an album of songs detailing her observations of “real life”
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Content Assistant / Copywriter

    £15310 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity has arisen for a...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £24000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Situated in the heart of Bradfo...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel Reception Manager

    £18750 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Hotel in Chadderton is a popular ch...

    Guru Careers: Marketing and Communications Manager

    £Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing and Co...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence