Its shady reputation behind it, Marseille is enjoying a renaissance.
You see zat," says my friend Nico, who speaks good English but with a distinct French twang, typically (and knowingly for my amusement) mangling words starting with "th". "Zis is our Notre-Dame. We call her La Bonne-Mere, zee Good Mother." Nico is talking about the basilica that looms on the highest hill in central Marseille. Sporting a striped black-and-white facade, capped by a gleaming statue of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus, this much-loved landmark catches your attention from all over this vibrant city on France's south coast.
We're admiring the Bonne-Mere from the Vieux-Port (Old Port), Marseille's historic harbour, where glossy yachts bob and tourist boats zip out to the city's rugged offshore islands and secluded coves. Since its successful year as 2013 European Capital of Culture, Marseille has shrugged off its previously shady reputation and blossomed as both a city break and a port of call for Mediterranean cruises, with its profile further boosted as one of the host cities of the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Whether you're popping in for a day or staying longer, you'll be handsomely rewarded.
"The waterfront has changed quite a lot since I was a kid," says Nico, who was born and bred in Marseille, and points out the modern additions as we stroll. Teenagers are taking selfies beneath L'Ombriere, a reflective steel canopy and sunshade designed by Sir Norman Foster. Further on, past the fish market stalls that spring up each morning, there's Mucem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations), housed in a lattice-clad building by local Algerian-born architect Rudy Ricciotti. Joined by footbridge to Fort Saint-Jean, a stronghold constructed for King Louis XIV, Mucem has intriguing relics and multimedia displays, with temporary exhibitions focusing on timeless and topical issues like pan-Mediterranean migration.
Founded by Phoenician Greek sailors in 600 BCE, Marseille is France's oldest city and a real melting pot, with immigrants from former African colonies following waves of ancient Roman, Aragonese, Jewish, Corsican and Neapolitan settlers. A five-minute climb up from the waterfront, Le Panier (The Basket) is an antique district with a cosmopolitan and increasingly gentrified vibe - a far cry from its appearance in The French Connection, a 1971 Gene Hackman movie that portrayed Marseille as a hotbed of drug trafficking, helping to fuel the city's unsavoury reputation.
Wandering Le Panier's hilly cobbled lanes and stairways, I'm struck by the blaze of street art and trendy boutiques, concept stores, watering holes and eateries. The balmy air is thick with chatter in French and other languages, droning scooter engines and scents wafting from windows and doorways. I sniff aromatic Provencal soaps, baked boulangerie treats, grilled sardines and merguez (a spicy north African sausage). Some bistros have dedicated terraces, others tumble out onto side streets.
I dine alfresco at Au Coeur du Panier, a rustic-chic affair that lives up to its name, located at the heart of the neighbourhood and excelling in Gallic cuisine and wine. I sip dry, pale Provencal rose and dip chunks of baguette into a melting wheel of baked camembert with honey and walnuts. Next up is a beef tartare, then scallops with grilled vegetables and polenta.
The classic Marseille dish, however, is bouillabaisse. Variations of this fish stew are served throughout the city, including at the InterContinental Marseille - Hotel Dieu, set in a palatial converted 18th-century convent and hospital edging Le Panier. The hotel's head chef is Lionel Levy, who trained under the legendary Alain Ducasse. Bouillabaisse - and other seafood dishes - are a speciality at the eateries fringing the Vallon des Auffes, a photogenic sheltered harbour just off the Corniche, a promenade that snakes past the city's sandy beaches.
Exploring Marseille on foot, you'll stumble across other clusters of bars, clubs, restaurants and galleries. Check out the hip Noailles quarter, behind the Vieux-Port, or La Friche, a cultural complex spanning a former tobacco factory by Saint-Charles station, the city's main rail hub. Paris, incidentally, is about three-and-a-half hours away by train, and the local press reports that more Parisians are moving to Marseille, attracted by the warmer climate and more affordable way of life.
La Friche has a vast rooftop, where revellers gather for summer parties, concerts and cinema. It has a great overview of Marseille, too. But for the most breath-taking one, you must go up to La Bonne-Mere. Locals - particularly sailors and fishermen and their families - have traditionally made the steep trek to the basilica to pray for safe voyage and good fortune. Models of boats hang from the ceiling of its opulent interior.
Yet it's the basilica's outside terraces that truly captivate, affording majestic panoramas of Marseille, its built-up cityscape wedged between jagged, pine-wooded mountains and the usually sparkling Mediterranean Sea. I think of my mate Nico and the pride he has in his home city, and I know that zeese (these) are definitely views I won't forget in a hurry.
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FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO & SEE
1. THE CALANQUES: Dubbed "the fjords of Marseille", these swim-worthy coves can be visited by boat, while hiking trails lace the spectacular limestone clifftops.
2. FRIOUL ISLAND: Sail out to Chateau d'If, a fortress-prison island where the fictional protagonist in Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo was held.
3. VELODROME: There's usually a raucous atmosphere on match-days at this, the 67,000-capacity home ground of football club l'OM (l'Olympique de Marseille).
4. PAGNOL TRAIL: Delve into the forested peaks and villages in the city's north, where Marcel Pagnol set his classic stories, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.
5. PROVENCE: Marseille is a gateway to the wider Provencal region: seaside towns like Cassis, historic cities such as Avignon and the Luberon wine-making villages.
Getting there: Flying into Marseille from Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane requires two changes. Qatar flies via Doha and London Heathrow. Book via qatarairways.com
Staying there: InterContinental Marseille - Hotel Dieu has double rooms from about $370. See marseille.intercontinental.com
Explore more: marseille-tourisme.com; france.fr
The writer was a guest of InterContinental Marseille - Hotel Dieu.