The old port of Marseille dates back to about 600 BC when Greek settlers arrived to set up a trading post, and right until the 19th century this was to be a major trading post. The port’s quays were built under French kings Louis XII and Louis XIII and slaves to be deported were assembled here, at the notorious ‘arsenal des galeres’ (they were branded GAL). Today all is quiet. Industrial and cruise activity has moved elsewhere and the ‘vieux port’ as it is known is the berthing place of hobby boats. What, asks the gal, has this to do with luxury hotels?
Look to the inner end of the port today and you see a shiny overhang, the size of two tennis courts, an expensive work by Norman Foster. Look to the right as you shelter under Foster, facing the water, and you see the historic town hall, Hôtel de Ville. Around, all the buildings have been magnificently cleaned – Marseille is one of two 2013 European Capitals of Culture and it is making the most of it. Immediately behind the town hall is a wood and glass structure, a kind of wavy thing that sits securely on a floor that is angled and stepped up through about 30 feet in all. This is the exhibition centre for the Capital of Culture.
Further up this slop you see the sign of Marseille and, rising splendidly behind it, the 250-year old Hôtel de Dieu, Marseille’s famous former hospital. This limestone building rises seven floors up from its base and, in any guise, it would be spectacular. After a spend of many many millions of euros, it has just opened as the city’s top luxury hotel. Of the 194 bedrooms, I seriously recommend one that has a view down to the port, and, ideally, a terrace. 734, on the top floor, has a really private terrace, and just such a view.
It may be an old building but wow is it modern. The owners have invested in latest architectural skills, like adding an entire glass and steel main floor atrium. Go in through the front door and you are in an art gallery, stretching about 100 yards ahead of you. Colours of off-white stone columns and floors, and natural light flooding in from a full-length ceiling skylight, are balanced by 20 dark grey pots on matching dark grey stands. And there are purple orchids everywhere, a reminder of the lavender that is so associated with Provence.
Upper corridors are off-white and natural oak, with soft grey carpets with off-white lace patterns that are taken from Provençal embroideries. In your room, there is more off-white, more natural oak, a pot of purple orchids. You rush to your terrace to look out, down at the hotel’s main terrace and its Monaco Grand Prix-like approach, down to the Capital of Culture building and on to the Vieux Port. On the distant hill is Notre Dame de la Garde, built in 1864 in mediaeval style.
Most travellers come here initially because of the lure of Marseille but they soon realize what locals already know – the hotel’s food is superb. Madelijn Vervoord, GM of this luxury hotel, has enticed one of the most popular local culinarians, Lionel Lévy, who had a Michelin star at his Une Table au Sud restaurant in town, to sell it to his sous-chef and move, lock, stock, and barrel, here to the kitchens of InterContinental Marseille – Hotel Dieu.