Rhiannon Batten provides a few tips for how to have an eco escape in Marseille.
A city without too many airs, Marseille has a life and energy that more manicured destinations lack. The spectacular old port at its centre is surrounded by pavement cafes, restaurants and bars, and overlooked by an iconic hilltop church. Detour into the old quarter of Le Panier or the hippyish Cours Julien and you’ll find atmospheric architecture, bustling markets and some of the country’s most down-to-earth inhabitants.
The city is gradually moving towards a more sustainable future. With an average of 300 days of sunshine a year, many public buildings in the city are equipped with solar panels; it is said there are more roofs will solar panels here than in any other city in France. Various eco-districts are also in development across the city, with renewable energy, greywater recycling schemes, tree planting projects and bike paths part of the plans.
The most high profile of these lies within the Euroméditerranée district; a 480-hectare urban renewal project between the commercial harbour, the Vieux Port (Old Port) and the TGV station. In its northern extension offices, houses, shops and restaurants will be developed along sustainable lines to reduce energy and water consumption. The project will also see the creation of a 15-hectare green corridor, the Parc des Aygalades.
Getting there: See our guides to How to travel by train from London to Marseille (year-round) and How to travel by train from London to Marseille (direct service, summer only).
Getting around the city: Marseille has an excellent public transport network. From Marseille Saint Charles train station there are trams, metro and buses that take you around the city centre and to the main harbour and port. For timetables and routes, see (French only www.rtm.fr/guide-voyageur/se-deplacer/plans. Marseille’s handy City Pass is an all-in package including free entry to many of the city's museums, a boat trip to the Château d'If, a trip on the Petit Train, reductions on certain other excursions, and unlimited travel on the buses, metro and trams. You can get one that is valid for one or two days. For more information see www.marseille-tourisme.com. From outside the station, you can pick up a bike from the city’s bike hire scheme ‘Le Vélo’, for more information, see: www.levelo-mpm.fr.
Where to stay
Rêve de Mouettes
This chic, one-bedroom apartment, to the south of the Vieux Port, was given a comprehensive green-over in 2011 by owner Marie-Christine. Walls were decorated with lime paints flecked with natural pigments, a low-flush toilet and shower were installed and A-rated appliances were fitted. Ecological cleaning products are used throughout and guests can indulge in both organic toiletries and organic breakfasts, the latter sourced from farmers in the nearby Luberon. But a stay here is as much about enjoying the apartment’s calm and peaceful atmosphere as the facilities. 73 Rue du Docteur Fiolle (+33 (0)6 59 99 31 47; www.revedemouettes.com).
Proudly possessing Green Key certification since 2008, the four-star Radisson Blu sits right by the water’s edge, on the Vieux Port’s southern quayside. A classy and contemporary bolthole that’s ideal for guests looking for luxury and high standards of service without going for all-out bling, facilities here include a restaurant, café, outdoor pool and access to a nearby spa. Like most of the brand’s sister properties it also subscribes to a corporate environmental responsibility policy. Its 189-rooms have low energy lightbulbs and water-efficient showerheads and the hotel is committed to using suppliers that comply with environmental and ethical standards. 38-40 Quai de Rive Neuve (+33 (0)4 88 92 19 50; www.radissonblu.com). Doubles from €147, room only.
If you want to see Marseille like a local, why not stay with one? A run of smart new websites advertising rooms or private apartments to rent has seen a resurgence in the homestay market over the past few years and, with a recent report suggesting that the average homestay is 80% greener than a hotel stay, it’s an eco-friendly option too. Currently on the books at Airbnb is a smart double room in an apartment in Marseille’s bohemian Cours Julien area. It’s available to rent by the night from a young, local couple, Maxime and Gabriel, who can also give advice on where to eat and what to do in the city. Airbnb (airbnb.com/rooms/219263).
Le Gite du Lievre de Mars
A light, bright two-bedroom property in the central Canebière area with wooden doors and original tiled floors the “March Hare’s” self-catering apartment does more than just nod to green living with natural paintwork, an organic welcome pack, recycling facilities and organic cotton linen. The catch? It’s on the fourth floor and there’s no lift. For those willing - and able - to tackle the stairs the reward is a small balcony, from where you can sit and soak up rooftop views of the city while you get your breath back. 26 rue Adolphe Thiers (+33 (0)6 87 47 02 70; www.legitedulievredemars.wordpress.com).
A popular option among travellers who want to mix city and seaside, this four-star, 140-room hotel is around four kilometres south of the centre of Marseille, close to the beach and the Parc Borély. Buses or a “Le Velo” public bike will get you from the hotel to the centre of Marseille reasonably easily and the hotel is making impressive progress on the road to sustainability, with services such as the use of organic produce and local suppliers, motion sensor lighting and low-flow toilets and showers. 17 Place Louis Bonnefon (+33 (0)4 91 72 90 00; legitedulievredemars.wordpress.com).
