marseille-old-town-panierMarseille's Panier (Old Town) is full of history. It surges up from the north of the Old Port, its tall, narrow houses draped with washing and criss-crossed by steep cobbled steps. logoClick here to book a hotel in Marseille

This was the site first settled by the Greeks who founded the city of Massalia, as it was known then, in 600 BC and has welcomed successive waves of immigration ever since.

Initially the newcomers came mainly from Italy and Corsica. More recently they have arrived from just about everywhere, from South America and North Africa to Vietnam and the Comoro Islands, near Madagascar (below, an exotic turbaned and moustachio'd head decorates a door lintel in reminder of this heritage).

The Panier's expansion was funded by rich traders in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries ("panier" means "the basket" and comes from a 17th century inn, Le Logis du Panier, located on what's now the Rue du Panier).

A doorway in Marseille's Old TownMany elements of this era survive (see below), but great swathes of the Panier were destroyed during the Second World War, when its labyrinthine warren was a haven for Resistance fighters, refugees, criminals, prostitutes, Jews and Communists - all representing, in their different ways, threats to the occupying power.

Well aware of this, the Nazis, aided by the French authorities, evacuated 30,000 inhabitants in January 1943, sending 2,000 of them to concentration camps before dynamiting 1,500 houses in the lower section of the Old Town.

The 1943 Nazi raid on the Marseille Panier or Old TownPictured: the raid on the Panier. Picture credit: Wolfgang Vennemann for the German Federal Archive).

There is a detailled illustrated account of heroic Resistance activities in Marseille on the Alliance Française in London website.

Hence today the Panier stops just short of the Old Port, whose northern quay is lined by big, brutalist granite apartment blocks (nos. 42-66) designed in the early 1950s by the noted post-war architect Fernand Pouillon.

The Panier is beginning to display signs of gentrification in the wake of the Euroméditerranée project to revitalise Marseille and the amazing renovations during 2013 as part of the European Capital of Culture programme. Yet it remains a vibrant, cohesive inner-city community with much of its original flavour.

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Large parts of the Panier are closed to road traffic from 11.30am onwards, though not to the Petit Train (Little Train), which is unarguably the best way to visit the area on wheels. It stops at the Panier's most important attraction, the Vieille Charité, where you can get off for a visit and pick up a later train to continue your journey.

However you get a much better sense of the Panier on foot. A self-guided walking tour is indicated by enamelled lava plaques set in the ground but probably the best way to enjoy the Panier is simply to stroll around for an hour or two. It's also an excellent area for shopping for crafts and local designer goods and browsing artists' galleries.

On the site of the ancient Greek agora - open-air public forum - the Place de Lenche is named after a wealthy Corsican family which made its fortune collecting and working coral and built a sumptuous private residence there (it was destroyed in 1943). Lined with shops and bars, the square is still a popular meeting place.

At the very top of the Panier, the Place des Moulins was formerly the site of 15 flour mills. Today only two remain, converted into private dwellings. The square is lined with houses in freshly painted shades of cream, blue, lavender and yellow. No cafés, but shady benches offer pleasant and peaceful spots to sit and rest.

A handful of historic buildings were spared by the Nazis. The Maison Diamantée (Diamond House) has a singular raised diamond pattern on its facade and an impressive staircase. It was constructed in 1570 for a rich merchant, Pierre Gardiolle.

Built in pink local stone, with a beautiful wrought iron balcony decorated with daisies, a favourite local motif, the 18th century Daviel Pavillion has a definite provençal flavour. Once a courthouse, it's now an annex to the Town Hall.

The Hôtel de Cabre - commissioned by the merchant Louis Cabre in around 1535 - was swivelled on jacks through 90 degrees after the war in order to align it with the new streets. And one of the oldest relics is the Accoules Church, or at least its studded tower, which dates from the 14th century. The original church itself was destroyed in 1794 for housing political meetings during the French Revolution.

