People tell you not to go to Marseilles. Its dangerous, dirty, industrial, they say. They don't tell you it's very Provencal, that it's a good, hard-working university town, that the shellfish is wonderful, that the Notre-Dame de la Garde is beautiful, and that prices are cheaper than the chi-chi parts of the south of France.
Perhaps they just don't know. I really like it, with its mix of ancient seaport and new third millennium techno urbanity. And the great thing is you can get there from Paris, or even from London by TGV (very fast) train, arriving in the heart of the city.
Marseilles is a real mix, like its most famous dish, the bouillabaisse. Don't miss a stroll along the harbourfront in the morning, when the fishermen sell their wares - especially in the bouillabaisse months of early summer. The most famous place to try bouillabaisse is the Miramar ( all addresses below), but my favourite is Restaurant Chez Fonfon, a terrific place in the Vallon des Auffes, a little fishing valley draped with nets and lined with sunburnt terraced houses. If you're on a budget, go next door to Pizzeria Jeannot on the water. Very charming.
Head up to Notre Dame du Mont for a few outdoor cafes and very good food shops, particularly the gourmet stop Bataille, which has some beautiful things for a picnic. (Take them on a little ferry boat to a neighbouring island, as the swimming isn't good around Marseille).
For a shellfish feast, don't miss Coquillages Toinou, a long-established restaurant a short walk from the port, with the shuckers outside, and a huge display of oysters and shellfish, some of which you might never have seen before. Like violettes, funny looking round, knobbly, shells that you cut straight through. Inside the flesh is a bilious yellow and tastes like a sweet raw mussel once you have winkled it out. But you have to be brave to eat something so yellow. They are also known as figue de mer in France, and in Italy as limone di mare, or uova di mare, and probecho in Spain. They anchor to rocks and the sea floor, siphoning in water from one spout and out of the other. As my punny husband said, it's the kind of violet you shrink from eating.
Toinou is bliss, with its huge platters, cold beer, fresh baguettes, good chips, and pots of mussels. And the prices are much cheaper than you would find in Cannes, Nice, etc.
Wherever you are, sit at a cafe, drink the local Bandol, and slow down and relax, and don't listen to a word people tell you about Marseilles.
12 Quai du Port 04 91 91 1040
140 Vallon des Auffes Tel 04 91 52 14 38
Vallon des Auffes Tel 04 91 52 11 28
3 Cours St Louis, Marseille 04 91 54 08 79
Bataille ( great food shop)
25 Place Notre Dame-du-Mont, 6th.
Stay at Hotel Hermes if you're on a budget - very cute, on the harbour, with a rooftop terrace. 2 Rue Bonneterie Marseille 04 96 11 63 63.
Stay at Sofitel Vieux Port if you're not - beautiful location, great views, and well-run. It has a smart restaurant for a dress-up night, called Les Trois Forts, although I thought the food was a bit fancy for its own good. 36 Boulevard Charles Livon, 13007 Marseille Tel 04 91 15 59 56.
Sofitel also have a 'resort' hotel at Palm Beach, 15 mins out of town, if you just want to prop by a pool, but it's more fun in town.
Swimmers relaxing in Marseilles
Boats in Marseilles