When she stopped there on a cruise, Johanna Payton fell for the shabby-chic charms of Southern France’s biggest port city: she decided to spend half term there with her family, in a Marseille swimming pool apartment.
Six and a half hours fly by on Eurostar’s new direct service to the South of France. After an early start from St Pancras, and quick stops in Lille, Lyon and Aix En Provence, we hit Marseille in good time for coffee and cake at the station, a quick taxi ride to our apartment and an icy afternoon dip in the swimming pool.
Provence is by no means baking in late October, but the sunny skies and mild temperatures make autumn a great time for walking, sightseeing and eating. We chose a swimming pool apartment in the Vallon des Auffes area of the 7th arrondissement – not because we thought we’d be paddling every day, but to find a perfect balance between city break and seaside holiday. A 30-minute walk from the old port and city centre, this area of steep streets, a dramatic creek and impressive views looks much prettier than the centre, lies in the shadow of the imposing Notre Dame de la Garde and offers unlimited peace and quiet in an otherwise busy and vibrant city (I’ve never slept so well on holiday).
Upon arrival at the apartment, listed by HomeAway, we were warmly welcomed by the owner, Romain, and his faithful dog – a big guy who bounds around the garden and loves it when guests engage him in a game of fetch. The smart apartment is in the basement of Romain’s house, with direct access to the pool and garden. Two double rooms interconnect and there is a sofa bed in the living area, which also has an en suite shower room, a kitchenette and a foosball table. It comfortably slept our party of five, although you do have to pass through each other’s bedrooms to move around the apartment, so bear that in mind if you’re not travelling with close friends or family.
Romain speaks excellent English, provides lots of information about local amenities and also owns a boat: you can book a private charter to the dramatic Calanques (the breathtaking Mediterranean fjords just around the corner in Cassis) with him.
Around the apartment, there are some lovely boulangeries (particularly on rue Endoume) and you’re only a 15 minute walk from Fours des Navettes, the best place to buy Marseille’s traditional biscuits: the lingering taste of orange blossom will stay with you for hours. If fine dining is your thing, Michellin-starred Peron, with great sea views out towards Château d’if (immortalised by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo) is just a stroll along the corniche.
The area, between Endoume and Bompard, is well served by the no 80 and 83 buses and although parking (and driving!) in Marseille is no picnic, it is manageable if you hire a car. Notre Dame de la Garde is around 20 minutes away by foot and, at this time of year, an evening stroll there yields a dramatic view of the sunset, just before the cathedral’s closing time.
Marseille may be one of the oldest cities in Europe, but it is by no means one of the most beautiful. However, you don’t have to scratch far under the surface to find a unique character and friendly local people who defy the steely reception you’d receive on the Côte d’Azur.
Tourism is not so well established here: the city was named a European Capital of Culture in 2013 and the accolade has revitalised a jaded port with a seedy reputation. Pre-2013, there was no bistro culture to speak of and – cathedral and soap-shopping aside – no compelling reason to visit.
You don’t have to scratch far under Marseille’s surface to find a unique character and friendly atmosphere
Fast forward to 2015 and, from the trendy Bistro Pain in Saint-Charles train station (delicious baguettes and delicacies served by beardy hipsters) and the New York-style Oscar’s bagel emporium (awesome for breakfast), to the smattering of mid-century vintage shops and hot new bistros in Le Panier (the old town), it’s plain to see that this is a city on the up. Two huge, new shopping centres have opened near the cruise ship terminal and MuCEM (the Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean) makes a bold statement about the city’s significance (chef Gerald Passédat, whose restaurant Le Petit Nice has held three Michelin stars since 2008, runs the four eateries within).
Wandering through Le Panier is an absolute pleasure; the narrow streets are peppered with a heady mix of touristy boutiques and soap sellers, vintage bazaars and cafes, and once you’ve ambled down the hill, stop for coffees or cocktails in the cool surrounds of Le Poulpe, overlooking the harbour. Houses in Le Panier are adorned with art and plants, the influence of Marseille’s melting pot of inhabitants keenly felt and there’s a distinct whiff of gentrification (upon ordering a tub of indulgent, jet black dessert in Vannille Noir, the proprietor asked me if I’d read about his artisan ice cream parlour in the Guardian).
But that’s not to say that Marseille is yet another hip holiday spot: the grubby streets, genuine hospitality and edgy atmosphere provide an adventurous destination that makes it much more interesting than “Paris-on-Sea”, and more real than the snooty likes of Cannes and St Tropez.
And, if glamour is what you’re after, Cassis is only a stone’s throw away. We drove over a mountain to reach this spellbinding little harbour town, packed with charming shops and restaurants, a gateway to the Calanques. We had good mussels for lunch at Le Perroquet and then walked to Plage de Bestouan where my son enjoyed some pebble skimming. I embarked on the uphill trek to the top of the Calanques and was, frankly, blown away by its scale. It’s France’s answer to the Grand Canyon – and if you love coveting the idyllic houses of the wealthy, the walk up there will have you salivating.
The spectacular Calanques is France’s answer to the Grand Canyon
Although some of the restaurants we tried on our trip were somewhat lacking (use extreme caution when eating anywhere on the old port), I did enjoy my foray into the traditional “marmite des pecheurs” (fish stew) and, having seen the price and freshness of the fish on the daily market, I’m tempted to visit again in the summer when Romain’s electric barbecue could be well used.
Even the short changeover at Lille on the way home (necessary because there is no passport control in Marseille) was a breeze; proof, in case you needed it, that a no-fly Mediterranean holiday, packed with food and culture, has never been easier to enjoy.
How to get to Marseille without flying:
Johanna travelled via Eurostar from London St Pancras to Marseille Saint-Charles station. The journey takes around 6.5 hours and is direct. On the way back, you will change at Lille and pass through international border control.
Words: Johanna Payton for Feet on the Ground
Images: Johanna Payton