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Nick Constance Marseille is suddenly the coolest hotspot on the Mediterranean.


Whether it’s a weekend escape or a place to write that novel, we are talking one cool destination.
Let’s 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… wherewegonnago dilemma'? Believe it or not, a weekend city-break in Marseille is now a realistic consideration?
According to which guidebook you read, Marseille is France’s 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 it’s Marseille’s Notting Hill or Menilmontant.
Forget the squalid Marseille as portrayed 30 years ago by Gene Hackman’s 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 you’re 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 it’s truly cosmopolitan with some of France’s 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. It’s 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 it’s own panoramic roof terrace where drinks or meals are served. At night, the view across the harbour is nothing short of spectacular.

If you’re 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.

It’s often said that Marseille is competing with Paris, but for me, they’re two completely different cities. In fact, if Paris is supposedly the jewel in France’s 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 dazzling magic.

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 it’s a good idea to visit the statue of "Bonne Mere" at Notre-Dame de la Garde, which gazes down upon Marseille’s 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 Marseille’s bars and cafes. People watching is de rigueur in these parts, so don’t be offended if you’re 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 you’ll find a more thoughtful crowd playing chess, or nursing coffees whilst debating the merits of Camus’ Etrangere.

On matters foody, there’s 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 (I’m reliably informed the tiramisu was "yummy") but I left hungry. It’s 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 soccer team…(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. It’s 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 can’t 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 you’ll find Galleries Lafayette, (40 rue St Ferrol,) – pricey, premier league stuff.

If shopping’s not your bag, why not hop on board a ferry heading out to Chateau d’If, 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 d’If is where suspected plague victims were quarantined, in Hopital Caroline, in the 1600’s. 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, Marseille’s 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 L’Auberge 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.’ He’ll certainly find that in Marseille.
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

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