36 Hours in Marseille – The New York Times – Smart Media Magazine

36 Hours in Marseille – The New York Times

No city divides the French like Marseille. For every admirer cooing about the sun-warmed sea, craggy coastlines, fish-rich bouillabaisse and the Mediterranean melting pot (thanks to 20th-century immigration from Greece, Spain, Italy, Corsica, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria), someone else is grousing about corruption, dirty streets and eroding Frenchness. And where the port city’s champions see a swaggering no-nonsense metropolis free of bourgeois pretensions, others see a lack of refinement.

Everyone agrees, however, that Marseille is a city in metamorphosis. Major urban-renewal projects have upgraded the waterfront into a sprawl of state-of-the-art cultural venues, shopping centers and skyscrapers from five-star architects. At the same time, ambitious seasonal cooking, artisanal cocktails and indie-fashion concept stores — once nearly unheard-of — are making noticeable inroads, infusing the city with something it had mostly lacked: cool and cachet. Perhaps inevitably, some now lament that Marseille is losing its distinctive working-class character and southern French soul. And, predictably, some now gush that the city has never been more modern, ambitious or happening.

Built between the 14th and 17th centuries, Fort St. Jean has been restored and reconfigured as a public space and is an essential part of your Marseille initiation. Its battlements, towers and rooftop gardens provide commanding views of the expansive blue waters and the sprawling cityscape, from the postmodern Villa Méditerranée next door to the city’s 19th-century, neo-Byzantine churches: Notre Dame de la Garde basilica and Cathédrale Sainte Marie Majeure. Admission 9.50 euros, or about $10.50.

Many of Marseille’s immigrant waves washed up in the Panier district, a village-like maze of narrow cobbled streets, tiny squares and weather-beaten houses in sherbet colors. Rue de Lorette serves up two classic flavors of Mediterranean Marseille. Start your two-stage ethno-bloat with one of the two thin, crispy pizza options — anchovy or cheese (15 euros) — at Chez Etienne, a lively tile and timber restaurant founded by Sicilians in 1943. The former is all zesty red sauce and fresh fish; the latter is agreeably gloppy and gooey. Crossing the street, you arrive in Morocco at Ahwash, a stylish living room-like restaurant and boutique. For your main course, you can plunge into roasted lamb, chicken tajine with preserved lemons (16 euros) or an excellent tajine of stringy-soft beef, long-stewed peppers and caramelized onions (16 euros). Take home Moroccan glassware, ceramics or candles.

[What are your recommendations for a weekend in Marseille? Tell us in the comments section.]

Formerly a hospital, the grandiose 18th-century building holding the Intercontinental Marseille — Hotel Dieu now offers sedation in the form of wines, beers, spirits (notably gin) and cocktails, courtesy of Le Capian bar. A soaring space outfitted with plush couches and carpets, the establishment pours out numerous Provençal products, including Doucillon beer (10 euros) and Le Daviel cocktails (pastis, lychee liqueur, spice syrup and Champagne; 21 euros). If those don’t stupefy you, the view of the illuminated harbor almost certainly will.

Don’t insult Friche La Belle de Mai by calling it an “art museum.” Sprawling across the vast grounds of a 19th-century tobacco works, the hodgepodge of historical and contemporary buildings might best be described as a multispace, polypurpose cafe-restaurant-bar-bookshop-skatepark-playground-graffiti gallery-concert hall-nursery school and sometime yoga workshop that also happens to host multiple rotating contemporary art exhibitions. In other words, this onetime cigarette factory is still lit up, day and night. Museum admission: 5 euros.

The trademark innovations are all there: rows of vertical pilotis that lift the concrete apartment building off the ground; horizontal bands of windows; panels of bright primary colors to enliven the gray exterior. Massive and modernist, the so-called Cité Radieuse could only come from the forward-looking mind of Le Corbusier — although, admittedly, the pioneering Swiss architect was looking forward in the 1940s and ’50s, when Brutalism was still futuristic. Named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2016, the building contains several areas open to the public, including the rooftop MAMO art gallery (summer only) a new bookshop (a trove of architecture tomes, posters and even paints) and the 21-room Hotel Le Corbusier. The outdoor terrace of the hotel’s restaurant, Le Ventre de l’Architecte, is a prime spot to sip a Pietra beer from Corsica (4 euros) while watching the Mediterranean sunset.

A strange, barren and (almost) uninhabited world hides 30 minutes from Marseille’s Vieux Port: the Frioul Archipelago. Blasted by eons of wind and waves, the four small islands have eroded into rocky, chalk-white lumps of cliffs, ravines, coves and outcroppings where perhaps 100 intrepid locals make their home. The Frioul If Express ferries you to If Island — where you can explore the abandoned 16th-century prison immortalized in the novel “The Count of Monte Cristo” — and then onward to Ratonneau Island. From the harbor, gravel paths extend along the coast and into the interior, leading to the ruins of a 19th-century hospital and various fortresses. Amid squealing gulls and crashing surf, the journeys provide nonstop sublime vistas, most notably of Marseille itself, spreading down the hills and stretching along the cliffs of the Mediterranean coast. Ferry ticket: 10.80 euros round-trip.

Marseille’s sprawling harbor, Le Vieux Port, is the picturesque heart of the city. Nearby studios without a view cost around $50 to $60 a night on www.airbnb.com. Apartments with views tend to be larger and fancier, with prices starting around $120 a night.

With its lifestyle boutique, restaurant, vast garden and frequent Friday night parties, Hotel Maison Montgrand (35 rue Montgrand; 33-4-91-00-35-20) is a Marseille tastemaker. The 49 rooms are done in minimalist style with smooth woods and muted tones. Doubles from 75 euros to 165 euros depending on the season and demand.

Marseille’s most discreet hotel might be Le Couvent (6 rue Fonderie Vieille; 33-6-12-31-48-79). Occupying an unmarked 17th-century stone building, the sprawling mansion-like space has no restaurant, spa or other amenities — just 10 stylish contemporary apartments outfitted with vintage pieces, art and books. Studios from 130 euros.

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