Marseille once faraway is now a direct train away
New Marseille full of marvels modern and ancient
Now the temptation to hop on down to the Mediterranean is almost irresistible. Look up at the Departures Board at London's St. Pancras station. Listed between Leicester and Nottingham is -- illuminated -- Marseilles.
So whilst trains draw out of the station heading for Sheffield and the North, the sleek TGV engine now turns in the other direction for a non-stop, 6 hour 19 minute, 1,003 kilometre rollicking ride to the sunny South. A brief frisk at customs, double-checks from the French and English passport authorities and you’re on board and free. You arrive in Marseille St. Charles station like any Frenchman. No checks no queues, you are, for however many days, a Marseillais.
France's cosmopolitan second city has always been a vibrant, faintly dangerous destination. Little wonder. It hosted visitors and invaders since the time of ancient Greece, and its links with the mysterious lands of the Magreb in North Africa lend an air of exotic difference to its busy harbor. The Foreign Legion trains along its cliff-topped surround, the streets buzz with peoples from all over the world and the Marseillais themselves speak a French that’s familiar but quite different from the clipped tones of Paris.
Hot, louche and lapped with a dazzling light from its sun and water, Marseilles is certainly somewhere else entirely -- and of late it has re-invented itself as a centre of culture - amazing modern buildings have sprung up, old ones restored.
The Vieux Port is the first stop for anyone. It was the mooring for the first Pheonecians bringing their massive galleys into port and it’s still the heart of the city and departure port for the smart blue and white painted Ferries with their indoor and outdoor seats and their rigorous timetable. And the port is the first sight of a modernist marvel of Marseille, the massive mirrored canopy stretching across the broiling heat of the ancient quayside. It is a superb sight. Look up and the entire scene below is reflected – boats moored, ferries ready to leave, fishmongers still selling an astonishing array of glistening sea creatures from lobsters to mullet. This city is all about the sea and the way to enjoy it properly is to take full advantage of the fast and efficient ferry systems.
Our little hotel was down the coast in the beautiful Calanques, the National Park with the breathtaking limestone cliffs plunging down 400 feet below sea level. Just the sea trip there (5 euros) was exhilarating. Bouncing across the waves on a deep azure blue sea, our ferry boat sailed into the Old Port of Marseilles steering between the two golden Forts on either side of the narrow harbour. It brought out the romantic seafarer in my husband:
'Imagine this in days gone by,' he exclaimed, 'pirates and buccaneers stole in here at dead of night to attack the ships anchored.'
Chugging through the ancient citadels on either side of the narrow port entrance, past the sinister outline of the Chateau d’If, prison for 17 years of the famous Count of Monte Cristo (the fact he was fictional star of a novel by Three Musqueteers author Alexander Dumas doesn’t make it any less alarming) and into Point Rouge, one of the biggest harbours on the Western Mediterranean. A quick 5-minute bus trip took us to the Villa d’Orient a world away from the hurly burly of the town. The Calanques are a miracle of Marseille. A national park on the doorstep of a sprawling city, as old as time itself they contain fossils found in deep caverns within the rocks. Where sea eagles circle above and hikers take to the mountainous paths, dramatically different from the intense urbansim of the bustling centre.
The Villa d'Orient is a wonderful discovery. It is small but thoughtfully furnished -- an Art Deco house maintained in the style of its 1904 origin. The little garden crammed with perennial plants was a relief from the dazzling sun of the South of France. Only 300 yards from the sea, down a steep stairway we bathed in the azure bliss of the Med from a tiny pebbly bay. We stayed in a loft style room surrounded by a terrace with no less than two sets of French windows on to the cliffs of the Calanque.
I wandered out one early morning and found myself serenaded by an astonishing chorus of birds from this wonderful wilderness beyond. Although the temperatures outside soared the room was wafted by breezes from the Calanques and never stuffy. The Villa has smaller rooms below giving on to the garden and the proprietor, Vincent, inhabits the middle floor with his charming partner Christophe. He is a real host, always ready with timetables of boats, routes of buses and suggestions for fun in the lovely city of Marseilles.(maison d’hotes Villa d’Orient) prices from 90 euro for a garden room.
A second sortie into Marseille on board our ferry revealed the new architecture around the port. Not only have the ancient port authority buildings been renovated as museums but a dramatic structure on the sea, MUCEM, is a controversial new addition. Linked to the dramatically restored Fort St. Jean, it has a black screen with a lace like effect, in real contrast to the old buildings with their honey stone. 'We don’t have much in it,' a friendly Marseillaise on the boat told me. 'But the building is meant to reflect the mysterious realm of the past'.
Possibly. I preferred the old quarter, the Panier, shamefully neglected – even partly dynamited by the Nazi occupiers before one general with an eye for historic buildings put a stop to it, it still feels more lively and real than the solemn modernism of the new additions. It’s not as if Marseille is short of innovative architecture. The famous Le Corbusier began to build his Cité Radieuse there and we visited the now quite old (1950s) but dramatically modern tower block complete with its rooftop paddling pool and bar. Modest in appearance its influence has been immense, imitated all over the world. The place was full of quiet stylishly dressed pilgrims from the world of design – the visitors’ book read ‘architect, architect, interior designer' in reliable succession. Everyone seemed to be dressed in either black or all in white and trod about as medieval worshippers might have in the hush of a revered cathedral. Very fun.
Not to be missed in Marseille is the often-overlooked Vieille Charité building designed to house the victims of its many plagues. For a final flourish we stayed in the grandeur of the nearby Hotel Dieu, a vast impressive structure started in 1158 as house for the poor. No longer. Its soaring arches now accommodate visitors from all over the world where they are treated to an international class of service, faultless courtesy and a level of quiet luxury. Yes it’s a far cry from the home for the destitute it once was but Marseille was happy to hand over this vast structure for a £160 million refit which has left it still the imposing ambitious old landmark -- now hosting the conferences and tourists who understandably pour into this exciting place.
A vital place, Marseille houses people from all races, a striking feature as you see so many different colours and cultures happily sharing a city beach together. It has the imposing civic buildings of Paris, the daring architecture of Spain but a soul of its own, home to all races and embracing of all comers.
So why not skip the tedium of the flights and go by train? (We usually find around 18 departures on the route from London to Marseille every weekday, with a few direct services included since 1 May 2015. Tickets ranging from £51.50 to £189.)