Marseille: There’s more to France’s oldest city than football

If only England had time to enjoy the Mediterranean city's lively old town and spectacular coast

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On Saturday, 67,000 football fans will descend on Marseille’s spruced-up Stade Vélodrome for England’s first Euro 2016 match, against Russia. England supporters will have to shout extra-loud to be heard; football is virtually a religion in Marseille.

It’s not only Marseille’s stadium that’s had a makeover in recent years. Ever since it was crowned European Capital of Culture in 2013, millions of euros and innovative architecture have transformed France’s once-maligned second city.

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Le Vieux Port

“British people holidaying in Provence used to avoid Marseille,” says a guide at the tourist office. “Now they make a special trip.” That’s partly thanks to Eurostar, which launched a six-and-a-half-hour direct train from London St Pancras last May, via Lyon and Avignon.

Like most big cities, Marseille is rough around the edges, but don’t let that keep you from its colourful history, scrubbed-up old town, Mediterranean diet, stunning coast and 300-plus annual days of sun.

DAY ONE Get the measure of Marseille

1 PEOPLE-WATCH AT THE VIEUX PORT

Ever since Greek settlers established a colony called Massalia here in 600 BC, the Vieux Port has been the beating heart of Marseille. Only pleasure boats dock here nowadays, but fishermen continue to flog their still-jumping catch every morning. In 2013, five lanes of traffic were pedestrianised to create a public square that throngs day and night with shoppers, students, buskers and tourists taking selfies of Norman Foster’s Ombrière, a giant stainless steel sunshade. There are several excellent restaurants on the north side – take a pew at Le Miramar and watch the world saunter by.

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 Le Panier

2 MOOCH AROUND LE PANIER

Just behind is the city’s oldest quarter, Le Panier, which boasts a chequered past. During the Second World War, Resistance fighters hid here, which is probably why the occupying Nazis blew up half the district in 1943. This is also where the Corsican mafia concealed their drug laboratories, refining Turkish opium poppies into heroin before they smuggled it into the US (remember Gene Hackman’s 1971 film The French Connection?).

Fast-forward four decades and Le Panier is a delightful place to mooch. Many of the narrow, winding streets are lined with potted plants and splashed with street art, and there are dozens of artists’ studios, galleries, boutiques and bric-a-brac shops. It’s also worth strolling the beautifully restored arcades of former almshouse La Vieille Charité, where beggars were locked away in the 18th century. It’s now home to two museums and free exhibitions in the chapel.

3 CULTURE STOP AT MUCEM

Marseille’s penchant for melding old and new is most dramatically realised in the Mediterranean museum, MuCem. For the full effect, take the footbridge from Le Panier to Saint-Jean Fort – one of the 17th-century forts that guard the entrance to the port. The other half of the museum is across another footbridge: a glass cube clad in a wiggly web of concrete. It sounds horrible but looks stunning from the outside and the inside – an open-air walkway has great views of the bay. As well as the history of Mediterranean civilisations, the museum has excellent temporary exhibitions (currently on Picasso and French playwright Jean Genet), and a rooftop gourmet restaurant presided over by Marseille’s most fêted chef, Gérald Passédat. 

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MuCem


 Radio Times Travel offer: Carcassonne, Avignon and Provence, six days from £439pp


DAY TWO Venture beyond the city

1 PAY HOMAGE TO THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO
In summer, the mercury can climb to 35 degrees and the sparkling sea beckons. From the Old Port, it’s a short ferry ride to Chateau d’If, the 16th-century island fortress-turned-prison with a famous fictional inmate – Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo.

2 VISIT THE BIRTHPLACE OF POST-IMPRESSIONISM
There’s also a boat to L’Estaque, a scruffy fishing port with a surprising claim to fame: it was the birthplace of post-impressionism, fauvism and cubism. Cézanne, Braque and Renoir were just three of the painters who immortalised it.

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Calanques National Park

3 TAKE A COASTAL TRIP

The most spectacular excursion is to the calanques, the jagged coves between Marseille and the pretty fishing village of Cassis. Steep limestone cliffs frame these gorgeous inlets, where the deep-blue sea turns azure. In 2012, this stretch of coast – land and sea – was declared a national park. To explore it on foot, hop on a bus to Goudes or Luminy and stick to the paths, which become steeper as you scramble down to teeny coves where you can swim in the crystal-clear water. The views are breathtaking. Look out for ant-sized climbers clinging to overhangs and cabanes – simple huts that Marseillais traditionally escaped to on Sundays.

DON’T GO HOME WITHOUT…
…eating bouillabaisse. In Marseille, a chef is only as good as his stew made with rockfish, shellfish and saffron. Sample a traditional version at Le Miramar, or splash out on Gérald Passédat’s seven-course feast at Le Petit Nice, which boasts three Michelin stars.

…buying Savon de Marseille. The authentic local soap is surprisingly hard to come by. It should be made with 72 per cent olive oil (green) or palm oil (cream). You can find cubes of the real deal at Savonnerie Marseillaise in Le Panier and La Licorne in the Vieux Port.  


Radio Times Travel offer

Carcassonne, Avignon and Provence, six days from £439pp. Join us in the stunning walled fortress-town of Carcassonne – one of France’s greatest medieval glories. Visit the fascinating papal city of Avignon and the spectacular Pont du Gard, cruise along the Canal du Midi, and perhaps join our optional excursion to the port-town of Collioure, on this wonderful holiday. Read more and book.