Having celebrated 2013 as Europe’s City of Culture, Marseille is now looking better than ever. It still has the gritty, invigorating atmosphere of France’s second city, but it is now benefiting from a 6bn euro regeneration project, with cleaned up waterfront area, glittering new museums and public spaces.
While much of Provence is sleepy and chillaxed, there is a ceaseless energy in Marseille, a will to get things done that is largely absent in the rest of the region. When you mix this drive with the mentality of the south, inevitably a certain amount of chaos ensues.
The jewel in Marseille’s new crown is the MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations), a stunning building on the waterfront that connects via a girder-like bridge to the Fort St Jean along the harbour wall and on into the city. MuCEM is wrapped in a filigree veil that looks like a fishing net or something from the bottom of the sea, to protect this glass block from the southern sun. For the moment the exhibits inside the building are a mish-mash in need of better curating, mostly taken from the Paris museum of popular arts and traditions, but the building itself is a great success. It is also the first national museum of anything outside of Paris.
Next door to MuCEM is another novelty wrought by the City of Culture budget. The Villa Mediterranee looks like what happens when you have to spend some money on a grand project that is vaguely to do with the geography of the place. Hence it looks like a diving board, with a great cantilevered section over a pool of water. Its purpose is mysterious, it is supposed to be “a place for encounters, ideas and exchanges” regarding the future of the Mediterranean region. Better to go to MuCEM instead.
One other museum to mention as it is across the street from the above two: the Regards de Provence museum, featuring artworks created in and about Provence. It is in an interesting building, formerly the station sanitaire for Marseille, where new arrivals were checked for infectious diseases. It houses both contemporary and classical art, and has a cafe on the top floor overlooking the sea.
Old Port and the islands
The Old Port is the hub of Marseille, it is probably where you will start off your explorations. The port itself is a big rectangle lined with restaurants and bars on two sides, and at the town end is a newly enlarged quayside where the morning fish market take place. This is also the setting for a new addition in 2013, a sort of mirrored pavilion, designed by Norman Foster, which is unexpected and beautiful. On the south side, along the Quai de Rive Neuve and in a couple of blocks to St Victor are the more interesting restaurants, bars and clubs.
From the vieux port you can take a short ferry ride to the Frioul islands outside the harbour walls. On If is the famous chateau d’If, a prison known for something that never happened – the incarceration of the Count of Monte Cristo a fictional character). One real inmate of this island citadel was a certain M. de Niozelles, who did 6 years solitary for not taking his hat off in front of the king. What must have made imprisonment here especially hard are the beautiful views of Marseille from the sea – the best way to see Marseille.
The other two visitable islands, Ratonneau and Pomegues, which are larger than If, are connected by a mole and offer walks along wild, sun-bleached, chiselled cliffs, as well as swimming creeks and beaches. This is a conservation area and micro-climate with rare flora adapted to the dry and exposed setting. The Port de Frioul on Ratonneau island is a little village with restaurants.
Canebiere and Capucin
Running north from the port is the broad avenue La Canebiere, Marseille’s central thoroughfare, with grand hotels and merchants’ houses now largely repopulated by discount stores and fast-food. Not much to write home about, but go up just a few hundred yards and turn off into the Capucin food market (also known as Le Marché de Noailles). This is a slice of North Africa dropped into Marseille, part souk, part Provence market, with the spices, fabrics and foods of the Maghreb alongside local fruit and vegetables. In side streets are goods from India, China and Vietnam, reflecting the varied make-up of Marseille’s population, and the fact that they are able to live in harmony. The Capucin market is colourful, lively and pleasingly chaotic just a couple of minute’s walk from the old port.
And just off the Capucin market is Marseille’s trendiest street, Cours Julien, with its many restaurants and cafes, it evokes a bohemian vibe and is known for its street art – painted facades as well as graffiti.
On the north side of the old port you can walk up into the Panier district of Marseille. Originally settled by the ancient Greeks and later by successive waves of immigrants, as well as Marseille’s fishermen, this is the oldest part of Marseille and for many the most interesting. A mass of weaving, narrow streets and staircases going up the hill, decorated with clotheslines overhead. This warren of hidden passages was dynamited by the Nazis but they spared the 16th century Maison Diamantee, with its wall of diamond-shaped points.
Le Panier has not been gentrified by the middle classes, you will see neighbours sitting out in the street chatting or eating, and many of the houses are outlets for artists or clothes-makers. A wander around the quartier should include the Place de Lenche – a square which was the Greek agora or meeting place – and the magnificent Vieille Charite – formerly a poorhouse designed by Puget, now home to two museums, and notable for its elegant arcades along three stories, around a domed chapel – quite a palace for the poor. The two museums in La Vieille Charite are the Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology and the Museum of Art of Africa, Oceania and Amerindia, but is is worth coming just for the building. If you are in Marseille on the weekend nearest to June 21, go to the Panier for the Fete du Panier, a two-day street party with music and locals preparing the food of their homeland.
The calanques are creeks or mini-fjords cut into the white limestone cliffs between Marseille and Cassis – the cliffs drops vertiginously into deep water ranging from dark blue to turquoise. Access is by sea or by hiking only. The beauty and uniqueness of the calanques saw them accorded National Park status and they are a must-see for the adventurous. You could take the tourist boats from Marseille or Cassis – these take a dip in and out of the major calanques but they are big and with a noisy commentary, and while you get to see the calanques you are hardly communing with nature. And you can’t get off them in any of the calanques. If your budget allows you can hire a private boat, or else a kayak, canoe or paddle board, this gives you the freedom to explore at your own pace and swim where you want to. You can also walk to the calanques. This can make for a long hike – they stretch for 12 miles as the crow flies. Hiking access is controlled according to weather conditions/fire risk.
Notre Dame de la Garde
The city of Marseille is benignly watched over by La Bonne Mere (the good mother) – the basilica of Notre Dame de la Gare towering 500 ft over the city, topped with a golden Madonna. Ignore the fact that it looks quite a bit like a choo choo train in the air, and you will enjoy the wondrous views over city and sea. Wondering round the vieux port you don’t get a sense of the size of Marseille, but it is France’s second city and up here you can see how far it sprawls.
The church itself is neo-Byzantine and heavily influenced inside by the sea – the ex-voto offerings in the form of paintings of shipwrecks and storms, and the model ships hanging from the ceiling. Outside some chinks in the wall remain from when the French reclaimed Notre Dame de la Gare from the Germans in 1944, and hallway up the hill is a French tank that did not make it. Whether you come up here to contemplate the Blessed Virgin or the magnificent views, you will be glad of the number 60 bus from the old port, or indeed the ‘little train’ sightseeing bus that stops here.