Travel: Ancient port still colourful but not so stormy 

Marseille’s reputation for gritty ruffians and Free-French spies is outdated


Outside the Gare Saint Charles in the French city of Marseille, I told a taxi dispatcher I wanted to go to a hotel in the Rue Curiol. She raised her eyebrows, slightly amused. I'd find it noisy, she said. I didn't ask why.

Then she kindly told me I could save 15 Euros by walking there, just 10 minutes away - two traffic lights down to the Boulevard Garibaldi and, well, to the left. Ever the believer in my ability to intuit my way, I bumped a too-heavy suitcase, while carrying a shoulder bag with laptop and weighty camera bag, down the wide steps of the Gare Saint Charles and spent the next hour and a half looking for an avenue whose whereabouts no one seemed to know (or to admit they knew).

Finally, after buying a map in a bookstore ("no guide books to Marseille in English," I was told) and spending 20 minutes in a heap on a sidewalk figuring it out, I entered the steep, narrow and cobble-stoned Rue Curiol from halfway up a hillside and the Rue la Biblioteque. I descended slowly and gingerly, holding my suitcase up behind me to ensure that its sheer weight didn't pull or propel me downward.

I'd forgotten the number of the Hotel Residence Grillon, and too hot and tired to look for it and not spotting a hotel sign, went right to the bottom where the Rue Curiol runs into a major city thoroughfare called the Canebiere. But on the way down, and then heading back up, I noted a dozen or so women - of all ages, sizes and colours - sitting, mostly alone and purposefully, out on the building stoops.

A big blonde gal with breasts suspended in a net-like affair, pointed to a discreetly sign-posted hotel sign - the Residence Grillon, smack at the heart of this red-light district otherwise almost devoid of conventional (storefront) enterprises.

The Hotel Grillon proved oddly trendy, even chic - in a budget sort of way. And yes my third-floor room was basic, with only a curtain between the bed and toilet and a duvet that left something to be desired.

But at 60 Euros, and with free (though not entirely reliable) wi-fi in the room, and, best of all, a fine view of the Rue Curiol, I was happy. So I drank the remainder of the bottle of wine I'd carried from Avignon, then once again comfortable in none-too-clean jeans and T-shirt, went out for a celebratory beer and Penne Pomodora at a sidewalk café on a manic corner where the Canebiere meets the metro stop called Noailles.

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