Where to eat and drink
Green Bear Coffee
A small cafe, just south of the Vieux Port, Green Bear is cosy and environmentally conscious in equal parts. Inspired by New York’s sandwich bars, the menu ranges from sandwiches, soups, salads and cakes to coffees, juices and smoothies - all of it 100% organic and homemade. There’s also a daily lunchtime special, from pumpkin tagine to mushroom risotto. When the sun is shining you’ll need to get there early to grab one of the café’s pretty outdoor tables. 17 rue Glandevès (+33 (0)4 91 04 06 91; www.greenbearcoffee.com).
Opinion is split on this Vieux Port restaurant. While no one would quibble with the setting – in summer, especially, its outdoor terrace is a magical dining room, with colourful, mismatched tables looking straight onto the restaurant’s kitchen garden – the infamously slow service disappoints some visitors. The food, however, is extremely fresh; what they can’t grow themselves the owners buy in from local organic farmers. Sensibly they don’t mess around with the produce but let the ingredients’ natural flavours shine, with dishes such as herbed organic pork, duck with apple and salads dressed simply with sea salt, lemon juice and olive oil. 52 rue Plan Fourmiguier (+33 (0)4 91 33 03 27; www.restaurantlapassarelle.fr).
L’Eléphant Rose à Pois Blancs
The “Pink Elephant with White Polka Dots” serves up a popular range of soups, salads and afternoon teas but the real reason to come to this pastel-coloured pitstop in the Cours Julien area is for its ice creams and sorbets, many of which are organic and made with fruits bought at the local market. Choose from strawberry, peach, lavender, apricot or more unusual flavours such as thyme, liquorice or speculoos. 3 rue des Trois Rois (+33 (0)4 91 47 34 68; www.elephantroseglacier.fr).
Marseille may, famously, be the home of bouillabaisse, a rich and elaborate fish stew, but few of the city’s restaurants yet have a sustainable fish policy. If you know your non-trawled lemon sole (good to eat) from your Mediterranean swordfish (an ethical no-no), there are some fantastic local fish restaurants to choose from. Otherwise, try this homely pizzeria and seafood restaurant in the little harbour of Vallon des Auffres, a couple of kilometres from the Vieux Port. It sources its fish from Provence Aquaculture, a sustainable fish farm just along the coast.
129 Vallon des Auffes (+33 (0)4 91 52 11 28; www.pizzeriachezjeannot.com).
Healthy fast food
Marseille’s fine dining restaurants have been surprisingly slow on the uptake when it comes to serving seasonal, local and organic food. Instead, fuel up at lunchtime at one of the new breed of healthy fast food outlets that are taking the city by storm. Three of the best are Pick Me Up, a vegetarian Slow Food café specialising in soups, savoury tarts, yoghurts and desserts, Spok, which serves “creative” and lovingly made soups, salads and daily specials, and Le Cours en Vert, a laid-back, organic salad bar. Pick Me Up, 5 rue de la Palud (+33 (0)6 11 56 77 07; www.pickmeup13.com); Spok, six locations across the city including 7 rue Lulli (+33 (0)4 91 55 64 24; www.spok.fr); Le Cours en Vert, 102 Cours Julien (+33 (0)6 75 06 97 90).
Where to visit
Hit the shops
Scratch beneath the surface of what appears to be a fairly conventional high street shopping scene and Marseille has more ethical shops in which to spend your euros than first appearances suggest. Not sure where to start? Try Machja, a concept and clothing store based around the principles of “green, chic and ethical”, Alter Mundi, for responsibly sourced clothing and home furnishings, or Le Recyclodrome, which sells recycled and reconditioned furniture and more. Machja, 69 Cours Julien (+33 (0)4 95 33 83 26; www.machja.fr); Alter Mundi, 15 Boulevard Montricher (+33 (0)4 91 08 53 99; www.altermundi.com); 21 rue Chateauredon (+33 (0)9 54 24 62 46; www.recyclodrome.org)
MuCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, will be the city’s cultural showpiece when it opens across three sites in spring 2013. The main museum, J4, at the end of the Vieux Port, will include some innovative green architectural features, such as an air-conditioning system that uses seawater for cooling. Until then, you can get an insight into local culture from a nautical perspective through the Sea Centre. Though not a tourist attraction in its own right, the organisation is a great source of information on maritime-themed local events and cultural attractions, including regular photographic exhibitions.
