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Blog, France

24 hours in Marseille

August 18, 2018
Marseille, Provence

Marseille has a reputation for being a little gritty, a little unsafe, a little unrefined, a little brutalist.  Not worth going to according to many, especially compared to some of the more attractive neighbouring cities and towns, like Aix en Provence, Montpelier and Nice.  And yet France’s second largest city has always intrigued me, perhaps since it came on my radar when it surprisingly became the European City of Culture in 2013.  Or perhaps even as early as 2012, when I read Mama Shelter had opened there.

So when an opportunity to arose to spend 24 hours here (it was actually a little less), I jumped at it.  And came away so grateful I did.  Marseille is without a doubt one of the coolest cities I’ve visited in a long time, with each of its districts so utterly contrasting you practically feel like you’re in a different city.  It has it all: art and culture (with contemporary art leading the way), a diverse mixture of architecture, a bustling, revived port, fabulous shopping and interesting restaurants.  It has heaps of atmosphere, life and soul.

MarseilleMarseille

Here are my top recommendations for a (very worthwhile) weekend in Marseille:

SLEEP

Mama Shelter

64 Rue de la Loubière, 13006 Marseille

Philip Starck designed, modern, quirky, fun.  At worst (and perhaps unfairly) it could be described as a five star hostel – not that there are any shared dorms or bathrooms – but more for the brilliant communal areas, designed for people to mix and meet and have fun.  The guests are impossibly trendy, young couples mostly.  On the weekend DJs play, there is great bar, a 4 metre long table football game, affordable drinks, an apparently incredible Sunday Brunch.  The staff are all smiles and so welcoming you start to question whether you’re in France.  The rooms vary in size (and price) but even our room (the Snug, the smallest) was immaculate, functional, comfortable but still felt like a treat.  Starck quirks like Sylvester and Batman masks hang from the wall; fun is encouraged at all times.  The price point feels impossibly low, I paid 80 euros for a night (without breakfast).  5/5

Mama Shelter, MarseilleMama Shelter, Marseille

Other recommended hotels (in order of cost) are Alex Hotel, C2 and the InterContinental (if you want something a little grander).

SEE

There is so much to see and do that we couldn’t fit it all in given the time we had. Must the must-dos are:

  • Mucem – the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations. Extraordinary not just because of it’s incredible architecture – unusual, eye-catching, photogenic – but also because of the exhibitions it has (when we were there Ai Wei Wei was exhibiting).  But even if art isn’t your thing, make sure you walk through the museum and up to the top floor, from which you can access the fantastic roof terrace* (with brilliant views of the Cathedral and the port) and from there a metal bridge which links you directly with Le Fort Saint Jeanand the Old Port.

Mucem, Marseille

  • Marseille Cathedral – this beautiful Roman Catholic cathedral is a must visit, even if just from the outside.  Its black and white facade remind me a little of that of the cathedral in Orvieto, Italy, or even Siena.  It’s striking and stands out against the port, contrasting wonderfully with the Mucem in front of it.

Marseille Cathedral

  • The Old Port – Central to the city and completely restored in 2013, with the Notre Dame Cathedral overlooking high on a hill, this does truly feel like the heart of Marseille. From the fish market in the morning until the buskers in the evening, there is always something going on, always something to catch your eye, something to stir the imagination.

The Old Port, MarseilleThe Old Port, MarseilleThe Old Port, Marseille

  • Le Panier – Meaning ‘the basket’, this beautiful colourful ‘quarter’ is the oldest – and my favourite – part of Marseille.  It feels like you’re in a little village rather than a large city, with steep narrow twisting alleys, coloured shop fronts and sun drenched courtyards.  Yes, it’s a little touristy at parts, but that does not take away from the fact that it’s brilliant for shopping and small cafes, and for soaking up Marseille’s diverse cultural heritage.

Le Panier, MarseilleLe Panier, Marseille

  • Cours Julien and surroundings – If you stay at Mama Shelter, you’ll walk straight through the Cours Julien to the Old Port.  But even if you’re staying elsewhere, make sure you visit this bohemian quarter, teeming with life and dance and street art.  Known now as one of Marseille’s hippest areas with a mixture of designer boutiques, artist workshops and graffiti works of art, it’s brilliant fun to walk through and gives you a real taste of the city.

