Aerial view of the Old Port, MarseilleDominated on one side by the Panier (Old Town) and on the other by Notre Dame de la Garde, the Old Port, or Vieux Port, has been the beating heart of Marseille for over two thousand years.

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And today the Old Port is still a favourite spot for both locals and tourists to stroll, drink, eat, argue, fall in love, buy (or sell) fish, peddle sunglasses and generally hang out and enjoy life.

What's more the city centre had a major makeover in 2013, when Marseille was the hub of the European Capital of Culture. The result has been to make the Old Port even more of a social focus.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

Marseille was founded as a trading port in 600 BC by Greeks from Phocaea in Asia Minor - now part of Turkey - making it the oldest town in France. To this day it still bears the proud ancient nickname La Cité Phocéenne.

At the time the area was inhabited by a Celto-Ligurian people. According to a tale related by the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Roman historian Justin, Protis, a young Greek sailor exploring the coast, landed in the bay and was promptly invited to a banquet by the local Ligurian chieftain.

The Old Port, MarseilleIt so happened that the purpose of the banquet was for Gyptis, the chieftain's daughter, to select a mate.

She fell in love at first sight with the Greek newcomer, and they were married. Her dowry was a piece of the land where Marseille now stands.

It's a romantic legend, but also an emblematic one, for the area has a very long tradition of welcoming and assimilating immigrants and newcomers, which continues to this day.

The port became Roman, then medieval, expanding along the northern shores. In 1666, on the orders of Louis XIV, the city began to be developed southwards and two fortresses were built on either side of the harbour entrance.

Archive photo of the Transbordeur Bridge, MarseilleThe Transbordeur Bridge (pictured: note the small building on the bridge near the left pylon, a fish restaurant which must have had fabulous views) was opened in 1905.

It became an iconic feature of the city skyline. But it was weakened by Nazi bombing in 1944 and had to be destroyed after the Second World War.

Today the Old Port, just six metres / 20 feet deep, is unable to accommodate commercial marine traffic, which now plies in and out of the nearby port of Joliette.

Instead it's the largest of the city's marinas, with 3,500 berths for which traditional fishing boats, or pointus, vie alongside huge, swanky yachts, a handful of tall ships and common-or-garden motor boats.

WHERE TO GO AND WHAT TO SEE

The Old Port is lined by restaurants and cafés: the former are mostly arrayed along the northern quai du Port and the latter along the southern quai de Rive Neuve. This said, recently a cluster of bars have sprung up on the quai du Port too, notably the very popular Le Crystal at no. 148, which stays open and serves snacks as well as cocktails late into the evening.

The shortest side of the port has kept changing its name through the centuries. Since 2000, it is, slightly confusingly, called the quai de la Fraternité on the side nearest the harbour and quai des Belges on the side nearest the town.

This is where to find the boat shuttles to the Château d'If, to Pointe Rouge and to L'Estaque as well as the boat companies offering excursions to the calanques. In the mornings there is a small, lively fish market.

In 2013 this stretch of the Old Port, pictured, became semi-pedestrianised as part of a redevelopment project designed by the British architect Norman Foster to open up the space for bars and restaurants, vendors and public events.

The new semi-pedestrised Old Port of MarseillePart of the space at the southern end is shielded by a dramatic and very photogenic large, stainless steel mirrored sun canopy, a favourite spot for selfies.

A ferry boat service crosses the harbour every few minutes between the Town Hall (La Mairie) on the quai du Port and the Bar de la Marine on the quai de Rive Neuve.

The Canebière, Marseille's main thoroughfare, runs off the quai des Belges. Built in 1666, its name comes from canebe, a provençal word for the hemp grown in the port area and used to make ships' rigging (inevitably, British sailors referred to the street as the "can o' beer").

It became the glamorous centre of Marseille's vibrant café society: in the 19th century there were over 280 cafés in the city and many grand hotels along the Canebière to cater to the commercial travellers and wealthy tourists passing through the port, then the largest on the Mediterranean.

You can still see some of these sumptuous façades on the Canebière. One of the finest is the former Grand Hotel du Louvre et de la Paix at no. 53 (now a C&A clothing store) which was renovated in 2014.

Its four caryatyds represent the four continents of Europe, Asia, Africa and (lumped together) the two Americas. Mark Twain once spent the night here and the Lumière Brothers organised an early public screening of their pioneering films.

1920s postcard of the Canebiere, MarseilleLook out, too, for the former Grand Hotel at no. 26-28 (now a police station). Laurel and Hardy stayed on the Canebière too while making a film in Marseille (really!) in 1951. The postcard depicts the Canebière in the 1920s.

Today many of these cafés and almost all the hotels on the Canebière have closed and the street has become rather down-at-heel and long overdue for a facelift.

But it brightens up in December with a Santons Fair that boasts dozens of stalls selling little figurines for traditional provençal Christmas cribs.

Just off the Canebière is the Opera House, built in 1787 but razed by a fire in 1919 which left only the main walls and neo-classical colonnade intact; the front façade and interior were rebuilt in Art Deco style.

The exterior of the Opera House has had a sparkling facelift, though the interior is in need of complete restoration; when completed, it will be magnificent. The company has a spritely programme, which includes new commissions as well as the usual popular favourites. The Opera House is also the home of the Marseille Ballet.

Insider Tip for the Opera of MarseilleOn the first Wednesday of each month at noon, a short theatrical show is staged in front of the Marseille Opera by the company Sirènes et Midi Net to coincide with the monthly testing of the city's emergency warning siren.

The nearby Cours d'Estienne d'Orves has gone through many incarnations. From the 16th to the 18th centuries the whole area was a series of boatsheds known as Les Arcenaulx where slaves built and fitted out galley ships.

In the 19th century, it became a pretty canal popular with artists and fishermen, but was filled in in 1927. An unsightly high-rise car-park was erected on the site in the 1960s.

After a campaign by local activists, this was in turn demolished in 1987 to make way for an underground car-park, which is one of the most convenient places to park in the city centre.

Above ground, the Cours d'Estienne d'Orves is now a pedestrian precinct stocked with chic fashion boutiques like Agnès B, numerous restaurants and bars and, occasionally in winter, a skating rink.

At the far end of the quai de Rive Neuve is Marseille's main theatre, La Criée, a building adapted from the city's former covered fish market (the façade, with its big arched glass window, is original).

 

Where: Link to the Old Port on Google Maps.

How to get there: Metro line 1 (stop: Vieux Port).

Where to eat and drink: On and just behind the quai du Port, Le Café des Epices, On Dine and Vinonéo are all recommended restaurants, as is the excellent Café des Méditerranées just round the corner by the MuCEM.

For those with deep pockets, Le Miramar has a long-standing reputation for its (very pricey) bouillabaisse, while the Marseille superchef Lionel Levy runs the gastronomic restaurant at the five-star InterContinental Hôtel Dieu. It has a Michelin star, as does Une Table, au Sud.

La Caravelle, La Samaritaine and (for late-night drinks and food) Le Crystal (148 quai du port) are the essential bars. If you're on the quai de Rive Neuve, try 29 Place aux Huiles to eat, Les Arcenaulx for tea or a meal in a relaxing, book-lined dining-room (don't miss the display of old photographs of the arsenals at the entrance to the next-door bookshop) and the Bar de la Marine, Marcel Pagnol's old haunt, for a pastis.

Up on the Canebière, Torréfaction Noailles is great for relaxing with coffee, tea and ice-cream. Just off the boulevard, Chez Toinou is the place for fresh seafood.

 

 

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