Nick Constance Marseille
is suddenly the coolest hotspot on the Mediterranean.
Whether its a weekend escape or a place to write that novel,
we are talking one cool destination.
Lets start with a couple of questions. With the weekend looming,
how many of you experience the urge to pack a bag and flee the old
routine? Having done the rounds of Paris, Dublin or Milan are you
constantly faced with the 'whatwegonnado
Believe it or not, a weekend city-break in Marseille is now a realistic
According to which guidebook you read, Marseille is Frances
second or third largest city, Lyon being the other contender. Although
administratively divided into 16 arrondissements the city is best
understood by neighbourhood names.
Photos: Nick Constance
La Canabiere the
main drag, known to English travellers as the can-o-beer, basically
divides the city into east and west. The Vieux Port lies at the south
end of this thoroughfare with the Observatoire and the Palais Longchamp
to the North.
West of the Vieux Port lies the Quartier du Panier, where the Greeks
once built their temples. For centuries Panier was the hub of Marseile,
the neigbourhood of humble trades and craftsmen; seamen, sail makers
and ropemakers. Today its Marseilles Notting Hill or Menilmontant.
Forget the squalid Marseille as portrayed 30 years ago by Gene Hackmans
Popeye Doyle in the Academy Award-winning The French Connection.
The old Southern Docks might once have attracted drug peddlers and vice
squad, but, due to urban redevelopment, the only peddlers youre
likely to see now are the new breed of artists, architects and designers
mountain-biking to work.
This place used to be weather-beaten sea dogs and gangsters, now its
truly cosmopolitan with some of Frances most talented young fashion
designers setting up shop.
Of course, there are still problems but the multi-ethnicity, once a
liability, is now being seen as a rich vein of artistic discovery and
business opportunity. Its a place of great liberality where once
you make the effort the locals are enthusiastically accommodating.
Speaking of accommodation, Marseille abounds with family-run budget
hotels. There are also two hostels, Auberge de Jeunesse de Bois Luzy,
tel: 04 91 49 06 18 and Auberge de Bonnevienne, tel: 04 91 73 21 81
and although cheap, both are inconveniently far from the town centre.
Our hotel, which was on a side street from the harbour, boasts soundproof
rooms, air conditioning and its own panoramic roof terrace where
drinks or meals are served. At night, the view across the harbour is
nothing short of spectacular.
If youre looking for a little more swank and swagger try the 4star
Concord Palm Beach,
(2 Promenade de la Plage, tel: 91 16 19 00,) with a luxurious swimming
pool and rooms opening directly onto the Prado bay and the Friol Islands.
Its often said that Marseille is competing with Paris, but for
me, theyre two completely different cities. In fact, if Paris
is supposedly the jewel in Frances crown, then Marseille is a
smashed necklace with its pearls dispersed along the Mediterranean coast.
Paris is perhaps a smoother, more sophisticated ride, while Marseille
is an exhilarating, rough-around-the-edges trip - each has their own
Built around an ancient port, the largest in the Mediterranean, Marseille
is also the second largest centre for research, in France. Micro technology,
neuro-science and smart-card development co-exist with the more familiar
industry of fruit and vegetables. With 26 centuries of history, the
archaeological richness of this Phonecian city is evident all across
Provence. The whole region is only 140 miles from North to South and
just a few miles wider, so nothing is really that far.
To put the city in perspective its a good idea to visit the statue
of "Bonne Mere" at Notre-Dame de la Garde, which gazes down
upon Marseilles 820,000 inhabitants. At night floodlights cast
a somewhat saint-like aura around the statue which can be seen from
anywhere in the city. Curious vapour lights also cast a rather arty,
orange glow over the Vieux Port, a perfect backdrop to stroll away the
hours until bedtime or - if your feeling really romantic - dawn.
On the entertainment front Marseille provides a thriving music scene.
On any given night you can catch everything from live jazz to reggae,
from hip hop to techno, all of which is featured in free magazines distributed
in Marseilles bars and cafes. People watching is de rigueur in
these parts, so dont be offended if youre being checked-out
a little too blatantly. Nightlife centres on Cours Julien and the Vieux
Port. We were pointed in the direction of the Web Bar, (Blvd de la Republique,)
where slinkily sensuous twenty and thirty somethings perch on barstools
watching quirky fashion shows: concerts and art exhibitions are also
regular occurrences here, not forgetting the Internet, of course.