Cours Julien, Marseille

  • Le Fort Saint Jean – Best accessed as per the above. I loved the contrast of the old with the new of the Mucem right next door to Marseille’s fort, which was built in 1660 by Louis XIV.  The walk through the fort takes you through the history of Marseille (which is extensive) in a wonderful way.

EAT

Turns out the food in Marseille is rather good too.  While known for its traditional bouillabaise (which we never figured out how to pronounce), the food varies hugely depending on where you are in the city, with a good mix of French, North African and Sub-Saharan African food.  For brunch/lunch in and around the Old Port, either opt for Le Mole Cafe du Fort (more affordable) or Le Mole Passedat* (on the roof terrace of Mucem) run by famous French Michelin chef Gerard Passedat (see his restaurant options here).  For something more casual Victor Cafe and Le Petit Boucan are meant to be fun.  Close to Mama Shelter Coogee is meant to be great (especially for coffee) but it was shut for the summer when we were there, and  Le Fantastique looks wonderful too, with a lovely terrace.  If you’re looking for a coffee on the go, then grab one at Loustic.

For dinner you have tonnes of options, especially around the Port.  We had a romantic dinner at Cafe des Espices, slightly set back from the Port but on a fairy-light lit square surrounded by huge pots of olive trees.  The food and service were impeccable, and they served our favourite Chateau la Coste Rosé.  Other recommended restaurants in that area are Chez Fonfon (which specialises in bouillabaise), Chez Madie les Galinette.  A little further away but still on the sea front is Le Peron, which comes highly recommended.

Cafe des Espices, MarseilleLe Mole Passedat, Marseille

SHOP

I’m usually more of an online shopper than a window shopper – apart from the odd Zara/Mango splurge.  Marseille however, offers such fantastic shopping that even I couldn’t resist.  And I’m not just talking some of my favourite French brands like Maje, Sandro,  Claudie Pierot and Cottoniers des Comptoir, I highly recommend visiting the following concept/vintage/homeware/antique shops(and packing an extra suitcase):

  • Bazar du Panier – Who can resist a shopfront like this?  To be honest I loved all the little boutiques on the Rue du Panier, selling cotton dresses, tasseled pillows, straw bags and hats and colourful scarves.
  • Chez Lucas – Brilliant antique shop.  Was obsessed with a 1940s print of ‘Nationale Cigarette’ from the French Indochine days, but it was simply too huge to take with me.
  • Rita – A true concept store, with beautiful homeware, pretty clothes and a little coffee shop too.
  • La Maison Marseillaise – The ultimate homeware design boutique.
  • Bazardeluxe – Quite wanted to buy everything in this shop and ship it home with me.  I don’t recommend coming here at the start of your holiday with limited luggage space. I ended up buying six glasses (half price) for a bargain 16 euros, totally worth shlepping around the Provence for a week.
  • Allan Joseph – This shop was beautiful to walk through but equally painful when looking at the prices.  Stunning clothes, interiors and smell, but with the price point you’d expect from a shop selling Isabel Marant (i.e out of my budget).

Blog, Bordeaux, France

A weekend in the Medoc, Bordeaux

August 14, 2015

Known to produce some of the finest wines in the world, the wine region of the Medoc in Bordeaux is one top vineyard and stately chateau after another.  It is here where you’ll find some of the world’s most prestiges wine villages, such as Pauillac, Margaux and Saint-Julien.  The chateaux we past – such as Chateau Lafitte and Latour – produce some of the most expensive wines in the world.

This is the perfect place for a wine-filled weekend break.  Combine a day of sightseeing in the city of Bordeaux (blog to follow soon), with a couple of days in the peaceful green Medoc countryside.  Less than an hour north from Bordeaux airport, I was taken aback by how many beautiful chateaux and vineyard we drove past.  Flights to Bordeaux are affordable if booked in advance (our BA flights booked in February were £100) and there are numerous chateaux you can stay at, as well as plenty of fantastic restaurants to try.   A wine and foodie heaven.

