Saint Charles station, MarseilleAll the romance of the early days of rail still surrounds Marseille's main train station, perched high on a hill to the east of the city centre and linked to it by a magnificent staircase.

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This article is a guide to the station itself; click here for how to book train travel to and from Marseille.

The first station building was opened on 8 January 1848. Saint Charles quickly became the gateway to Africa and the Middle East for Northern Europeans.

Passengers would arrive in town by train and spend the night in Marseille before travelling on by cruise ship to their final exotic destination.

Today, Marseille Saint Charles is the terminus for train routes serving most of the major French provincial towns and cities. It's also the southern end of the high-speed TGV Méditerrané line that links Marseille to Paris, via Aix en Provence and Avignon, in under three hours.

From the adjacent bus station, you can also travel on to regional destinations, including Aix en Provence, Salon de Provence and Aubagne, as well as to numerous international ones such as Barcelona, Lisbon and Rome.

Rue du Tango at Marseille Saint Charles stationTake a moment, if you can, to stroll on the large outdoor terrace opposite the platforms. It offers sweeping views of the city, with a glimpse of Notre Dame de la Garde in the distance.

The space is also used to host photographic displays and, in summer, theatre or live music performances and even tango evenings, pictured.

The square Narvik, another large outside space which runs parallel to platform A, is a pick up point for drivers collecting friends and family. The taxi rank is on the lower level (-1) of the station (take the escalator or lift / elevator opposite Platform B). Pre-booked taxis can also be picked up here.

The other sight to see is the grand staircase up to the station. It first opened to the public in 1925 (the sculptures were completed in 1927), and is 155 metres / 169.5 yards long, with 104 steps punctuated by seven landings.

The steps at Saint Charles station, MarseilleThe international flavour of Marseille is reflected in the ornate decoration. It consists (as you descend) of two matching sculptures of a child and lion; two ships' prows with symbolic female figures signifying the routes to the East and Marseille's own Greek origins; and six bronzes celebrating the riches of provençal produce - grain, fruit, fish, wine, flowers and game.

At the bottom of the steps are two highly politically incorrect sculptures: reclining, self-naked female figures representing the "decadent" colonies of Africa and Asia.

There have been proposals in the past for a funicular or an escalator to help weary travellers up these steps, but for various reasons they weren't realised.

Inside the station are escalators and lifts / elevators opposite the platforms which take you down to street level at the side of the station. But you will still find yourself at the top of a steep hill.

The new extension at Marseille Saint Charles stationIn the late 1990s, Saint Charles was treated to a lavish, 230 €uro million facelift, which took nearly a decade; the new station was inaugurated, after very many delays, in 2007.

The most important additions were a road tunnel under the station, a computerised signalling system and an additional 6,400 square metre / 69,000 square foot glass-roofed concourse, lined with an avenue of 24 remarkably life-like artificial trees and numerous shops, pictured.

This annexe, the Halle Honorat, connects the train platforms directly with the bus station, now making for very easy transport connections.

STATION FACILITIES

The train platforms are marked A-N, with A being at the end by the main steps and N at the end by the bus station. There is also an oddball platform 5, which is an extension to platform A. Click here to view live train arrivals and departures at Marseille Saint Charles station.

On New Year's Eve 1983 the terrorist Carlos planted a bomb in an automatic luggage locker at Saint Charles, which exploded, killing two passers-by.

For years after that incident there was no left luggage facility at the station, and this looks unlikely to change in the light of the more recent terrorist attacks across France.

Today the Left Luggage Office (Consigne) is on Platform A. It consists of lockers, but there is an airport-style security check system with an X-ray machine manned by station staff. The Lost and Found (Objets trouvés) counter is in the same office.

Also on Platform A are the station police office and SOS Voyageurs, a Travellers' Aid facility.

Arthur RimbaudThe air-conditioned waiting room (Salle d'attente) opposite platforms G and H has train information and a Tourist Office desk as well as a counter where those travelling on an iDTGV can print out their tickets.

In 2011 this waiting room was named in honour of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, pictured, who died in Marseille, aged 37, on 10 November 1891. The singer Patti Smith gave a brief performance for the inauguration.

Note: the "Billets Cars" ticket counter in the bus station area sells bus tickets only; train tickets are available from machines or the office right at the other end of the station, opposite Platform A.

