THE rugged coastline, historic towns and cafe culture of the south of France is now easier to get to, says Shereen Low
Seen as the cooler, hipper, younger sister of Paris, Marseille is the second largest city in France and has serious culture and sports credentials – it was named the European Capital of Culture in 2013, and will be a host city of UEFA Euro 2016.
And thanks to Eurostar’s new direct route, launching this weekend to mark their 20th anniversary, it’s never been easier to get there. A six-and-a-half-hour train journey from London St Pancras leads you to the gateway of Provence.
While culture vultures and foodies will find something to love in Marseille, from the Philippe Starck-designed Mama Shelter hotel and Zaha Hadid’s CMA CGM headquarters skyscraper, to the fougasse (a flat bread filled with olives, cheese or anchovies), the heart of Marseille remains the main port and the Mediterranean sea.
A daily market, often packed with shouting vendors and customers, sells fresh fish and seafood, and regattas and competitions take place during the summer months.
We come to shore after a two-hour-long boat ride, exploring the nooks and crannies around the coast with skipper Yannick Long, a former doctor of genetics who swapped the science lab for the sea in 2004.
Dressed in the typically Breton uniform of striped jumper, white shorts and boat shoes, accompanied by deeply tanned skin and perfectly windswept hair, he decided to train as a marine captain, after being around boats his whole life.
“Having a boat and being at sea keeps me young,” he says, joking that he’s 75 (he looks at least 20 years younger). “I’ve now become a pirate – I grow my hair long, and my uniform is shorts, jumper and shoes.”
A small wooden boat can be hired from e300 for a day, skipper included, while a bigger boat would cost around e1,500. During the summer, the Calanques National Park is a popular attraction, with its hiking trails and diving spots, and tourists falling in love with these stunning rocky ‘fjords’.
The city received a facelift for its 2013 accolade, and these new additions, including the pedestrianised Old Port, the Musée d’Histoire (History Museum), contemporary art museum FRAC PACA (Fonds Regional d’Art Contemporain Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur) and Les Terrasses du Port shopping centre sit happily beside the older buildings like the Fort Saint-Jean, the pink stone Saint-Laurent church and the City Hall.
There is enough to keep you occupied in Marseille, but for those who crave a bit of peace and calm, just a 45-minute train ride away from the city (and one stop on the Eurostar), is the historic city of Avignon.
Referred to as the Pope’s Palace, the Palais des Papes was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. One of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe, the papal residence – which frames the town’s main square – was the seat of western Christianity and was home to seven popes during the 14th century, between 1307 and 1377.
Today, it is home to the International Centre of Congress and is mostly used as an exhibition and convention centre, with shows and the annual arts event, Festival d’Avignon, taking place in its gardens.
For a lovely spot of RnR, you can’t get more restful than La Bastide de Marie, which lies on the outskirts of Menerbes. A 45-minute drive from Avignon, this converted 18th century farmhouse is in the heart of the Luberon National Park and vineyards.
A family-owned boutique hotel, which also includes a six-sleeper villa and a gypsy-chic caravan for true romantics, it’s ideally located for relaxing bicycle rides or languid walks across the rolling countryside, with lavender fields, river and mountain backdrops, around the picturesque hilltop villages such as Bonnieux, Lacoste and Goult.
It’s easy to forget about the rest of the world when you’re at La Bastide, with its rustically French interior and exposed brickwork and beams, especially when you climb into the claw foot roll-top bath adorned with Pure Altitude beauty products or tuck into the freshly cooked dishes.
With an abundance of culture, culinary delights and character in Provence, there’s never been a better time to visit.
• Shereen Low stayed as a guest of Mama Shelter Marseille (http://www.mamashelter.com), where rooms with free wifi start at e79 per night.
She also stayed as a guest at La Bastide de Marie in Menerbes (labastidedemarie.com), open until 15 November, prices from e380 per night, based on two guests sharing a classic room including bed, breakfast and dinner.
Tickets for Eurostar (www.eurostar.com, 08432 186 186) from London St Pancras to the South of France, stopping at Lyon, Avignon and Marseille start from £89.