STAY

CHATEAU ORMES DE PEZ, in the hamlet of Pez, is a complete delight.   It is a little quiet haven; grand and beautiful while homely and warm at the same time. Owned by the Cazes family, who also own the Relais & Chateaux Cordeillan Bages and one of Bordeaux’s top vineyards Lynch Bages, this idyllic five bedroom chateau truly represents what the French do so well.

Ormes de Pez, BordeauxOrmes de Pez, BordeauxBeautiful, intricate wall paper cover the well-sized bedrooms, the beds – all white crisp sheets and marshmallow duvets – ensure you have the best sleep, large French windows let in plenty of light and allow views of the local vineyard and the garden. Charming Gilles – the concierge/chef/general manager all in one, is welcoming and helpful – recommending where to eat in the area and booking wine tasting for us. During the afternoon he conjures up amazing cakes in the kitchen, smells of which waft through the chateau.

Ormes de Pez, BordeauxOrmes de Pez, BordeauxThe hotel’s black and white bushy tailed cat is constantly doing the rounds – enjoying human contact enough to follow us around, even joining us for breakfast, but making it quite clear he is not there to be cuddled or picked up.  The garden is huge, with pear trees and romantic benches scattered around. The pool is tucked away in a sunny corner behind a hedge, where we relax in the sun and read our books.  Breakfast is served until 11, with fresh breads and croissants, Giles’ cakes and buttery scrambled eggs.  Grab a table outside on the terrace and have the most languid breakfast in the cool morning sun.  This is a place to forget your busy life and just enjoy the best of France.  Rooms from £90 per night.

Ormes de Pez, Bordeaux

Ormes de Pez, BordeauxOrmes de Pez, Bordeaux

DO

Grab one of the bikes at Ormes de Pez and cycle from vineyard to vineyard (the countryside is relatively flat), admiring the 17th and 18th Century chateaux as you wiz by.  A stay at either Ormes de Pez or Cordeillan Bages allows you a complimentary visit to the Lynch Bages vineyard, with wine tasting of course. Definitely take them up on that offer, our guide was theatrical and extremely knowledgeable and tasting the Lynch Bages wine (the 2007 in our case) is not something quickly forgotten.  The village of Bages is also very picturesque.  Or for those super fit and active, there is the Medoc Marathon through the vineyards – a stunning region to run those 26.5 miles!

Lynch Bages

Bages

EAT

Ormes de Pez is just a B&B so venture out to the riverside town of Pauillac for lunch or dinner.  If you want something super close, the Chateau Pomys offers dinner on their terrace. The food is very French, the portions large and opt for their three course menu for 30 Euros. The food is far from Michelin starred but their chocolate gateaux was absolutely delicious.  Or, for better food, drive a little further to the village of St Julien, for simple but excellent home cooking at Chez Meme.

Chateau Pomys, Bordeaux

CHATEAU POMYS

Chez Meme, St Julien

CHEZ MEME

For a real blow out meal, the two Michelin star Cordeillan Bages is where you have to be.  Possibly the most refined and wonderful lunch I have ever had.  A blog about this hotel & restaurant will follow.

Chateau Bordeillan-Bages, Bordeaux

Cordeillan-Bages, Bordeaux

Blog, France, Languedoc

The Languedoc

February 20, 2013

Loitering around the Languedoc

By the end of January I think most of us are quite desperate to get out of a cold, wet, snowy or just generally miserable England.  Chances of flying a short distance and finding the warm sun however, is slim.  Unless you fork out substantial amounts and go further afield, like the Caribbean.  Dream on. 

While the south of France is by no means warm during the winter, a lovely invitation to the Languedoc provided the perfect excuse to get out of London and gulp some fresh French country air.  And after a long weekend there, I learnt that not only was the Languedoc remarkably beautiful, but it is steeped in history and is full of charming and often over-looked villages and towns. 

Languedoc

A village in the Languedoc

 Many people won’t even know where the Languedoc is in France – overshadowed by its more popular neighbour – the Provence.  It is in fact just west of the Provence and as the southernmost province in France it borders Spain.  Admittedly signs of ‘Barcelona’ on the motorway got me a little excited. 