My favourite hangout has to be Café Parisian at Place Sadi Carnot.
This turn of the century café is the epitome of faded grandeur.
The mosaic tiled floor, art deco fittings and the ubiquitous, battered
zinc bar offers a respite from the relentless heat, or simply the hustle
and bustle of shopping. Here youll find a more thoughtful crowd
playing chess, or nursing coffees whilst debating the merits of Camus
On matters foody, theres a myriad of good quality, mid-priced
restaurants to choose from. After a bone-jarring spring walk over the
cobbled back streets, we stumbled upon café Milano, (43 rue Sainte
tel: 91 33 14 33,) which was actually more a restaurant than a café
and more French than it sounds. Between us we had seared tuna steak
with chilli and lime sauce and Maigret du Canard, (duck) served with
ratatouille and a tasty little pommes puree number. The food was great
(Im reliably informed the tiramisu was "yummy") but
I left hungry. Its one of those places that have big plates and
little food. The whole meal, (for two) including coffee and wine, came
to approximately 200f, (SFr 50)
A great tip to get
the locals on your side, so to speak, is at least know the name of the
(Olympic Marseille.) This way you can be sure of a
conversation around Vieux Port, on a Saturday night. The 60,000 seat
Velodrome stadium, where a certain Zinedine Zidane kicked-off his career,
is regularly packed to the rafters with passionate season ticket holders.
Its said that if Marseille lose the sun goes in for a few
days. It was obviously a draw, this weekend.
If, wherever you go, you cant keep away from those shiny shop
windows fear not. About a block east of Vieux Port is Centre
Bourse. It has sixty shops and seven restaurants and an upscale department
store with a supermarket. When construction on Centre Bourse began in
1967, work to the foundations was halted when ruins dating back to Greek
and Roman times were unearthed.
What they found was the hull section of a Roman galley. This galley
is now displayed in the History Museum of Marseille, which is actually
the bottom of the shopping centre. A lift whisks you from the museum
to the shops, which are open all day (unbelievably,) from 10am-7pm Mon-Sat.
The Museum itself is open from 10 am to noon and 2 7 pm Tuesday
Saturday. Closed Sun/Mon. Admission is 10F. Metro: Vieux Port.
For designer togs, rue Saint Ferrol, a pedestrian haven (or is that
heaven) stretches south nine blocks from Centre Bourse across La Canebierre
to the Prefecture. Here youll find Galleries Lafayette, (40 rue
St Ferrol,) pricey, premier league stuff.
If shoppings not your bag, why not hop on board a ferry heading
out to Chateau dIf, the 16th century prison fortress where Alexander
Dumas had the fictional Count of Monte Cristo incarcerated. (Yes, I
thought the Count of Monte Cristo was real, too). Admission is 25FF.
The smaller Ile dIf is where suspected plague victims were quarantined,
in Hopital Caroline, in the 1600s. Continuing the tradition of
drugs, it now holds raves.
If you prefer dry land, why not hail a Tourist Taxi, which allows you
to discover Marseille to the strains of a radio-style commentary. You
can choose routes that take from 1- 4 hours. (Tel: 04 91 13 89 00.)
Although, for my money, Marseilles charm is best discovered by
getting lost in its labyrinth of crooked and narrow back streets.
Our visit was all too brief but on the final day we stumbled across
Café LAuberge Espagnole, (Place Daviel) where a spicy melange
of Marseillaise and Catalan cuisine is the daily fare. It was here we
met Salah, a telecommunications engineer who had recently decamped from
Paris to live in Marseille. On asking why he came to Marseille, Salah
took a sip of coffee and smiled knowingly. To escape the bureaucracy
and bickering of Paris, he sighed. I miss the sunshine and
the ocean. I want my life back. Hell certainly find that
Hotel Hermes, (2, rue Bonneterie, tel: 96 11 63 63,)
Marseille Tourist Office:
Tel: 04 91 13 89 00
One ticket for bus, metro or tram is good for seventy minutes.
(Stop and Go travelling allowed.)
*Metro closes at 9.00pm
Swisswings: 0845 848 328
TGV Mediterranean: 0836 35 35 35.
© Nick Constance 2001