March 8, 2013 7:29 pm

Marseille’s year in the sun

Can ‘capital of culture’ status and a €7bn regeneration project transform the city’s earthy image?
The Norman Foster-designed events pavillion, known as the Ombrière©Nigel Young

The Norman Foster-designed events pavillion, known as the Ombrière, which was inaugurated by the Mayor of Marseille last weekend

Down on the quayside of Marseille’s Vieux-Port, workmen are putting the finishing touches to Norman Foster’s Ombrière. A sunshade for the scorching summer and a refuge from rain for winter, it looks a bit like a slender-legged bus shelter marooned in a pedestrian zone. It is only when you draw closer that you begin to appreciate that it has an extra dimension: its high ceiling of polished steel reflects a backdrop of upside-down ferries and inverted fishing boats, in front of which a line of wrong-way-up fisherman sell their catch direct from trestle tables. The Ombrière is a shelter-providing kaleidoscope of port life.

Up close (and the right way up), the fishermen are a craggy-looking lot and, from what I can gather by eavesdropping, there’s an earthy argot going on. Their catch is craggy-looking too – rockfish, monkfish and conger – but it’s certainly tasty. Which is why chef Christian Buffa is weaving his way through, haggling and wisecracking with the fishermen’s wives.

Marseille-born and bred, Buffa is a streetwise kid turned restaurateur, and his restaurant Miramar, a short scoot along the quay, is the velvet-upholstered flag-carrier for bouillabaisse, the lip-smacking fish stew that was invented in these parts. It is priced on his menu at a whopping €118 for two, and he scoffs when I mention that I’ve seen it advertised at €20 a head elsewhere. “That is not a real bouillabaisse. A real bouillabaisse uses at least four kinds of fish, and we use six – and that means three kilos of the likes of rockfish, monkfish, John Dory, red mullet. See the price? €30 a kilo.” It is not hard to do the maths. So what are they putting in the cheapies? He shrugs – sea-horse meat, perhaps?

Marseille map

Like many a port, France’s second-largest city (a title disputed by Lyon) has struggled with its image. And it’s more than just adulterated bouillabaisse: the city of the decline and fall of French colonial power has been well known for drugs and drug-related violence. While Nice and Cannes, further along the coast, were built with leisure and elegance in mind, Marseille is like a version of Paris, with all its big-city grit, that has been dragged to the water’s edge, where its population has been mixed with immigration transfusions from French-speaking north Africa.

As a tourist destination, it has been an acquired taste. But the city fathers are hoping to change all that, now that Marseille is one of the two European Capital of Culture for 2013 (the other is Kosice, Slovakia). And why not? This is, after all, the city whose light inspired impressionists such as Paul Cézanne, and whose offshore island prison (Château d’If) provided the impetus for Alexandre Dumas to write The Count of Monte Cristo.

Lord Foster’s Ombrière is but a small part of a far bigger picture – Euromediterranée, the biggest urban renewal project in southern Europe, with a budget of €7bn. The lion’s share of that money is being spent along the shoreline, in arts centres, apartment blocks, offices and shopping centres – some of which have barely been started, let alone finished. But the focus of this year of culture is the Vieux-Port, which is where Marseille was first founded in 600BC, and which has been reborn as the city’s front room.

Previously, the port was a parking lot for yachts, throttled by a multi-lane highway. Under the redevelopment plan, the nerve-shredding traffic was diverted, fences were taken down, pedestrianism was encouraged and old forts were given new leases of life.

One of those forts protects the harbour entrance from the south side, along with the Pharo, once Napoleon’s palatial residence. The latter is now a conference centre, while the ramparts of the upper part of Fort Saint Nicholas, originally built in the 17th century to oppress the unruly townsfolk, is now where courting couples come for summer sunsets.

Wedged between them is the Sofitel Vieux-Port, a five-star hotel that has long presided over the port as Marseille’s best address. It is a stylish place with a top-floor restaurant – Les Trois Forts – that feels like the bridge of a ship. But its status is about to be challenged by the opening, next month, of the Intercontinental Hotel Dieu, another five-star venue, but in a far grander and more charismatic historic building on the port’s north side, with a spa, fine dining and 194 rooms to fill. A price war between the two could produce some top-end bargains.

Cheaper hotels are found at the inland end, which is also the location of the fish market, the Ombrière and the tourist office. This is the starting point for the passenger ferries that go to the islands a 20-minute ride away and to the Calanques, a series of extraordinary limestone inlets.

Cheap bouillabaisse is readily available in a dense maze of pedestrian streets off the corner of the port nearest the Ombrière, where tourist menus are as little as €15 for three courses. The northern side of the port is lined with more sophisticated restaurants, including Buffa’s Miramar, and the bijou Hotel de Ville, with a spanking new Pavillon M next door, the temporary booking office and exhibition centre for this year of culture.

A big chunk of the year’s investment is being spent around the third and most impressive of the fortifications, the 17th-century Fort Saint Jean, once a barracks for the Foreign Legion. The fort has been remodelled to link up with two newcomer buildings with ugly acronyms: Mucem (Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée) and Cerem (Centre Regional de la Méditerranée).

The new Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (Mucem)©Paul Ladouce

The new Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (Mucem), with the city’s 19th-century cathedral in the background

Mucem is the big hitter of the two, a moat-surrounded block covered in a concrete lace. Opening in June, it is the city’s first designated “national museum”. Meanwhile neighbouring Cerem, bent like a seagull’s wing, is going to be hosting Mediterranean-themed conferences and exhibitions, and represents a play for the position of the Med’s most important city – the other key contender being Barcelona.

Marseille’s oldest quarter, Le Panier, once the biggest red-light district in the Mediterranean, rises up behind the new museums. Rather like Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic, La Panier is a labyrinth of tiny streets, with staircases that top out in a couple of little squares, filled with café tables and chairs.

Here, too, is one of Marseille’s most interesting accommodation options, Au Vieux Panier, a B&B-cum-art installation run by the very personable (and half-English) Jessica Venediger. Every year she holds a competition for contemporary artists to give each room a completely new look, with results such as the Panic Room, half-white and half-fluorescent graffiti.

Its roof terrace, with a spectacular view over clay tiles down to the sea, shows why Impressionists such as Cézanne got so excited about Marseille. But the most dramatic overview of everything – sea, sky, city, islands, mountains and new developments – is from Marseille’s equivalent of the Sacré Coeur, perched on a hilltop across the other side of the Vieux-Port. This is the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, better known as the “la bonne mère”, because it is to this church that locals come with all their hopes and fears. Its interior of delicately crafted mosaics is hung with ex votos; plaques, paintings and even model boats, in memory of ships lost and lives saved.

If the Ombrière, the year of culture, and the Euromediterranée money manage to redeem Marseille’s gritty reputation, it will be here that the people will come to give thanks.

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Andrew Eames was a guest of French national tourism agency Atout France and the Marseille tourist board. For information on visiting, see www.rendezvousenfrance.com and www.marseille-tourisme.com

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