24 hours in Marseille

Vieux Port, Marseille

Vieux Port, Marseille - Credit: Archant

Marseille has welcomed many visitors over the centuries and increasing numbers of Brits will be among them this summer, thanks to Eurostar’s new direct service from Ashford International

As the sun grew steadily hotter and brighter the further south we sped, I fell in love with trains all over again.

But this was no ordinary journey and no ordinary train, for I was on my way to Marseille on board Eurostar, in the first week of its brand-new, non-stop service right to the south of France.

And how easy it all was, from catching the 06.21 from Tonbridge direct to Ashford International to the smooth, swift passport control and security check and onto the 07.55 to Marseille via Lyon and Avignon.

When was the last time you boarded a flight that quickly? And instead of hugging my knees in a too-small seat, in standard premier I had loads of legroom even with the large tray down and a handy socket to plug my iPad in and catch up on emails.

And instead of clouds I got to gaze at colourful fields, neat little farms and church spires as I demolished a breakfast of croissant, muesli, juice and coffee served by polite, smiley multi-lingual staff.

A light lunch (vegetable quiche, salad, fig tart with raspberry cassis) also came with this grade of ticket, but if you travel standard class, as I was on the return leg, the buffet car is your only source of food and drink.

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The only slight outbound glitch was a local delay at Avignon, which delayed our arrival at Marseille by over an hour. But once at the end of the line I was soon in a taxi heading for the Old Port and Hôtel la Résidence du Vieux-Port, my chic home for the night. With lofty Notre-Dame de la Garde a splendid sight opposite my front room, the boutique-style hotel couldn’t have been better positioned, as local life centres around this vibrant quarter.

Named Massalia by the Greeks when they first landed some 2,600 years ago, France’s oldest city enjoys an average of 300 days of sunshine a year; just watch out for the mistral (north-westerly wind).

And if you love history mixed with fine weather, you’ll find plenty to fascinate: it was the Phocacean Greeks who founded this port city in around 600 BC, and the port is not only still going strong today but it’s also the most active in France.

I headed out in the late afternoon sun to see for myself, past the traditional fishing boats and schooners, the modern yachts and ferries and on to the 17th-century Fort Saint-Jean at the port’s southern tip and the must-see Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations to the west.

The MuCEM is one of many cultural sites that opened in 2013, the year Marseille was European City of Culture, but it’s arguably the most remarkable. Reach it by a narrow footbridge soaring above the sea that connects the ancient fort to the roof and terrace of the vast new building - a symbol of how Marseille has looked both at its past and to its renewal in the last two years.

2013 galvanised action in every quarter, from pedestrianising the Old Port (where the Norman Foster and Michel Desvigne-designed mirrored canopy has become a landmark and favourite spot for a selfie) to building the Vélodrome stadium, home to the Olympique de Marseille football team.

Footsore and thirsty by now, I quickly showered and changed back at base then walked a few doors along to the very smart Miramar restaurant (12 quai du Port), where a glass of cold Champagne swiftly arrived at my terrace table. Watching the world go by as I nibbled delicious hors d’oeuvres I started to relax and feel in holiday mode.

Famed for its bouillabaisse there was no doubt what the main event was going to be and I was suitably impressed: tasting so authentically of the sea and of the region, it captured the Mediterranean in a fragrant bowl. Try the local fruity white Cassis Aoc with your seafood. You can also learn to cook bouillabaisse (€120 including meal).

The early start, wine and sun caught up with me and, tearing myself away from the stunning view of the harbour lit up at night from my balcony, I crawled beneath a crisp white duvet and was soon fast asleep.

Day two

Breakfast of fresh orange juice, coffee and croissant on my balcony as I watched the flower market and fish stalls set up below was a perfect start to the morning. I then met up with my guide for the day, Magali di Duca from Bouches-du-Rhone tourist office.

