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A city steeped in history and with a reputation for being a bit gritty is not an automatic choice for a long weekend , but served from the UK by many airlines or if you are handy for Eurostar just a few hours away by picking up the TGV in Paris.
Peter Jones discovers that Marseille is exciting, friendly, fun and fabulous...
Now before you dive into Marseille, here’s a tip: even though it’s a big city, it’s very Mediterranean, and the pace of life is very different to other cities. Folk here are seriously laid back, their attitude is that life is for enjoying, there is nothing good to be gained by rushing. So, if it takes a while to get served in a bar or restaurant – it’s no big deal, it’s just the way Marseille is.
Marseille people are also very friendly, they love to chat, and you’ll find it easy to make friends here.
Meander in Marseille
Make you first port of call the tourist office at 11 Canebiere where you can buy a city pass for one, two or three days which gives you use of the city transport system including the excellent metro. Make sure you pick up a free map and guide, then go wandering and get lost in the city, keeping the map for when you get well and truly lost!
There’s not much more fun that wandering round the ‘Vieux Port’, a vast horse shoe shaped harbour where, very morning a bustling fish market takes place. The boats dock alongside, and the fish is sold direct by the fishermen and their families.
An early morning start at the street markets with their fantastic colourful displays of fruit and vegetables is always fun. Marseille is amazing one minute you are looking in the windows of some of the great French fashion houses the next you are in the streets of North Africa. Take the metro to the Noailles district and you are in a different world. A rabbit warren of streets and lanes, cafes and cheap restaurants, flatbreads being cooked on the pavement, fabulous.
There are cafés shops, restaurants and clubs galore and if you’re there to relax, watch the world go by and just enjoy yourself, Marseille is perfect. Take trip from the Vieux Port to the Calangues a short way way round the coast to discover what’s known as the French Fjord. Actually, it’s a National Park where the white limestone sides rise dramatically above the blue of the sea.
The port is also the departure point for boat trips to the Friuol Islands, one of which is the island which houses the Chateau D’If, home of Alexander Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo. It’s not as big a trip as the Calanques but well worth doing. If you’re a Netflix fan and watched the series ‘Marseille’ starring French superstar Gerard Depardieu as a fictional Mayor, you’ll recognise many of the scenes including the magnificent Hotel de Ville. The harbour comes alive at night with musicians and jugglers, plenty of street food choice and a great party atmosphere as the sun sets, it’s definitely the place to be.
Food of the gods
Locals love: When it comes to dining out, follow the locals! In Marseille you’ll find them in Rue Sainte near the port in the café Pastis et Olives. Get there early as by noon, it’s full inside and on the tables spilling out onto the pavement. Have a glass of pastis which comes with a dish of olives. It goes perfectly with a lunch of fresh anchovies on toast and a delicate slice of skate with a caper sauce.
Don’t miss: Chez Madie on the Quai Du Port. www.maidielesgalinettes.com is always bustling with mainly French customers and has a reputation for the best bouillabaise in town. Just a few doors down is La Maison du Pastis, www.lamaisondupastis.com. Owned and run by Belgian Frederick Bernard, you’ll find more than 95 brands of Pastis and Absinths with tastings and information are freely available.
Try a local speciality: The city has a large north African influence. I popped into a Tunisian café and enjoyed a ‘Brik’, a cross between a giant samosa and a Cornish pasty, with a surprising twist, inside is a boiled egg!
Must-eat: Sylvain Robert is the chef patron of L’Aromat, just a few yards from the Vieux Port, where he presents his contemporary take on Mediterranean cooking. His number one dish, a firm favourite with Marseillans is a truly surprising bouillabaise burger. Served with a shot glass of fish soup it is sensational (if fact all his dishes are amazing). If you only have one meal in Marseille, make it here.
Pass the Pastis
Marseilles is the home of Pastis, an aniseed-based drink which is popular across the whole of France. These days there is only one factory in the city still producing it, Cristal Liminana founded in 1884. It’s run by Maristella Vasserot, a direct descendant of the founder, visits, tastings and opportunities to purchase are all available and an excellent way to discover the city’s favourite drink.
Marseilles is easy to get to from within France or other parts of Europe. Trains including the TGV are regular and frequent into the Gare St Charles, which is also the pick up/drop off point for the Navette bus which serves the airport on the outskirts of the city.
There is, like any city, a huge choice of accommodation from 5-star hotels to single rooms through Airbnb, but I can highly recommend the 3* Hotel Maison Montgrand in Rue Montgrand in a lovely spot, just 300 metres from the Vieux Port. A 17th Century property refurbished just a couple of years back, its location was superb. With comfortable accommodation and the bonus of a courtyard sheltered by chestnut trees where you could sit with a drink and recharge your batteries, it would be hard to beat.
Magnificent Marseille, so much to see, so much to do, three hundred days of sunshine a year, 95 different Pastis and No. 1 for a city break!
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