Provencal port of call

21st August 1998 at 01:00
Bernard Adams revisits the colourful, Mediterranean city of Marseille.

Slight anxiety as we approach the city; our car was broken into on our last visit. But there's an underground car park on the Quai du Port - bright, tiled, safe-looking and patrolled by a man in calf-length boots with a useful-looking dog.

Out into the windy warmth of the Vieux Port - the oldest part of the oldest city in France. Refreshments needed first, and elegant cafes make a seamless frieze around the port. Seated, have a chance to survey some of the million or so natives, who seem friendly enough and not disposed to bag-snatching. Amble along the quays down which Gene Hackman ran in The French Connection. Wonder if he had to train much before taking on the role?

Climb up the hill on the north side of the port to the Romanesque glise de St-Laurent built in the 12th century on the site of a Greek temple. (Greek sailors founded the city in 600BC.) The mistral is blowing hard enough to make it difficult to load the camera. But the sun is spotlighting the huge, layer-cake Cathedrale de la Nouvelle Major, which was built a century ago, tactlessly dwarfing the former cathedral right beside it.

Up a steeper hill and down some narrow streets to discover something much older and finer - the Vieille Charite, designed by Pierre Puget, the city's most distinguished architect, in the 17th century as a shelter for the homeless, particularly rural migrants and orphans. A three-storey arcaded quadrangle surrounds an elegant chapel which now serves as an exhibition centre. The whole ensemble is simple, restful and beautifully restored. Discover, with shock, that half the population of Marseille died in a terrible plague before the present building was completed.

Continue to the Rue de la Republique, a broad thoroughfare with eye-catching, ironwork balconies. Stop at Bar Le Reverb re - an art nouveau delight - then go up Cannabis Walk. Yes, La Canebi re is a boulevard which runs from what were once hemp fields down to the port, where that "useful" plant was turned into rope.

Marseille is not a green city. It's more blue and white - azure sea, whipped into white horses by the mistral, white houses and blue boats bobbing in such numbers that you feel that you could walk from one side of the port to the other on their decks.

Pause for contemplation and, because the Musee d'Histoire de Marseille is closed, a check in the guidebook (the Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Provence and the Cote d'Azur, Pounds 12.99).

Is it Marseille or Marseilles? Very definitely Marseille round these parts, whatever they say in Britain. And what about the French national anthem "La Marseillaise"? It was the battle song which 600 men and women sang as they marched from Marseille to Paris in support of the Revolution in 1792.

Onwards, and wishing my city footwear was more comfortable, to a church looking like a foreign legion fortress - the Abbaye deSt-Victor, founded 15 centuries ago in honour of the said Victor, a Roman martyr and the patron saint of sailors. It was Pope Urban V who had the church turned into a Foreign Legion lookalike a mere 600 years ago.

Now for the hard part. Up 500 feet from sea level to Notre-Dame de la Garde, the dominant church in this city of churches. The heart-testing pilgrimage wouldn't be worth it for the church alone. The 19th-century "Byzantine" extravaganza, topped by its Godzilla-sized golden Madonna, is forgotten as the view from the terrace unfolds. Out in the bay is that mysterious island prison, the Chateau d'If, where Alexandre Dumas's fictional Count of Monte Cristo, and the real Comte de Marabeau, languished. And below, luminously clear in every detail, lies a great, modern industrial, Mediterranean city, gleaming white in the Provencal sun.

It's too far to walk to Le Corbusier's cite radieuse. Anyway, it seems a pity to spend much time indoors in Marseille.

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