The Chateau Borely MarseilleNear the Prado beaches and city centre, set in a spacious, leafy park, the 18th century Château Borély hosts the Museums of Fashion, Earthenware and Decorative Arts. logoClick here to book a hotel in Marseille

The land was bought in the late 17th century by Joseph Borély, a Marseille businessman, with a view to building a bastide, or weekend country house. The current Château and Versailles-style French garden in front of it were commissioned by his descendents a century later.

The city of Marseille acquired the estate in the 19th century, turning the segment of terrain nearest the sea into a racecourse and planting an informal English-style garden alongside the formal French one.

Closed to the public for a decade for safety reasons, the Château Borély was redecorated and refurbished equipped with lifts / elevators for visitors who need them and reopened in 2013. It now looks resplendent.

The entrance hall, with its swirling staircase and elaborate ceiling fresco, pictured, by the local artist Louis Chaix, leads you straight into the main reception room overlooking the French gardens. Off here, and on the first floor, some two dozen rooms house objects from three of Marseille's former museums.

Ceiling Fresco Chateau Borely MarseilleThese are the Musée de la Faïence (Museum of Earthenware, previously in the Château Pastré), the Musée de la Mode (Museum of Fashion, previously in the Bourse in central Marseille) and the Musée des arts décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts).

However, the Château Borély no longer houses the Museum of Archeology which was previously on this site.

The three different collections aren't presented in separate parts of the Château. Instead, they've all been mixed and matched together with the aim of highlighting links between the arts and crafts.

So a display of 18th century wallpaper and furniture might also contain a dinner table set with fine porcelain and, perhaps, a costumed mannequin or two. The curators are also happy to juxtapose periods and set up contrasts between past and present, popping a contemporary chandelier, ceramic vase or bathtub into a period setting.

Star exhibits include a long oriental-style divan in the golden sitting room (the Borélys did much of their business in Egypt) and one amazing room with leather walls, embellished with fine carving, painting and gold leaf.

As leather wall covering was a short-lived fad, soon to be replaced by wallpaper, there are very few surviving examples (the curators know of just one other, in a private residence).

Also of note is a spectacular mirrored display of multi-coloured glass bottles which once contained smelling salts or perfume and an unusual blue and yellow ceramic altarpiece in the Château's private chapel.

Ceramics display at the Chateau BorelyThe master bedroom is lined with indiennes, the oriental wallpaper and fabrics which became fashionable in the 18th century and are still distinctive of Provence.

The porcelain and earthernware, mostly locally produced, is beautifully presented - the famous faïence of Moustiers Sainte Marie is well represented - and fans of this art form will have a field day.

Each room has informative laminated exhibition notes, in French and English. There are also interesting occasional shows.

It's not all good news, though: a number of rooms now sport truly hideous perspex false ceilings to conceal the new air conditioning and lighting. And the Château Borély faces one other big problem: it simply doesn't have the space to fit everything in.

When we visited the Musée de la Mode, for example, its rooms contained just 14 costumes, a tiny fraction of the complete collection. We're told the items on view will be rotated, but the number on view at any given time is certainly not worth the trip to Borély if fashion is your main interest.

But the Borély estate as a whole is a lovely destination for a day out, especially for families. Marseille is not a city famed for its squares, parks and leafy spaces, but the 17 hectare / 42 acre Parc Borély is one of its "green lungs", alongside the gardens of the Palais Longchamp and (somewhat further out of town) the Campagne Pastré. On a warm weekend it's packed with locals out for a picnic or a stroll.

Parc Borely MarseillePeople mostly steer well clear of the severe, geometrical French garden, with its unfriendly "keep off the grass" signs, and head straight for the huge, adjacent English-style park with its abundance of shady trees and shrubs, grassy areas, rose garden and large lake.

Here you can hire rowing boats or sit with a drink and a snack on the terrace at the adjacent pavilion (the building was previously a botanical laboratory).

You could easily imagine yourself on London's Serpentine or in New York's Central Park. For small children, there's a carousel and small playground next to the Château.

Wedding at the Chateau Borely MarseilleApart from plenty of bird-life, including the occasional peacock, you'll see cyclists (click here for details of where to rent a municipal bike in Marseille).

Pedal cars and children's bikes are available from a stall at the main entrance to the park. You might even spot a wedding party, like this one, pictured.

Apart from the snack bar in the botanical gardens, there's also a well-reviewed restaurant / tea room in the Château itself: the Café Borély, specialising in organic and vegetarian food. On fine days you can eat outside too, on the sunny terrace.

Another delightful attraction is the Japanese Garden. First planted in 2004, the garden was greatly expanded in 2011 to mark 50 years of Marseille's twinning with the Japanese town of Kobe.

Its 1,700 square metres / 18,300 square feet now include a waterfall, a tea pavillion and dozens of Japanese trees, shrubs and flowers (humidifiers have been installed to create a suitable microclimate).

Each year in early October an Akimatsuri (Japanese Festival of Autumn) is held in these gardens, with Japanese cuisine, traditional games and dances, origami, calligraphy, mangas, tea ceremonies and more.

Japanese Garden at the Parc Borely MarseilleAnd, when all this palls, it's a just short walk along the edge of the racecourse from the Parc Borély to the Prado beaches.

Where: The Château and Parc Borély, 134 avenue Clot Bey, 13008 Marseille. The main entrance to the park seen in the photograph is along the avenue de Borély near the bottom of the avenue du Prado. Website for the Musée Borély.

How to get there: Bus no. 83 from the Old Port (stop: Parc Borély). Or metro line 2 (stop: Rond-Pont du Prado), then bus no.19 or 83. Bus no.44, also from the Rond-Pont du Prado, takes you to the entrance nearest the Château (stop: Clot-Bey Paul).


Main Menu