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June, 2015

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Eurostar now travels direct from London St. Pancras to Marseille in just under 6 1/2 hours. Zut alors, c’est magnifique.

But don’t come here if you like order, cleanliness, predictability, a cool climate….and reliable taxis. Or, sad to report, if you’re not completely mobile.

Marseille is an exotic city, perhaps as close emotionally to North Africa as it is to Europe. Indeed, it’s only been part of France since the late 15th century, still somehow retaining that sense of independence from Parisian rule.

Physically protected on three sides by mountains and by the sea on the fourth, it’s no surprise it was such a strategically important place after the Greeks first landed here 2,600 years ago, and before the development of land transport.

Now, le Vieux Port shimmers with shiny yachts and is the focal point for 21st century tourists. It is ringed by bars, cafes and restaurants, most with premium prices for the premium views.

Try the tiny 1st floor balcony of the Caravelle bar for something a little less blingy. A sundowner – an Aperol spritz or an ice cold beer, perhaps – with scintillating views across the harbour and up to the majestic Notre-Dame de la Garde, is hard to beat.

Or go to the Bar de la Marine on the other side of the port if you’re a Colin Firth fan. It was here that he proposed to the Portuguese girl in Love Actually, as she appeared at the top of the balcony stairs in her waitressing uniform.

But for the real Marseille, head the short distance from le Vieux Port to the Panier district. It’s a labyrinth of narrow pedestrian streets in a hilly part of the city, made famous in the classic 1970s film, The French Connection. Full of graffiti, North African influences and washing hanging between 3rd floor shutter slats, it’s been gentrified to some extent since the drug and prostitution days, but it still retains a sense of gritty authenticity.

Enjoy a lazy lunch in one of the restaurants near the rue des Pistoles, browse the colourful art, ceramic and fabric shops, explore La Vieille Charite Museum, and imagine Popeye Doyle chasing the drug dealers through these narrow, atmospheric streets.

We stayed in a simple apartment in a converted 17th century convent, on the fringes of the Panier district, up a narrow cobbled alleyway full of building work but within an easy walk of Le Vieux Port and many other city attractions. A great base, found through Airbnb.

Also within walking distance is the jaw-dropping Cathedrale La Major. Whether by day or by night, its scale and design take the inevitably garlic-infused breath away. It is the South Fork of cathedrals, and makes Notre Dame in Paris look like a doll’s house.

A bus or taxi ride away from the city centre is the equally imposing Notre-Dame da la Garde, standing high on a limestone outcrop, casting a protective eye down on the sprawling city. Built in 1864, this Catholic basilica is another impressive piece of architecture. On a searingly hot Marseillais day, it also offers a welcome, cooling sanctuary.

Look on its exterior walls for a few pockmarks on the otherwise pristine stonework. A small plaque by the bullet and shrapnel marks commemorates the liberation of the city in 1944.

Marseille is a fascinating destination with plenty of sightseeing, culture, restaurants, bars and architecture to keep you entertained for several days. But it’s also a good base from which to explore this part of the south of France. We enjoyed an excellent boat trip out to the nearby Chateau d’If, a centuries old prison on a small island outside the main port, and which Alexandre Dumas used in his famous novel Le Comte de Monte Cristo. You can then go on to the Frioul archipelago and explore a couple of these islands, their lunar landscape moulded by the prevailing Mistral wind and the hot climate.

Further afield, we hired a car to head west along the coast to explore the beautiful city of Arles and the wild, marshy Camargue region for a couple of days. And we also had a fun train trip east one day, to Cassis, a fishing port now doubling up as a glitzy beach resort for the sun-worshipping, cocktail-sipping wealthy socialites.

I’d wholeheartedly recommend Marseille for adventurous, independent-minded Silver Travellers, especially now Eurostar has its direct route here. The city oozes character and is redolent of an exotic history and vibrant, multicultural present. It has a good bus and tram network, but is best explored on foot. And don’t rely on taxis, either booked or at official ranks, they are a law unto themselves. Welcome to Marseille!

Andrew Morris

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