Since early May you can reach Marseille in just 6 hours and a half from London by direct train on board Eurostar and be right in the heart of the city ready to discover its famous old harbour, the Pannier an old typical district of Marseille, its museums, beaches and enjoy local food such as the world wide known Bouillabaisse! Eurostar leaves London St Pancras around 7.15am and gets to Marseille before 3pm (local time), giving you plenty of time to get the most of your first day on the Mediterranean seaside.
Choosing to travel in a Standard Premier car will give you maximum comfort and you will have a hot lunch and soft drinks served at your seat for no extra charge. Magazines or a plug for your laptop are available for free in these cars. It will surely make a fastest, more comfortable, convenient and enjoyable journey than an economy flight from any London airport!
Marseille is the oldest city of France founded by the Greeks in classical times. Today Marseille is still a mix of ancient traditions and modernity. At first it might seem difficult to understand the city and its inhabitants who in France are said to have a tremendous superiority complex, Don’t even try to say that their football team is not as good as it used to be, you would immediately be seen as a poor ignorant foreigner! But if you dig beneath the surface you will get to know warm people and an attractive city.
The “Vieux Port”, the Old Harbour, is the heart of the city from which you will be able to reach the main places of interest. Initially built by the Greeks in 300 BC it was a fishing port for centuries and was massively destroyed during the WW II and now it’s a big marina. It is the place to take an evening walk on its banks and enjoy its nightlife in its numerous cafés and restaurants.
In daytime the Vieux Port is the starting point of many boat excursions to the “Iles du Frioul” or to the “calanques”. The Frioul Islands are an archipelago 4 km far from Marseille. On one of these islands you can visit the “Chateau d’If”, a fortress used as a jail for many centuries that became very famous when the French writer Alexandre Dumas imprisoned Edmond Dantes in it in its well known novel “ The Count of Monte Christo”.
The “Calanques” are a group of about 20 coves and it’s a wonderful way to discover them from a boat: you will be able to admire a preserved landscape where cliffs drop sheer into the sea and the song of the cicadas never stops. Don’t forget your bathing suit and when the boat stops in one of the calanques don’t hesitate to dive into the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean.
Back to town go to the “Panier” the oldest district of Marseille on the northern harbour’s bank! Built on 3 hills you will walk up and down its streets in the shade of tall houses. It used to be a lower-class district but nowadays painters and sculptors’ studios as well as fashionable shops invade it. The “Bazar de César” is a tiny and charming shop set at the foot of the “Panier” in the Montée des Accoules Street n°4, where you will find all kinds of Marseille soaps, olive oils and bath oils made with local products.
Also located in the “Panier”, the “Vieille Charité” cultural centre is not to be missed. Originally built during the 17th century as a shelter for poor people and beggars it was turned into a museum in 1986. It’s a beautiful building made of local pink and white stones: 4 wings surround a courtyard and an unusual chapel with an oval dome. Until June 22nd the exhibition “Visages” shows the many aspects of the human face in modern art. Trying to give an answer to Picasso’s questions; “Should you paint what is on a face? What is in a face? What is hidden behind a face?” Paintings, pictures, sculptures, video by Picasso, Warhol, Bacon, Giaccometti, Magritte or Ernst give you clues to get an answer.
At walking distance from the “Vieux Port” you can get to the Historical Museum of Marseille renovated and enlarged in 2013. There are remarkable artefacts on display: 43 monolithic steles depicting the goddess Cybele from Asia Minor, a wreck used by fishermen 6 centuries BC, vestiges of Greek and Roman necropolis, potteries and ovens from the Middle Ages, amphora’s, ceramics, mosaics…
Marseille was European Cultural Capital City in 2013 and on the occasion a brand new museum called MUCEM was built in place of old warehouses of the harbour. It’s a great improvement! It’s a beautiful cubic building next to the Saint Jean fortress built by Louis XIV at the harbour entrance to protect Marseille. You will go from one to the other by a spectacular footbridge 115m long from which you’ll get a great view over the port and the city.
You cannot go to Marseille and miss the local institution, the “Bonne Mère” the Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica informally called the “Good Mother”. It was built in 1853 on a high hill on the southern side of the harbour. In Byzantine style the indoor mosaics are a true masterwork with their rich colours. But the main reason why the people of Marseille dearly love their “Bonne Mère” is that it keeps guard over the city. Inside the basilica you will see hundreds of “ex-voto” given to the church as a testimony of gratitude of sailors who survived a shipwreck or a dreadful storm. The church’s walls are covered with marble slabs telling thanks to the Virgin Mary in simple and touching words. There are also paintings and ship models hanging from the vault creating a unique atmosphere.
On your way back down to the marina you can stop at “Le Four des Navettes” the oldest bakery in Marseilles. Since 1781 they cook a very special biscuit called “Navette” flavoured with orange water, especially for Candlemas. It’s a small shop and you might have to queue but if you get there around 9 am you will get your Navette freshly cooked and still hot. The smell of orange blossom will be at his peak!
The “Hotel Dieu” is another registered historical monument in Marseille. It was a hospital built in a grand 18th century architectural style. It was turned into a luxury 5-star Intercontinental hotel in 2013 and is ideally located at the foot of the “Panier”. The inside decoration is quite spectacular with its monumental stairs and its arched passageways. Its huge terrace overlooking the marina and Notre Dame de la Garde is the best place to have a drink at sunset or have diner in the warm summer evening air. Many of the large and elegantly decorated rooms offer the same view while having breakfast or diner on your private balcony. The two restaurants propose Mediterranean food, the gastronomic one “Alcyone”, just got its first Michelin star. In season, even if you are not staying at the Intercontinental Hotel Dieu, you can attend the tasty Sunday brunch served on the outside terrace-with-a-view. Of course guests will find a vast spa by Clarins and an indoor swimming pool to relax after strolling through Marseille’s streets.
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny
About Annick Dournes & Frederic De Poligny
|Annick Dournes and Frederic de Poligny are two French tourism journalists who travel the world for many years. They will share with you their very favourite experiences of worldwide travels. Those about France, their native country, will be found on a regular basis in their chronicle “Meanderings through France”. Web|