By Harry Mottram: Go to Marseilles they said, it’s edgy and dangerous – and there’s no tourists they said and it doesn’t rain. How wrong could ‘they’ be? They, being various friends and the endless American tourists showcasing their holidays in France on YouTube stressing the importance of visiting Longchamp Palace and gardens with its elephant house and museum. So we went. And so did thousands of others as we discovered, as we rumbled our suitcases along the packed Qui de Port past the families tucking into their chips and burgers at Café Le Compton and crowds of tourists taking selfies with the floating legions of yachts and speed boats moored in the vast harbour in the background.

I had read Garlic, Mint, & Sweet Basil by Jean-Claude Izzo who wrote the Marseille trilogy Total Chaos and Francois Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse to give me a feel of the place – but it was Izzo’s description of the city and its people that connected. A melting pot of the peoples of the Med and beyond. Where dreadlocks, burkas, cotton suits, bikini tops, baggy shorts, tattoos, and much bare skin were on show. A relaxed atmosphere with groups of young men and woman chatting, older people sitting at cafes with a Pastis and a cigarette and the ever present sound of motorcycles darting along the narrow back streets.

And in contrast to a slightly chilly Axbridge in June it was warm. That is until it began to rain and rain and rain. Warmish rain to be true, which the locals ignored but rain nevertheless. Hardly a brollie or an anorak in sight. Which is where we rain-savvy UK visitors came into our own with my plastic mac and Linda’s umbrella. Which meant we got some strange looks – it was as if we had donned fur coats at the first sign of cloud crossing a July sky in England.

More rain clouds gather over Marseille

We visited the Musee Regards de Provence on our first day – and getting in half price due to my age it was one of those times I found myself pleased I was so old. Not so when I ascended the stairs to the gallery as my knees creaked – but it was worth it to see an exhibition of Jean Le Gac’s graphic paintings – although not so much his photographs. Images of bondage in photography are over rated but his retro style paintings of sailors, airmen and vintage cars oozed Gallic charm like oil dripping from a vintage Renault.

An exhibition of Jean Le Gac’s graphic paintings

The area around the Promenade Robert-Laffont is a wide public space where the residents of Marseille and us tourists could wander around promenading on a Sunday afternoon, dodging the showers and gazing out across the harbour to where every tourist guide insists is the island where the Count of Monte Christo was imprisoned. There are new giant buildings housing museums of the Mediterranean and of Civilisations and where I learnt that sugar cane came from – somewhere in the far East. As we entered one museum we were interviewed by a local TV crew about what we thought of the museum – despite explaining we hadn’t yet been inside – the questions kept coming and I kept not answering – and eventually they gave up with a look of ‘another idiot English tourist’ in their eyes.

The internet can be an unreliable source for information as we found when we walked all the way up from the harbour area to Longchamp Palais and its fine art museum – only to discover it was closed on a Monday. A rooky mistake since most of the city’s museums and galleries close that day. But those American tourist videos were right in one sense as there were few tourists at the Longchamp Palais as the gardens were deserted. Graffiti covered the buildings in the side streets nearby giving a slightly ‘edgy’ feel. And the promised zoo had closed in 1987 – so my quest to visit the elephants was thwarted by some 36 years. In this part of town those American tourists may have been right. On a Monday anyway.