Marseille has a foot in two continents. It may belong to France, but it has a feel of North Africa about it – a throwback to its booming days as a port in colonial times.
France’s second largest city is raw and racy, mysterious and exotic, proud of the rough-edged glamour portrayed in the cult film The French Connection. Although it has many fine buildings, you wouldn’t describe it as picture-postcard pretty. But it does provide an attractive city break option.
For my weekend away, I let the train take the strain. Opting out of the long queues and security checks, which have now become the norm at airports, I took Eurostar to Lille and then the high speed TGV to the Mediterranean.
In little more than eight hours after leaving Waterloo I was sampling my first pastis in a bar overlooking Marseille’s Old Port.
The train journey is very much part of the holiday. The moving montage outside the carriage window takes you on the journey through rural France, giving you a glimpse first of the plump pastures of the north, then the cardboard cut-out mountains of the Massive Central and finally the herb-scented hills and villages of Provence.
While the comfort of travelling by air seems to have diminished, rail travel has improved. Today’s high speed trains offer seats with plenty of leg room – and, when the mood takes you, the chance to stretch the limbs with a brisk walk to the buffet bar for a croque monsieur and beer.
All this is achieved while the train zooms along at speeds upwards of 200mph. Strangely, the high speed factor isn’t really apparent until the train races along beside a stretch of motorway, leaving the seemingly slow moving traffic in its wake.
Almost before you know it, the blue seas of the Mediterranean come into view. For leisure travellers, the Old Port is the hub of Marseille. The ships that once left for Corsica and farther afield have now disappeared from the harbour – they now go from the new commercial port. The calm waters of the Old Port are now home to yachts and other pleasure craft.
A salty tang wafts in on the breeze and, if you get up early enough, you can catch sight of the fishing smacks dropping off their cargo harbour side, ready for the fish market held each day on the quay.
Most of what you might want to see or do on a weekend break can be found here. My hotel, the Hermes, was an unpretentious two-star establishment that offered everything I needed for my stay: a comfortable bed, a good breakfast and staff for whom nothing was too much trouble.
Within a couple of minutes of walking out of the hotel door I was on the quay, gazing up at the city’s most famous landmark, the Church of Notre Dame de la Garde. The church is perched on a 500ft hill, crowned by a 30ft gold statue of the Virgin and Child, and enjoys a bird’s eye view of the city spread out below.
It was on the quay, at the Miramar restaurant, that I indulged my fancy for Marseille’s signature dish – bouillabaisse. This is not so much a dish, more a meal, so filling that you may well by-pass dinner into the bargain.
The emblematic stew is the most typical of all Mediterranean dishes. It contains no fewer than six fish – John Dorey and less attractive propositions like scorpion fish – whatever is available when the chef makes his daily visit to the fish market. To this are added onion, garlic, tomato, potato, fennel, olive oil and the much prized, but vastly expensive, saffron.
The concoction bubbles away in the cauldron for 20 minutes or so and is then served as two dishes: first a soup and then a main course comprising the fish and the rouille, so called because rich sauce is the colour of rust. The dish is served with croutons, which you rub with garlic and the result is pure heaven.
Behind is the old town district known as Le Panier,a gentle reminder that Marseille is the oldest city in France. According to legend, it was founded by a young Greek sailor called Protis and Gyptis, daughter of the local Ligurian king, 2,600 years ago.
Before World War 2 tiny streets and buildings of every era formed a typical Mediterranean vieille ville. But in 1943 the Nazi occupiers gave the 20,000 inhabitants a day to quit their homes before blowing up all but three buildings – the Hotel de Cabre, Maison Diamanté and Hotel de Ville.
Today Le Panier is making something of a comeback, with numerous craft shops, bars, cafes and restaurants opening up.
On the final morning, before catching the TGV to Paris, I took a boat trip to the Ile d’If, the 16th century island fortress which Alexander Dumas made famous in the Count of Monte Cristo, and climbed the hill on the opposite side the Old Port for a stroll in Le Jardin de la Colline Puget, the city’s largest public garden.
I looked back for a last glimpse of Marseille. Through a milky haze, I could just make out sightseers sauntering along the quay – and a customer heading into the Miramar for the first bouillabaisse of the day…