Easy Escapes: Marseille, France

A new direct rail service has brought France's second largest city tantalisingly close

A new direct rail service has brought France’s second largest city tantalisingly close

Why go? Launched in May, Eurostar’s direct rail service to Marseille lets you whizz down to the south of France in just six-and-a-half hours. It’s a greener and more relaxed way to travel compared to flying, and the port has a new vitality following its spell as European Capital of Culture in 2013. It’s also a gateway for exploring the west of Provence. Nearby attractions include the fishing village of Cassis (ot-cassis.com), the Parc National des Calanques (calanques-parcnational.fr) and Aix-en-Provence (aixenprovencetourism.com); there are also ferry connections to Corsica and Sardinia.

The hole picture: the view from MuCEM © imagepalace.co.uk

When? Now. It’s high summer and warm enough to swim from the city’s beaches. September and October are also good times to go – Marseille boasts 300 days of sunshine a year…

You really must: Marseille’s heart is the Vieux Port, a U-shaped harbour protected by a pair of mighty forts. Today it’s filled with pleasure boats and bordered with bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. It’s touristy, but this hilly city has its real side too: be prepared for smelly drains, hectic streets and copious amounts of graffiti and street art. Marseille’s multicultural energy is one of its most appealing aspects, with the area around rue d’Aubagne a hearty slice of North African bustle with tempting piles of olives, dates and sweet pastries.

Getting around is straightforward and the metro, bus and tram system is easy to master. If you plan to do lots of sightseeing you can simplify things by getting a City Pass (from £17 for 24 hours) which buys entry to many museums and attractions plus unlimited public transport and a ferry trip to Château d’If (if.monuments-nationaux.fr). There’s also a bike share scheme (levelo-mpm.fr), and you get maps and information from the tourist office in Vieux Port.

Most visitors head to Le Panier on the hillside north of Vieux Port which has attractive lanes and squares that include La Vieille Charité (vieille-charite-museum.com), a grand 17th century poorhouse now used for exhibitions. This area is bordered by a new seafront museum quarter spearheaded by MuCEM (mucem.org), the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, which is usefully open on Mondays when nearly all other museums aren’t. Set in Fort St Jean, it’s a striking ensemble and you can tour the grounds for free – and frankly that’s more rewarding than the current exhibitions inside.

Seaside grandeur: Château Borély

If you want to hit the beach, jump on Bus 83 from the Vieux Port which runs east around the coast to Plage du Prado in around 20 minutes. The sands here are well maintained with free facilities including bag storage. Save some time to visit the 18th century Château Borély (musee-borely.marseille.fr) in the adjacent park. This is now home to the Museum of Decorative Arts and Fashion, with a lovely cafe outside. The immaculately restored galleries have choice exhibits of period interiors, faïence, art deco furniture and dresses by Pierre Cardin and Karl Lagerfeld, and the whole building is mined with witty interventions by the pop artist Hubert Le Gall (until 20 September, don’t miss!).

Stay at: For five-star comforts and a fine view over the Vieux Port check into the InterContinental Hôtel Dieu (doubles from £141 in September, intercontinental.com/marseille). Once a hospital, it was enlarged in the Napoleonic era then converted into a 194-room luxury hotel in 2013. There’s a huge panoramic terrace where a generous buffet breakfast (£28) is served, while other treats are a Michelin-star restaurant, a Clarins Spa and an indoor swimming pool.

The Starck truth: a bedroom at Mama Shelter Marseille

For something boho, Mama Shelter Marseille (£57, mamashelter.com) is a relaxed and cheerful hotel designed by Philippe Starck. It’s in a nondescript neighbourhood that’s a 20 minute walk from the Vieux Port, but you are also close to Cours Julien with independent shops and inviting places to eat. The 127 rooms have the feel of a funked-up underground car park, with bare concrete walls, an iMac with free movies, lipsticked welcome messages on the mirrors and assorted masks in case you fancy a Bugs Bunny or Batman moment. A good buffet breakfast (£11) is served in the large open-plan restaurant, which has a whimsical seaside mood with rubber rings, table football and a semi-submerged oversize chess set.

A taxi from Marseille St Charles station to either hotel takes 10 minutes and costs £10 with luggage. Wi-Fi is complimentary in both properties.

Dine at: Marseille is famous for bouillabaisse, a stew originally made with left-over fish cooked in sea water but now a gourmet speciality protected by charter. Lots of places offer it but only a select number of restaurants guarantee to serve the authentic dish using at least four specified fish. It isn’t cheap – £45 a head at Miramar (lemiramar.fr), a smartly-run restaurant in the Vieux Port that has been going since 1949. With white tablecloths and a ritzy red and gold décor, it’s a good choice if you want the full works. The dish comes in two stages: fish soup served with garlic croutons and rouille (an orange-hued mayonnaise), then assorted fish served in more soup. It’s tasty and you get more than enough to eat – if you can’t face all that there are lots of other fresh fish and seafood treats to enjoy here.

Provençal classic: a salad Niçoise at Mama Beach © imagepalace.co.uk

The city is also a good place to eat North African dishes, with abundant couscous restaurants, along with classic Provençal dishes. Les Fenêtres, on the terrace of the InterContinental Hôtel Dieu, serves a definitive pissaladière (£19), a tart made with caramelised onions, olives and anchovies, and has a set four-course menu for £49. Mama Beach, a pop-up beach club at Plage du Prado with brightly coloured sun loungers (£12 for the day; open till 15 September) has an open-sided bar and restaurant that will hit the spot with a salad Niçoise (£9), bottle of rosé (£18), and exhilarating views of hang-gliders flying over the waves.

Clean thoughts: soap on sale at La Savonnerie Marseillaise

Bring home: One advantage of travelling by rail is you can take lots of luggage (two large bags) for free and there’s none of those miserable liquids restrictions. Load up with pastis, created here in 1923, wines from Cassis, olive oil and lavender-based products. Marseille is well know for its soaps – La Savonnerie Marseillaise (savonnerie-marseillaise.com) has a comprehensive range as well as many tempting beauty and bathroom products. For on-trend clothes and accessories seek out Jogging, while the one don’t-miss shop is the vast Maison Empereur (empereur.fr), which has been selling classic French household goods since 1827. A companion boutique sells bags, espradrilles, workwear and traditional wool blankets from the Camargue. There’s a second, smaller branch in Le Panier (13 rue de Panier), and you can find many more good shops at adressescles.fr.

French windows: a house in Le Panier © imagepalace.co.uk

Book now: Eurostar (eurostar.com) operates rail services from London St Pancras International and Ashford to Marseille St Charles from £99 return, or £199 in Standard Premier which has larger seats and basic meals with wine. Direct services run three times a week until the end of October, then on Saturdays only. Check out the Eurostar seat sale running from 27 August to 8 September with one-way fares to Marseille from £45.

Travelling out you need to check-in 30 minutes before departure (allow more time at St Pancras). On the way back you can just go straight to the train, then at Lille all passengers must get off with their bags and pass through Immigration, which adds an hour to the journey time.

Info: Focus France Marseille & Western Provence (£7.95; Footprint) covers the region, and see marseille-tourisme.com and visitprovence.com.

lead image: InterContinental Hôtel Dieu © imagepalace.co.uk

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