Surging up from the north quay of the Old Port, its tall, narrow houses draped with washing lines and criss-crossed by steep steps with gutters running down the middle, Marseille's Old Town, or Panier, is steeped in history.
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This was the site first settled by the Greeks who founded the city of Massalia, as it was known then, in 600 BC and has welcomed successive waves of immigration ever since, initially from Italy and Corsica, more recently from everywhere from South America and North Africa to Vietnam and the Comoro Islands, near Madagascar (below, an exotic turbaned and moustachio'd head decorates a door lintel in reminder of this heritage).
The Panier's expansion was funded by rich traders in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries ("panier" means "the basket" and comes from a 17th century inn, Le Logis du Panier, located on what's now the Rue du Panier).
Some elements of this era survive (see below), but great swathes of the Panier were destroyed during the Second World War, when its labyrinthine warren was a haven for Resistance fighters, Jews and Communists: in short, all those who embodied Marseille's feisty, freedom-loving spirit.
Well aware of this, the Nazis, aided by a huge contingent of French police from Paris, evacuated 30,000 inhabitants in January 1943, sending 2,000 of them to concentration camps before dynamiting 1,500 houses in the lower section of the Old Town (left, the raid on the Panier. Picture credit: Wolfgang Vennemann for the German Federal Archive).
There is a detailled illustrated account of heroic Resistance activities in Marseille on the Alliance Française in London website.
Hence today the Panier stops just short of the Old Port, whose northern quay is lined by big, brutalist granite apartment blocks (nos. 42-66) designed in the early 1950s by the noted post-war architect Fernand Pouillon.
The Panier is beginning to display the first signs of gentrification as the Euromediterranée project to revitalise Marseille begins to have an impact. Yet it remains a vibrant, cohesive inner-city community.
To see this at its best, go there on the June weekend closest to midsummer's night, when the Panier hosts the best street party in France: the Fête du Panier, a two-day multi-cultural shindig which, in 2013, celebrates its 20th anniversary. The dates are 21-22 June. Website for the Fête du Panier
It begins in the afternoon with children's shows, community events and exhibitions and continues way into the night with (free) top-class, live world music - at the 2012 Fête du Panier, the headline act was the Mercury prize nominee Susheela Raman - followed by pulsating discos in the various squares.
The music is only half the story though: the reason to go to the Fête du Panier is its unique atmosphere. Local inhabitants sell home-made food and drinks and in every doorway there's someone grilling sardines or merguez (spicy North African sausages), and offering homemade Asian savouries, Algerian patisserie, vegetarian delicacies or home-made p'tit punch (rum punch).
Go around 7-11pm to experience the event at its best; after then the quarter gets very crowded and rowdy.
Starting in July 2010, large parts of the Panier have been closed to road traffic from 11.30am onwards, though not to the Petit Train (Little Train), which is unarguably the best way to visit the area on wheels. It stops at one attraction, the Vieille Charité, where you can get off for a visit and pick up a later train to continue your journey.
A self-guided walking tour is indicated by enamelled lava plaques set in the ground but probably the best way to enjoy the Panier is simply to stroll around for an hour or two. It's also an excellent area for shopping for crafts and local designer goods and browsing artists' galleries.
On the site of the ancient Greek agora - open-air public forum - the Place des Lenches is named after a wealthy Corsican family which made its fortune collecting and working coral and built a sumptuous private residence there (it was destroyed in 1943). Lined with shops and bars, the square is still a popular meeting place.
At the very top of the Panier, the Place des Moulins was formerly the site of 15 flour mills. Today only two remain, converted into private dwellings. The square is lined with houses in freshly painted shades of cream, blue, lavender and yellow. No cafes, but shady benches offer pleasant spots to sit and rest.
A handful of historic buildings were spared by the Nazis. The Maison Diamantée (Diamond House) has a singular raised diamond pattern on its facade and an impressive staircase. It was constructed in 1570 for a rich merchant, Pierre Gardiolle.
Built in pink local stone, with a beautiful wrought iron balcony decorated with daisies, a favourite local motif, the 18th century Daviel Pavillion has a definite provençal flavour. Once a courthouse, it's now an annex to the Town Hall.
The Hôtel de Cabre - commissioned by the merchant Louis Cabre in around 1535 - was swivelled on jacks through 90 degrees after the war in order to align it with the new streets. And one of the oldest relics is the Accoules Church, or at least its studded tower, which dates from the 14th century. The original church itself was destroyed in 1794 for housing political meetings during the French Revolution.
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The Hôtel Dieu (pictured) is a magnificent former hospital built in the 18th century on the site of another ex-hospital dating from the Middle Ages.
Unable to cope with Marseille's expanding population, it was usurped by more modern hospitals and used as a medical training centre until 2006. It has now been converted into a luxury five-star hotel, the InterContinental Hôtel Dieu.
Archeological excavations in the winter of 2010 uncovered the entire foundations and crypts of the 12th century Eglise du Saint Esprit and a very well-preserved Roman mosaic, part of which is on display in the InterContinental Hôtel Dieu.
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The Panier's jewel is the Vieille Charité. Designed by the Marseille-born painter/sculptor/architect Pierre Paul Puget, this was a poorhouse built between 1671 and 1749 and consists of a three-storeyed gallery looking onto an inner courtyard with a striking, elliptical, domed chapel as its centrepiece.
It continued to be used as an old people's and children's home until the end of the 19th century, then became a barracks and finally a shelter for the homeless.
Eventually the buildings were restored and today house a cultural centre, research units, and museums and galleries containing permanent collections of African, Oceanian and Amerindian art and Mediterranean archeology, as well as temporary exhibitions.
The Vieille Charité (pictured, with the little train) also has a very good art book shop, a library and even a small cinema.
On the modest Place des 13 Coins you might be surprised to find armies of French-speaking tourists. They've come to make a pilgrimage to what some visitors regard as one of Marseille's major sights: the setting for the enormously popular television soap opera Plus Belle la Vie. Its five million-plus audience comes mainly from francophone countries, though it's also transmitted as far afield as Finland and Bosnia.
The series takes place in a fictional part of the Old Town called Le Mistral. It's actually shot at the Belle de Mai media complex in the northern suburbs of Marseille, but one of the studio sets is a virtual carbon copy of the Bar des 13 Coins on this square.
Opposite, a small gift shop does very brisk business in Plus Belle la Vie memorabilia and a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of the show plays on permanent loop at a small cinema as compensation for the fact that tourists are not permitted to visit the studio to view the filming.
Where: Link to the Panier on Google Maps.
How to get there: The Panier is a short walk from the Old Port. Catch the Petit Train (Little Train) on the Quai des Belges (just outside the La Samaritaine brasserie) for a guided tourist tour. From Saint Charles Station, take the metro (line one, direction La Fourragère; stop Colbert); from there it is a short walk.
Where to eat and drink: Take an old-fashioned English cuppa at Cup of Tea on the terrace looking on to the Accoules Church or in its cosy interior room with a small bookshop selling French translations of world literature. The essential spot for ice-cream is Le Glacier du Roi, on the Place des Lenches. For a meal, escape from the crowds at Le Charité Café (pictured above left) or try La Virgule, Vinonéo or Le Café des Epices, all on the fringes of the Old Town.