I had read that the port city of Marseille, once notorious for gangs, drugs and violence – was undergoing a serious renewal. I coerced my friend (who was doing the driving) that we should visit to see for ourselves if it was a worthy ‘Capital of Culture 2013’.
We had decided to stay at Aix-en-Provence the hometown of Paul Cézanne and Émile Zola, about 30km north of Marseille.
Kissed by the Mediterranean, Marseille can claim an un-Parisian combination of near-constant sun, miles of beaches and an ethnic mix — French, North African, Italian, Corsican, Armenian — we arrived into this mix of multiculturalism after an easy 30 minute bus ride from our hotel in Aix-en-Provence.
Walking down from the bus station the streets are dirty, the buildings are crumbling and there’s graffiti everywhere. Then a change comes over the city when we arrived at the newly remodeled Vieux-Port, where Norman Foster’s Ombriere now hangs above the repaved waterfront. A thin sheet of polished steel held 6m aloft on slender columns, Foster’s sunshade (or rain shelter) turns port life upside down.
I was disappointed that the delayed opening of the new MuCEM (Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean), prevented viewing collections that contributed to the rich civilization of the Mediterranean. The MuCEM, an expensive cultural gamble, was 13 years in the making at a cost of more than €200m.
A sightseeing day in French city without shopping; I don’t think so! Off we head down Rue Paradis to Zapa a ready-to-wear French brand valued for its creation and know-how, then to Rodier another chic French brand – budget constraints kept me out of Dior and Chanel!
Bouillabaisse, which the city invented and today is an expensive dish around €50, was a must for lunch. A short taxi ride to the recommended Restaurant Peron and we were sitting on the open-air terrace beside the beautiful Med with the city in view in the background.
Across the water was the famous island fortress, Château d’If, immortalised by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo as the prison where the novel’s hero, Edmond Dantes, was incarcerated before ultimately escaping.
Another bus ride and we were back in Aix-en-Provence enjoying a glass of champagne in the serene garden surroundings of the Hotel Le Piggonet.
We agreed that Marseille is a big, sprawling, rough-around-the-edges kind of metropolis. But we found a city bursting with character, quirks and energy.
Hotel Le Pigonnet
5, avenue du Pigonnet
13090 Aix-en-Provence, France
56 Corniche du Président John F Kennedy,
13007 Marseille, France
Tel: +33 4 91 52 15 22