Gate, Marseille Hotel DieuIf you want to stay in Marseille in a really top-class hotel, the five-star InterContinental Hôtel Dieu, which opened in 2013, is an enticing choice.

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This magnificent building sits on a slope overlooking the Old Port. The site was originally occupied by Greek and, later, Roman settlers in Marseille: it was a prime place of real estate, where moneyed colonisers built their villas.

Most of these ancient remains disappeared over the centuries. But some treasures have been uncovered, including a huge, 100 square metre / 1,000 square foot multi-coloured Roman mosaic.

A hospital was later built on the site in the 12th century by the Confraternity of the Holy Spirit and this gradually evolved, with many architectural additions, into the Hôtel Dieu.

Many French cities have their own Hôtel Dieu (literally: "Hotel [of] God"). Often located near the cathedral, these originally housed pilgrims, but over the years evolved into hospices or hospitals to treat the poor, sick and elderly.

Historic postcard of Marseille's Old Port with the Hotel DieuJacques Daviel conducted the first ever cataract operation at Marseille's Hôtel Dieu in 1750, and its address (place Daviel) still bears his name. Pictured: an historic postcard with the Hôtel Dieu in the top right of the image.

The city of Marseille acquired the Hôtel Dieu in 2003 and invited tenders for a luxury hotel. The move was controversial. Some groups would have preferred the building to become a museum or community space.

Others complained that Axa Real Estate, the company which won the contract, enjoyed financial aid and a preferential long lease from the city.

The Hôtel Dieu is a former hospice and hospital, created for the needy on the edge of one of Marseille's working-class immigrant quarters. Now the hotel (the restoration cost an estimated 120 million €uros) offers elite five-star accommodation for business travellers and rich tourists.

The ironies have not passed unnoticed, though, to be fair, locals are welcome and even encouraged to use the brasserie, spa and other public areas. And Marseille has been, until relatively recently, short of upscale hotels, given the size of the city.

Be all that as it may, the Hôtel Dieu does occupy an unrivalled location, just behind and above the Town Hall, overlooking the Old Port and the city's iconic Notre Dame de la Garde

If you're interested in art, it's only a couple of minutes' walk from the MuCEM, the Musée Regards de Provence and the Villa Méditerranée, the new museums that have sprung up all along Marseille's waterfront - as well as some older ones such as the Vieille Charité in the Old Town and the Musée d'Histoire de Marseille.

It's also close to the Vieux Port (Old Port) metro stop and other transport links and is within walking distance of the J4 Terminal for small, luxury cruise ships (the Môle Léon Gourret for larger cruise ships is a short taxi ride away). Click here to read our guide to Marseille's cruise ship port.

Aerial view of the Old Port MarseilleIn addition the hotel is convenient for the main shopping areas as well as being within a few minutes' walk from the port's restaurants and bars. Behind it rise the winding streets of the Panier. Be warned that the hotel itself is up quite a steep hill!

The InterContinental Hôtel Dieu is one of a handful of five-star hotels in Marseille, the others being the Sofitel Vieux Port, and two boutique hotels, the C2 Hotel and Le petit Nice,which has a three-star Michelin restaurant.

Compared to the C2 and Le petit Nice, the Hôtel Dieu is monumental: 23,500 square metres / 250,000 square feet, to be precise.

An aerial view of the Old Port, pictured above, gives an idea of the massive scale (it's just to the right of the church steeple on the far side of the port).

Its two great, sweeping staircases (one in each of the side wings), arched galleries, vaulted passageways and spacious open terraces seem more appropriate to a château than to a hospital. It became a listed building in 1963.

So what's it like inside? The entrance is imposing. The InterContinental's architect, Anthony Béchu, and designer, Jean-Philippe Nuel have cleverly flooded the hotel's lobby, pictured, with light via a new glass ceiling.

Marseille Hotel Dieu lobbyIts black and white stonework echoes the historic hospital decor and the façades of Marseille's Sainte Marie Majeur cathedral and Notre Dame de la Garde.

On the other hand this starkly monochrome colour scheme may not be to all tastes. Overstuffed with classy but obtrusive artworks, some of the public areas look aggressively modern and out of keeping with the historical setting. Pictured below: a corner of the lobby reflected in a designer mirror framed with mussel shells.

In fact the overall restoration is not quite as respectful of the original building as it might have been, especially in the areas at the back, away from the spectacular façade. We toured the Hôtel Dieu with a team of architects and conservationists, who were certainly less than impressed.

Another caveat: the bedrooms you will see on the hotel website or in travel writers' reports all enjoy stunning panoramic vistas. However this applies to only just over a third of the Hôtel Dieu's 172 rooms and 22 suites.

Marseille Hotel Dieu lobbyThe others look onto either the tangle of narrow streets in the Panier (Old Town) or over a large but rather nondescript inner courtyard, one side of which is taken up by rented apartments.

The standard and executive rooms are good-sized, with big beds and all the extras you expect of a five-star hotel (in the executive rooms, you can open up the bathroom to enjoy a view of the Old Port while having a wash).

The ceilings, however, are on the low side, as extra floors have been added in between the existing ones to increase the accommodation capacity.

Marseille Hotel Dieu restaurantThe Hôtel Dieu is the first hotel in France to be subject to Environmental Quality certification. This requires it to conform to strict guidelines in terms of such things as the building materials, energy management, acoustics, and quality of air and water.

There's also a rather small and stuffy-looking 30-seat gastronomic restaurant, Alcyone, pictured, which boasts a bizarre tinselly ceiling light feature.

Lionel Lévy, one of the chefs at the forefront of Marseille's gastronomic revolution, leads the kitchen in both the restaurant and the brasserie.

He previously ran Une Table, au Sud, which received a Michelin star in 2005 (that restaurant is now in the hands of his former deputy, Ludovic Turac).

As widely expected, Lévy clocked up another first Michelin star for L'Alcyone in the 2014 Michelin restaurant guide.

The Hôtel Dieu's other facilities include an indoor swimming pool, designed to evoke a provençal lavoir (communal washtub), a spa (of course) and fitness centre, an underground car-park and a 1,000 square metre / 10,700 square foot conference centre.

Visited April 2013

Where: The InterContinental Hôtel Dieu,1 place Daviel, 13002 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 01 39 74. Book a room at the InterContinental Hôtel Dieu Marseille

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