I was staying in the tiny village of Vindrac, which is an hour drive south of Toulouse and in the northern part of the Languedoc.  Apart from hours sitting by huge log fires and drinking the local wines, we actually managed to discover a lot of the area. 

Quick point: to understand the Languedoc area you have to understand its Cathar history.  Catherism originated in the 12th Century as a party which opposed the opulence and corruption of the Catholic church, and who were against material obsession.  They were very popular amongst the locals in the Languedoc and the papacy quickly saw them as a threat.  This set off a 20 year military crusade initiated by Pope Innocent III against the Cathars – who were consequentially subjected to terror and torture.  The Cathar history is still very much prevalent in the Languedoc area and adds an interesting dimension to the area.

These were three of my favourite visits:

Toulouse

During the summer apparently a hot tourist destination, in the winter it is much quieter but still has a good vibe since it is a lively student town.  The two sights I wanted to see during our afternoon and evening there were the St. Sernin Cathedral and Place du Capitol.

Basilica St. Sernin

The largest Romanesque Church in Western Europe – quite sober from the outside (apart from its wedding-cake tiered tower), but the interior is impressive and some of the detail very intricate.  Definitely worth a wander.

Basilica St Sernin, Toulouse

Place du Capitol

The centre and the focal point of the city.  Magical at sunset as the sun’s fading glow turns the city hall a beautiful red colour.   The square reminded me a bit of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, spacious and majestic, with buskers performing tricks and bars and cafes lining the Western side.   All the streets leading off the square are filled with restaurants and bars, and especially the street leading to the University has some really affordable and quite fun restaurants.  Tip: Make sure you try a ‘cassoulet’ – the regional dish of sausage stew.  Delicious.

Toulouse

Place du Capital, Toulouse

Place du Capital at night

Cordes sur Ciel

Right next door to Vicdrac lies – according to the Rough Guide – the number one must-visit place in the Languedoc.  In the summer month this small, pretty town is overflowing tourists but when we were there it seemed quite dead.  The name of the town means Cordes ‘on the sky’, due to the fog which hovers across this cliff-clinging town.  Once a Cathar strong-hold, it provided the defence against Simon de Montfort who led the war of terror against the Cathar ‘heretics’.  It’s a bit of a climb but once you reach the top you will find the most stunning sweeping views of the Languedoc countryside.   The steep, winding cobbled roads lead you up and up, past shuttered houses, small art and antique shops and – in our case – closed restaurants.  I did notice a lot of fois gras shops which are also worth a visit.  It is truly charming and I can imagine it being a lovely place to spend the day and evening in the summer.  In our case it was a little cold and quiet, but the plus side was having the town to ourselves.

Cordes Sur Ciel

Colourful shutters of Cordes sur Ciel

Albi

I had completely underestimated Albi.  A proper, bustling town, Albi was much bigger and certainly more alive than Cordes sur Ciel.   The main attraction: the Albi Cathedral.   Said to be the world’s largest building built of brick (though a friend told me that Battersea Power Station rivals it), it is hugely impressive and imposing.  It reminded me a little of the castle in Sleep Beauty but perhaps without all the thorns. 

Unsurprisingly the Cathedral is connected to the Cathar history of the area.  It was built after the military crusade took place suppressing the Cathar movement.  The Cathedral served to be a constant reminder to the locals of the relentless power and authority of the Christian faith. 

Albi Cathedral

Apart from the Cathedral, there is a Toulouse-Lautrec museum (Palais de la Berbie, Place Sainte-Cécile, entrance 8 euros) just behind it which is worth a visit.  The famous French artist was born very close to Albi and he is certainly very celebrated in the region. 

Toulouse_Lautrec_Museum, Albi

The Languedoc has plenty more towns and villages worth visiting, and every place we drove through had charm.  That’s what I love about France: even the most non-descript villages which you pass through to reach a – according to the guidebook – ‘must see’, often ends up being lovely and worth stopping at and going for a wander.  I’ll certainly be back.  Perhaps when the sun is fully out though.

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