A Parisienne who fell in love with Marseille and stayed, she explains it’s too windy for our planed boat trip to Château d’If; the setting for Alexandre Dumas’s fictitional Count of Monte Cristo.

Instead we take a stroll around to the southern side of the old port as the city wakes up, then a free foot ferry back across the water just in time to catch the first ‘hop on, hop off’ open-top bus off the day.

This took us up to the top of the city and revealed the secrets behind the basilica I’d seen from my room. Notre Dame de la Garde is worth the climb; decorated with elaborate mosaics, the church supports Marseille’s emblematic monument, ‘the Good Mother’, gilded with fine gold leaf.

Back on the bus after its 45-minute stop, we pass the Cathédrale de la Major, built on a vast scale in Byzantine-Roman style from 1852 to 1896 on the site used for the cathedrals of Marseille since the fifth century.

This is in the Panier district, the historic heart of Marseille and the site where the Greeks founded the city. Today it’s a maze of alleyways, craft shops, independents, museums and restaurants. We can’t stop because we have an important lunch date at Chez Madie - Les Galinettes (138 quai du Port), where we take a front terrace table.

Our waiter, Philippe, takes charge and recommends a shellfish starter and fillet of grilled seabass with tomatoes, onions and tapenade - simple but just right and all of it locally sourced. Delicious with a dry white with a bit of a sparkle, Sartene Aoc.

Over lunch I ask Magali why Marseille is so special. She tells me: “The main thing is the beautiful climate, secondly you have a city with all its dynamism and culture but also, if you love nature, it’s really close to mountains and the calanques. I didn’t plan to live here, it was just an opportunity I took, but I have no regrets. I fell in love with Marseille very quickly, and I realised that Paris isn’t the centre of the universe.”

The clock was ticking but we decided that a walk to the station was in order (via the hotel to pick up my bag) and definitely a bit of shopping. First stop was Ou est Marius? run by Audrey Novara, whose entirely local stock includes everything from wittily decorated tins of sardines to ceramics, fine cotton shirts and the most delicious homemade-made lemonade I’ve ever tasted. And Marius? He’s the title character of a play by local writer Marcel Pagnol (who also wrote the book that Jean de Florette was based on).

And of course I bought soap - Marseille is famous for it, but go for the cakes of green made with olive oil to get the real deal.

All too soon we were at Saint Charles station, the Eurostar terminus, which was waiting – and not even a passport check to slow me down. That does come later and I must admit it’s a bit of a shock when we stop at Lille and everybody has to leave the train, with all their bags, to go through passport control and baggage security.

A fond farewell to my excellent guide, and to a city I have fallen in love with and vow to return. But next time for at least 72 hours.

Fact file

Eurostar (eurostar.com) fares from London St Pancras start from £99 return (£xx) from Ashford International). Travel direct Jul-Aug on Mon, Thu, Fri, Sat, Sun. There are three classes: standard, standard premier and business premier.

Outward: depart Ashford International 07.55, arrive Marseille Saint-Charles 14.46

Return: depart Marseille Saint-Charles 15.22, arrive Ashford International 21.34

The trip was provided by the Marseille Tourist Office, the Bouche-du Rhone Tourism Agency and Eurostar.

Stayed at: Hôtel la Résidence du Vieux-Port, 18 quai du Port, 13002 Marseille

33 (04) 91919122 or info@hrvpm.com

Top tips

For a short trip of 24, 48 or 72 hours invest in a City Pass (from €24-€39) which gives free entry to museums including MuCEM, boat to If Castle, the Petit Train, etc.

Further afield

Check out the cliffs of Cassis and the rugged, untamed beauty of the calanques of Marseille, a series of fjord-like ravines along the coast.

If you fancy rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, head for Saint Tropez, a pretty little town which is usually stuffed with super-yachts and millionaires.

Events in July

Marseille Festival

International Folklore Festival at Chateau Gombert Documentary Festival

Festival of Jazz of the Five Continents

World Pétanque Championship

14 July Bastille Day