A number of car hire companies, including Avis, Hertz and Europcar, have offices by Marseille Saint Charles station. To find them, take the exit by Platform A and turn left; the offices are in a building beyond the Ibis Hotel.

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There is a post office at street level on the boulevard Maurice Bourdet (take the down escalator opposite Platform F and the exit by the pharmacy) and a letter box on the station concourse, also by the entrance to Platform F.

A cash dispenser (ATM) can be found near the entrance to Platform N and another one by the post office. If you need a bureau de change, head for the small ICE (International Currency Exchange) office on the lower level, by the Caffè Roma restaurant.

Public telephones are found by the entrance to platform F and on the lower (-1) level by the entrance to the metro.

There is a pharmacy on the lower level. The (pay) toilets are on Platform A. The information point opposite Platform F also provides assistance to disabled travellers and unaccompanied minors.

A free high-speed wi-fi internet connection is available in Marseille Saint Charles and the surrounding precinct, including the outdoor terrace. Towards the bus station end of the concourse, a bike terminal enables you to plug in and recharge your mobile phone / cell phone with a bit of brisk pedalling.

Piano at Marseille Saint Charles stationAnd, should you feel a sudden urge for music, there is a piano (recently replaced by a Hammond organ) for the public to use in the station concourse, opposite McDonald's. You can usually find someone playing there, some more skilfully than others.

Marseille Saint Charles station closes for a couple of hours during the night. Its opening hours are posted on the official station website.

How to get there: Metro lines 1 and 2 and buses 33, 34, 49 and 52.

WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK

Insider Tip for Saint Charles stationAvoid the overpriced coffee shops and fast food joints in the shiny new concourse (of these, Monop' Daily, at the entrance to Platfrom A, is probably the best).

The place to eat, drink and relax in style and comfort on Saint Charles station is tucked away behind a modest sign and frontage that are easy to miss. It's half-way down platform A, next to the left-luggage office.

Called Viens Attendre à Marseille, this is a remarkable place. It's part waiting room (with tempting sofas), part lending library (you can read its books on the spot, or exchange one of them for one of your own), part shop with a small, classy selection of souvenirs and gifts, part children's play area and part snack bar.

It serves a formidable range of speciality teas, sandwiches and light snacks and multi-coloured cupcakes and is open from 7am-7pm (8pm in summer). Conveniently, illuminated station boards inside the room allow you to keep an eye on your train.

If Viens Attendre à Marseille is closed or if you want something more substantial, check in your baggage and head down the great staircase; the exit is by the ticket office. At the bottom of the steps, several small bistros on the boulevard d'Athènes offer cheap set menus.

Le Comptoir Dugommier restaurant MarseilleA little further down the hill, where the boulevard d'Athènes turns into the boulevard Dugommier, Le Comptoir Dugommier, pictured, represents one of the best value restaurants in this area.

Alternatively take the down escalator opposite Platform F and the exit by the pharmacy. If you don't have time to venture beyond the station concourse, the Caffè di Roma on this lower level has an outdoor terrace for sunny weather and serves pasta, grills, salads and other simple meals.

Across the road from it is Carrefour, a supermarket with a good range of picnic food and, a little further down the hill, a cluster of homely neighbourhood bars on the small, tree-lined place Bernard Dubois.

Behind it is the maze-like Arab quarter where you can get a cut-price couscous, pizza or patisserie and even visit a Turkish baths.

If you happen to be in the station on a Tuesday or Thursday in the early evening, you can buy organic fruit, juices and cheeses at a little farmers' market stall on the lower (-1) level by the entrance to the metro. It's usually besieged by local commuters stocking up on their way home.

 

WHERE TO STAY

There are two good chain hotels by the station, the Holiday Inn and the Ibis. The boutique Alex Hotel (13-15 place des Marseillaises) is a classy, relatively new arrival and highly recommended.

At the bottom of the station steps is the Hotel Terminus and a couple of other older budget hotels; be advised that these are on a very busy road, so check that the rooms are well sound-proofed.

The very low-budget traveller can find some extremely cheap hotels in the Arab quarter. The nearest and nicest is the Hotel Vertigo Centre. A little further from the station, Pension Edelweiss - run by the same husband-and-wife team as Le Comptoir Dugommier - is a B&B immaculately decorated with vintage 20th century furniture.

 

 

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