The French take beauty seriously - according to a 2008 Mintel report, the average French woman spends as much on facial skincare each year as her Spanish, German and British counterparts do as a trio – so it’s not surprising that the latest trend to catch on across the Channel is for natural and organic beauty treatments. In Marseille, the Gaia Institut is leading the way with a range of therapies carried out using organic skincare and make-up brands Phyt’s and Couleur Caramel. Choose from relaxing massages or natural make-overs.
18 rue Puit du Denier (+33 (0)9 50 93 65 32; www.gaia-institut.com).
Tasting fresh local produce straight from its suppliers is one of the highlights of any trip to food-focused France. Though the daily fish market down by the Vieux Port is always busy, the pick of the bunch in Marseille are the city’s organic farmers’ markets. The most popular of these is the Wednesday morning gathering along Cours Julien. From organic patés and free-range eggs to artisan jams, juices, cheeses and breads, it’s a great place to make up a picnic after strolling around the area’s colourfully bohemian galleries, boutiques, cafes and bookshops.
What to do
Stroll back in time
Few areas of Marseille offer a clearer insight into the city’s history than Le Panier, Marseille’s old town. Its lower section was severely bombed during WWII but head higher up and, among its narrow, hilly streets and sunny squares are cafes, boutiques and the Centre de la Vieille Charité (vieille-charite-marseille.org), a 17th century almshouse designed by Pierre Puget that now sees service as a museum and cultural centre. The best way to see Le Panier is by foot, on a guided walking tour organised by the local tourist information office.
Marseille Tourist Office, 4 La Canebière (+33 (0)8 26 50 05 00; www.marseille-tourisme.com).
The Frioul Islands
An 800-hectare maritime park, part of the EU’s network of ecologically protected Natura 2000 sites and lying within the new Calanques National Park, the Frioul archipelago lies just offshore from Marseille. A must-see among nature-loving visitors, the four islands include If, whose ruined castle is famed as the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. Boat trips run there regularly, but to tread more softly, choose to see them aboard one of two solar-powered boats - BlueEvasion’s Solis, or Croisieres Marseille’s Green Calanques.
Day-long trips around the Frioul Islands and the Calanques on BleuEvasion’s Solis run from June to September (+33 (0)6 34 13 74 22; www.visite-bateau-calanques-marseille-cassis.fr); one-hour tours of the Bay of Marseille with Croisieres Marseille aboard Green Calanques pass by the Frioul Islands from April to November (+ 33 (0)4 91 58 50 58; www.croisieres-marseille-calanques.com).
Meet the locals
For an insider take on Marseille, there are few better places to start than Marseille Provence Greeters. A service run by local volunteers, fill in an online form a week or more before you arrive, listing your interests and the date of your visit, and the organization will pair you up with a friendly local guide to take you on a free, two-hour walking tour of the city’s sights, both on and off the beaten track. www.marseilleprovencegreeters.com
Hit the beach
With its Mediterranean location, Marseille’s beaches get predictably busy in the summer months; during July and August the main stretches of sand, which run south from the city centre and include the Prado and the Catalans, see around two million people laying out their beach towels. To avoid the crowds, it’s a better bet to head west, to the pebble-lined shores of the “Blue Coast” instead. Better still, many of these can be reached via the Marseille-Miramas “Blue Coast Train”. The services with the most stops run roughly hourly.
For more information on the Blue Coast beaches, including maps and trains, see marvellous-provence.com/other-places/beaches/blue-coast
The Calanques by kayak
When the Calanques National Park opens in June it will be France’s 10th national park and, covering 43,000 hectares of sea and 8,000 hectares of land, the largest in Europe. An area of spectacular, deep narrow inlets backed by pale limestone cliffs and lapped by bright turquoise water, the most visited calanques stretch from Marseille to Cassis and have long been popular with hikers and sailors. One of the best – and least intrusive – ways to see them, however, is by kayak, on a day long tour. Day-long sea kayaking trips are run by ExpeNature, including equipment (+33 (0)6 80 74 40 99; www.expenature.fr). For more information on the national park see www.gipcalanques.fr.
Marseille is the gateway to the south of France - from Marseille Saint Charles train station there are intercity (Téoz) train services west to Montpelier, Toulouse and Bordeaux, and east to Toulon and Nice. Marseille port is also the departure for ferries to the Mediterranean islands of Corsica and Sardinia.
Written by Rhiannon Batten
Photo credits: A view over the city of Marseilles from the steps of Saint-Charles station, with Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica in the background - Atout France/Franck Charel; Yachts, Marseille - Atout France/Michel Angot; Bouches du Rhone by architect Rudy Ricciotti - Atout France/Cédric Helsly. Reve de Mouettes; Green Bear Coffee; Atout France/Michel Angot; Train photo: Thalys. Getting around photo: Saint-Charles station - Atout France