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The Hotel Dieu in the Marseille Panier or Old TownThe Hôtel Dieu (pictured) is a magnificent former hospital built in the 18th century on the site of another ex-hospital dating from the Middle Ages.

Unable to cope with Marseille's expanding population, it was usurped by more modern hospitals and used as a medical training centre until 2006. It has now been converted into a luxury five-star hotel, the InterContinental Hôtel Dieu.

Archeological excavations in the winter of 2010 uncovered the entire foundations and crypts of the 12th century Eglise du Saint Esprit and a very well-preserved Roman mosaic, part of which is on display in the InterContinental Hôtel Dieu.

The Panier's jewel is the Vieille Charité. Designed by the Marseille-born painter/sculptor/architect Pierre Paul Puget, this was a poorhouse built between 1671 and 1749 and consists of a three-storeyed gallery looking onto an inner courtyard with a striking, elliptical, domed chapel as its centrepiece.

The Vieille Charite and petit train, MarseilleIt continued to be used as an old people's and children's home until the end of the 19th century, then became a barracks and finally a shelter for the homeless.

Eventually the buildings were restored and today house a cultural centre, research units, and museums and galleries containing permanent collections of African, Oceanian and Amerindian art and Mediterranean archeology, as well as temporary exhibitions.

The Vieille Charité (pictured, with the little train) also has a very good art book shop, a library and even a small cinema.

On the modest Place des 13 Cantons you might be surprised to find armies of French-speaking tourists. They've come to make a pilgrimage to what some visitors regard as one of Marseille's major sights: the setting for the enormously popular television soap opera Plus Belle la Vie. Its five million-plus audience comes mainly from francophone countries, though it's also transmitted as far afield as Finland and Bosnia.

The series takes place in a fictional part of the Old Town called Le Mistral. It's actually shot at the Belle de Mai media complex in the northern suburbs of Marseille, but one of the studio sets is a virtual carbon copy of the Bar des 13 Coins on this square.

A behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the show plays on permanent loop at a small cinema as compensation for the fact that tourists are not permitted to visit the studio to view the filming.

On the June weekend closest to midsummer's night, the Panier has hosted the best street party in France: the Fête du Panier, a two-day multi-cultural shindig which, in 2013, celebrated its 20th anniversary.

But disaster has struck: in 2014 the Fête du Panier has been cancelled due to funding cuts. A last-minute event has been improvised for 21 June, but it's on a vastly reduced scale. Watch this space for further developments in 2015. 

Fete du Panier, Marseille, 2012Meanwhile, here's a snapshot of the Festival's glories in previous years. It begins in the afternoon with children's shows, community events and exhibitions and continues way into the night with (free) top-class, live world music followed by pulsating discos in the various squares.

The music is only half the story though: the reason to go to the Fête du Panier is its unique atmosphere. Local inhabitants sell home-made food and drinks and in every doorway there's someone grilling sardines or merguez (spicy North African sausages), and offering Asian savouries, Algerian patisserie, vegetarian delicacies or home-made p'tit punch (rum punch).

Go around 7-11pm to experience the event at its best; after then the quarter gets very crowded and rowdy.

Where: Link to the Panier on Google Maps.

How to get there: The Panier is a short walk from the Old Port. Catch the Petit Train (Little Train) on the quai du Port for a guided tourist tour. From Saint Charles Station, take the metro line one (stop: Colbert); from there it is a short walk.

Le Charite Cafe, MarseilleWhere to eat and drink: Take an old-fashioned English cuppa at Cup of Tea on the terrace looking on to the Accoules Church or in its cosy interior room with a small bookshop selling French translations of world literature.

The essential spot for ice-cream is Le Glacier du Roi, on the Place de Lenche. For a meal, escape from the crowds at Le Charité Café (pictured) or try La Virgule, Vinonéo, On Dine or Le Café des Epices, all at the bottom of the Old Town.


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