REPORTAGE PHOTOGRAPHY NICOLAS PROSPERINO Marseille is unlike any other city in France, an irresistible mix of cosmopolitan cool and southern joie de vivre. Stretched across 56km of coastline, the city is more influenced by the Mediterranean than the nation’s capital. As an open port for over 2,600 years, France’s oldest city has been infused with cultures from near and far, inciting local filmmaker Robert Guédiguian to proclaim, ‘Marseille isn’t France. Marseille isn’t Provence. Marseille is the world.’

It’s a city of contradictions. Marseille’s quaint cobblestone streets are splashed with street art. The three-Michelin-star restaurant, Le Petit Nice Passedat, is perched above a beach where locals picnic on takeaway pizza. Linked by a footbridge, even two of the city’s must-see monuments offer a dazzling juxtaposition: the contemporary black concrete Mucem (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) and the 17th-century, rose-stone Fort Saint-Jean. Marseille’s unique nature is what makes the city so intriguing. Visitors are seduced by this singular port, and many find themselves returning again and again, lured by the simple pleasures that make France’s second-largest city tick: a game of boules under a plane tree, grilled sardines and a glass of iced rosé on a sun-soaked terrace. Locals liken the sprawling city to 111 villages, each one with its own personality. Bring good walking shoes to explore them.

Get the lie of the land at Notre-Dame de la Garde, a Byzantine basilica with striped marble exterior that boasts breathtaking views as the city’s highest point. Nicknamed La Bonne Mère, (the Good Mother), its chapel is decorated with wooden boats and nautical paintings that Marseillais have offered to protect their fishermen at sea. With its gold Virgin Mary statue and dazzling interior mosaics, La Bonne Mère is more Mediterranean than the typical Gothic architecture found in France. From here, head down the hill to Noailles, known as the belly of Marseille for its central location and abundant eats. Stroll the fragrant, souk-like streets at lunchtime for a multicultural smorgasbord of leblebi (Tunisian chickpea soup) at Chez Yassine, pistachio halva at Saladin Épices du Monde, and Algerian orge (barley) couscous at Le Fémina. ‘It’s the only quartier that moves me,’ says Julia Sammut, the culinary journalist behind L’Epicerie L’Idéal, a café-cum-deli that’s stocked with delights from the Mediterranean and beyond. Noailles is also a hub of heritage addresses. Pick up tinctures and herbal teas at two-centuries-old herbalist Père Blaize. Marvel at Maison Empereur, France’s oldest hardware store, which opened in 1827 and is an Ali Baba’s cavern with over 30,000 items, including the city’s historic blocks of soap (Savon de Marseille), Provençal tablecloths, Opinel knives and much more.

Though the famed poêlon du pêcheur (Marseille’s version of bouillabaisse fish stew) has been marketed to near mythical status in Marseille, the city’s most consumed and beloved dish is pizza. Brought by Neapolitan workers in the 1860s, the wood-fired pizza trucks – the first food trucks in France – sealed its cultural status in 1964. Try the classic moit moit (half anchovy, half Emmental) at Chez Etienne, an institution in the Le Panier neighbourhood that has lured mayors and mafiosos since 1947. This homely pizzeria is à la bonne franquette: no-fuss cooking and a familial ambiance that is ingrained in Marseille’s DNA – and a welcome relief from pretentious Parisian tables.

Marseille’s coastline is also a far cry from French Riviera snobbery. Visit the charming fishing port of Vallon des Auffes followed by a dip at the Anse de Maldormé, a bijou pebble-beach bay. The tiny port of Les Goudes sits on the city’s southern tip. Use it as a gateway to Calanques National Park, from a short stroll to Cap Croisette or just over an hour’s hike to Massif de Marseilleveyre. If you prefer to exercise your tastebuds, L’Auberge de Corsaire, aka Chez Paul, serves the freshest catch. I particularly love the squid served with garlic and parsley, the grilled daurade (sea bream) and they do a mean poêlon du pêcheur.

Marseille’s curved littoral is bookended by two fishing villages that feel far from the urban bustle. To the north near the cruise ships, L’Estaque captivated Cézanne and other artists for its picturesque setting. It’s equally famous for the trio of snack bars that sell panisses (chickpea fritters) and chichis fregis (fried doughnuts). Every Marseillais has their favourite. Vendor Michel uses an original recipe brought over by Italian immigrants, which gives his chichis a lemony zing. Marseille’s Vieux Port was once filled with ships unloading goods and people from faraway lands. Now, the harbour is a hub of pleasure. Promenade past tidy rows of boats, including traditional wooden barquettes, and check out the morning fish market beside the Ombrière, Norman Foster’s mirrored steel canopy that provides welcome shade. Grab a seat at one of the many terraces to soak up the southern sun.

Le Vieux Port is also a hotspot for apéro, the convivial happy hour that embodies Marseille’s sociable spirit. Grab a glass of Marseille’s quintessential quaff, pastis (created here in 1932 by Paul Ricard as a response to France’s absinthe ban), and sip beside weathered maps at La Caravelle, formerly frequented by sailors in the1920s. You’ll catch a fantastic view of La Bonne Mère from the balcony. On long summer days, chart a course for Le Bar sur la Mer. Docked beside Fort Saint-Jean at the mouth of the port, the 1930s schooner provides a front row seat to watch the maritime world go by.

Explore More Easy Marseille and the Old Port: see the city’s classic highlights, take in the Corniche Kennedy then relax in Le Vieux Port. Marseille and the Little Train Enjoy a guided train ride through the historic city before exploring the Old Harbour area on your own. Discover Marseille Make your date with Marseille on Arvia from December 2022: Book shore experiences up to 365 days before you sail:

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