Some places you put off visiting because you know your expectations are too high. Marseille, the salt-baked harbour at the bottom of France, has been like that for me: a city of shady deals mapped in maritime adventure stories and tough detective fiction.
It is also a place well-loved by a couple of people I know, and that often serves as a disincentive too; a bit like a novel that never makes its way up the pile on the bedside table because people keep telling you how good it is.
The time has come to make Marseille a priority. As this year’s European capital of culture it has been at the centre of a series of startling art events and grand openings over the past few months.
For a sense of what was on offer, imagine sitting, like me, in the rectangular Old Port. I am surrounded by cafés and bars, some with their shutters closed even in springtime against the flooding light of the “burning Marseille sun” that Alexandre Dumas described in The Count of Monte Cristo.
To the rear is the stylishly poised Miramar restaurant and on one side the jauntier hotel Belle-Vue — with its tiny, busy balcony restaurant poking out on the first floor.
Between the fishing boats and white yachts bobs the quaint tourist restaurant Le Marseillois, afloat on a piratical wooden galleon. So far, so very Vieux Port.
But across the quay where the tourists line up for sea trips out to the Château d’If island prison , and where Dumas’s hero Edmond Dantès was locked up, there is a sleek new arrival.
Above the crowd is a vast sheet of steel on shiny 6m stilts. It is a modernist shelter from the sun or from the unlikely rain — Provence claims 300 sunny days a year. Designed by Foster and Partners, Ombrière mirrors the sky and the water and sometimes sneakily disappears from view like the camouflage car in the Bond film.
It has quickly won praise, despite the debt it may owe to the Sanaa-designed pavilion that once stood outside London’s Serpentine Gallery.
This modernist structure is just a curtain raiser for what is to come. In June the €190-million Museum of Civilisations from Europe and the Mediterranean, or Mucem, opened in the harbour where it juts out from an aged Foreign Legion fort.
Ten years in the planning, the block-like building by Algerian-born architect Rudy Ricciotti is the first national gallery outside Paris.
The J1 building — hub for the year of culture — is packed with shipping containers that make up an intense little exhibition about the varied history of the Mediterranean peoples.
Grand projects loom up around each corner. One flank of the St Charles train station is to be developed as public space, while Kengo Kuma has designed a new home for the Regional Contemporary Art Fund.
On top of Le Corbusier’s brutalist Cité Radieuse in a southern suburb is a contemporary art centre that opened its doors in early June.
A new business zone facing the port is dominated by Zaha Hadid’s 140m-tall tower, noted for its central black stripe and an apparent kink at the base.
It is part of a staggering €7-billion investment in the area due to go on for the rest of the decade, bringing homes, offices and public facilities.
Turning my back on the ambitious, it was easier to focus on the charm of the old Panier district.
Its slim streets were once the maze where criminals could shake off police. Now they are smattered with artists’ showrooms and craft workshops.
I followed the Nuit de l’Instant (Night of the Instant) mystery trail that ran earlier this year and found myself first in a tiny studio lined with neon oil paintings and then in a disused bar watching a bleak silent film about Italians to the recorded improvised music of that polymath Vincent Gallo.
Walking down the rue de la Caisserie, where Napoleon lived, you can buy artisan glassware, ceramics or vintage clothes. Or you can sit and eat in a square. I got a better sense of the mix of the city from a lunch in the boulevard Dugommier.
An old bar, Le Comptoir Dugommier, is a workaday and yet cosmopolitan bistro. My salad came garnished with whelks.
Dipping in and out of the urban mood seemed wise, particularly since Marseille can be intimidating when the sun sets, so I stayed a few nights in Cassis, the seaside town next door, in one of the chambre d’hôtes that function like top-notch bed and breakfasts. I stopped to look around there, if only to marvel at the quality of life.
The circling mountains are to have their moment of glory, too, as a newgrande randonée, or ramblers’ route, has been launched for the cultural festivities. I sampled this while staying in the village of Gémenos and walked up to the source of a crystal stream.
It is a route favoured by coachloads of old-timers from Marseille and Aix who stop for picnics and a game of boules.
Few places live up to their buzz, but Marseille does. It had nothing of the melancholy, lost grandeur that I remember from a trip to Cadiz. Its seamy side once saw it dubbed Rio sur Mer, but I felt it was more like Paris in the sun.
Although, according to Dumas’s book, the natives believe that if only Paris had more life it “would be a second Marseille”.
— © Guardian News & Media 2013