The next time you hear someone suck air through their teeth at the mention of Marseille, take no notice. It’s not the dangerous place some would have you believe.
Yes, it is a little edgy in places, but that’s only part of its story.
Designation as 2013’s European Capital of Culture has clearly had a huge impact on Marseille. In fact, I imagine parts of the city must now seem almost unrecognisable to long-standing locals.
Looking down from the basilica, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, at the city’s highest point, you can see that so much of Marseille has been built, rebuilt or restored in recent years.
The gentrification continues apace – notably along the port, up to Place de la Joliette. There, you will find the stylish new Docks de la Joliette boutique shopping centre-cum-office space-cum-gallery (pictured). Across the road, lies its more high-street-brand rival, the Terrasses de la Port, which gives stunning views over the Mediterranean.
Both were just around the corner from the stylish apartment we had rented through AirBnB.
From there, it was just a short walk from the more well-known district of Le Panier. This warren of steep alleyways is home to artisans and artists alike. With its tiny restaurants (pictured) and one-off shops, Le Panier has an air of Montmartre about it. At its steepest point is the pretty Place des Moulins, where three millstones mark the 15 windmills that stood there 500 years ago.
Across the city lies the Cours Julien, another arty quartier, only less wealthy. We found a café on the square and spent a good half an hour watching the world go by.
The harbour, of course, is another place to catch les Marseillais going about their lives. Hundreds of boats are moored there. They make a great backdrop for people as they partake of what seems to be the local pastime: promenading around the edge of the Vieux Port.
There are almost as many restaurants lining the harbour as there are boats. One in particular, Chez Roger, caught our eye and we enjoyed a terrific selection of snow crab, langoustines, mussels, whelks, sea snails and shrimp en plein air for lunch on New Year’s Day (pictured).
The St-Nicolas and St-Jean forts flank the end of the harbour. The latter has been redeveloped in recent years. As part of that, there is the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, known as MuCEM (pictured), with its stunning concrete lace-effect casing.
Inside there is a Michelin-starred restaurant, La Table du Môle. Sadly, we ran out of time to eat there. And that’s the thing – there’s a lot to do in Marseille. We thought four days would be enough, but we could easily have spent longer.
Oh well, looks like we’ll have to go back again… It’s a hard life.