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.

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A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

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

A doorway in Marseille's Old TownAt first 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.

Pictured, an exotic turbaned and moustachio'd head decorates a door lintel.

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, formerly located on what today is the rue du Panier.

Many elements of this era survive. But great swathes of the Panier were destroyed during the Second World War.

Its maze of streets were a haven for Resistance fighters, refugees, criminals, prostitutes, Jews and Communists - all representing, in their different ways, threats to the occupying power.

Many historians also believe property developers were keen to get their hands on this land. So there were plenty of reasons for clearing it.

The Nazis evacuated 30,000 inhabitants in January 1943, sending 2000 of them to concentration camps. Then they dynamited 1500 houses in the lower section of the Old Town.

The French authorities collaborated and helped draw up a list of historic buildings which would be spared. There is a detailled illustrated account of heroic Resistance activities in Marseille on the Alliance Française in London website.

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

This is why today the Panier stops just short of the Old Port. Its lower streets are dominated by big, brutalist granite apartment blocks designed in the early 1950s by the noted post-war architect Fernand Pouillon.

WHAT TO SEE

The Panier is beginning to display signs of gentrification in the wake of the Euroméditerranée project to revitalise this part of Marseille and the amazing renovations that were part of the 2013 European Capital of Culture programme.

Yet it remains a vibrant, cohesive inner-city community with much of its original flavour and authenticity.

The best way to explore the Panier is on foot. A self-guided walking tour is indicated by enamelled lava plaques set in the ground but it's more enjoyable simply to stroll around for an hour or two. There's something interesting to see on almost every street.

This is also an excellent area for shopping for crafts and local designer goods and browsing artists' galleries. Be warned, though: the Panier is very hilly and could be tricky for anyone with restricted mobility.

The alternative is the petit train (little tourist train), which you can pick up on the Old Port and which is unarguably the best way to visit the area on wheels.

The Vieille Charite and petit train, MarseilleIt goes past all the main sights (there's a recorded commentary) and stops at the most important attraction, the Vieille Charité, pictured.

You can get off here for a visit and pick up a later train to continue your journey. Large parts of the Panier are closed to road traffic from late morning onwards.

The Vieille Charité is the jewel of the Old Town. It was designed by the great Marseille painter / sculptor / architect Pierre Paul Puget and the house where he was born still stands here, marked with a plaque, across the street just a couple of metres from his masterpiece.

Built between 1671 and 1749, the Vieille Charité consists of a three-storeyed gallery looking onto an inner courtyard with a striking, elliptical, domed chapel as its centrepiece. Click here to read more about its history.

vieille charitToday the Vieille Charité houses 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. It also has a very good art book shop, a library, café and even a small cinema.

A handful of other historic buildings were spared by the Nazis. The Maison Diamantée (Diamond House) has a singular raised diamond pattern on its façade and an impressive staircase (though it's usually closed to the public). It was constructed in 1570 for a rich merchant, Pierre Gardiolle.

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

One of the most intriguing sights in the Panier and one of the oldest buildings in Marseille is the Hôtel de Cabre. This Renaissance-Gothic mansion was commissioned by the merchant Louis Cabre in around 1535.

Then, after the Second World War, it was swivelled on jacks through 90 degrees in order to align it with the new street layout. A plaque in front of the house has a photo of this extraordinary operation, with the house balanced precariously on a tiny trolley.

Another of the oldest relics is the Accoules Church, or at least its distinctive studded tower, which dates from the 14th century. The original church itself was destroyed in 1794 for housing political meetings during the French Revolution.

marseille intercontinental hotel dieu facadeThe 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 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 hotel.

These are the big historic sights of the Panier - but this fascinating district hides all sorts of other surprises.

One of our favourite spots is right at the very top of the Old Town, a stone's throw from the main tourist trail but a spot that few visitors discover.

The place des Moulins was formerly the site of 15 flour mills. Today only two remain, converted into private dwellings.

Pictured, this pretty square with a real village atmosphere is lined with houses in freshly painted shades of cream, blue, lavender and yellow. There are no shops or cafés, but shady benches offer pleasant and peaceful spots to sit and rest.

place des moulins marseilleIt's a real contrast to the bustling place des 13 Cantons, where you are likely 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.

This square is the setting for the long-running and enormously popular French 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 Marseille 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 more recent arrival, the Musée de la Boule, also on the place des 13 Cantons, is a fun mix of shop, museum - and pétanque court, where you can cast a boule or two. Admission is free.

Just around the corner, 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 and a perfect place for a coffee, glass of wine or ice-cream to round off your visit.

How to get there: The Panier is a short walk from the Old Port. Catch the petit train (little tourist train) on the quai du Port for a guided 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: Sip 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 two essential spots for ice-cream are Le Glacier du Roi, on the Place de Lenche or the acclaimed newcomer Vanille Noir at 13 rue Caisserie. Recommended: the latter's signature black vanilla. Other delicious flavours include pastis, banana flambé and blood orange.

Escape from the crowds at Le Charité Café (pictured) in the peaceful courtyard of the Vieille Charité. An old-established Marseille institution, Chez Étienne at 43 rue Lorette is reputed for its pizzas (it doesn't take reservations or credit cards).

Or, for a full restaurant meal, try Vinonéo, On Dine or Le Café des Epices, all at the bottom of the Old Town or the Café des Méditerranées in the new museum area near the MuCEM.

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