The regenerated, cosmopolitan port of Marseille is home to the only French club to truly hold a city in its grip: Olympique Marseille, known by all as l’OM.
Whereas much of southern France is in thrall to rugby, Marseille is firmly foot. It is personified by its flagship club and their supporters, many remembering the real glory days 30 years ago. Back then, l’OM dominated the league and became the only French club to win the European Cup. Loyal through the hard times thereafter, their fans are at last enjoying more of the limelight.
No arena in France can provide the kind of atmosphere generated at the fiery Stade Vélodrome. Backdropped by the beautiful hills of Provence, this 67,000-capacity venue has the fireworks you’d only experience in the passionate stadia of Spain, Italy or Greece.
Recently, it has been riding a new wave of title challenges. The double of 2010 under Didier Deschamps was l’OM’s finest moment since the triumphs of the Tapie era. The disgraced former owner was brought down after the previous title win, of 1993, was annulled in a bribery scandal. Tapie was sent to jail and was forced to sell his boat.
From 2011, the Vélodrome underwent a three-year overhaul that saw its capacity rise to 67,000 for Euro 2016.
Revamped to host the 1998 World Cup, the Vélodrome was built for the World Cup of 1938.
As an amateur cup-winning side of the 1920s, OM played at the tiny Stade de l’Huveaune, near the stream of the same name. Also used by their former city rivals, Stade helvétique de Marseille, USFSA champions of France three times before folding in 1930, l’Huveaune could not cope with the burgeoning status of the club that usurped them.
Originally a stadium for both football and cycling, with a sloping track around the pitch, the Vélodrome had been commissioned as a source of local pride by mayor Alexandre Ribot in 1934. Marseille had just seen the slaying of Yugoslav King Alexander I, an event of Kennedy-like proportions. The city needed something great and good.
The two main stands, the Jean Bouin and the Ganay, were named after heroic local sportsmen. Athlete Bouin, an early victim of World War I, lost the 1912 Olympic 5,000 metres in the world’s first photo finish. Gustave Ganay was a Marseille-born cyclist who died when crashing at full pelt at the Parc des Princes in 1926.
Controversially, the hero of the 1938 World Cup, the Brazilian Leônidas, was left out of the semi-final here. Pozzo’s Italy triumphed, then won their second consecutive trophy.
As an increasingly successful l’OM developed a modern fan culture in the 1960s, so the cycle track was built over and supporters brought closer to the action.
Ironically, the most memorable match here didn’t involve l’OM but Platini’s France, the dramatic 3-2 semi-final win over Portugal at Euro 84. BBC commentator John Motson, for once, lost his voice.
L’OM have no city rival. Their animosity lies with Paris Saint-Germain, a fixture given the somewhat manufactured title of ‘Le Classique’. Their opponents in a rare French Cup derby in January 1996, little Endoume at least provided a dramatically filmic view when they were based at the Stade de Giovanni. Its panoramic setting on boulevard Tellene, in the shadow of Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica, was used as a location in the film Taxi 4 but this vertiginous pitch last saw senior football action decades ago.
Endoume’s fourth-flight games at prosaic Stade Le Cesne (94 rue Jules Isaac) carry less appeal. Bus B1 runs from Castellane, via OM’s stadium at Rond Point du Prado, to Michelet Blanc nearby. Officially known as US Marseille Endoume Catalans, Les Rouge et Noir gained promotion from National 3 in 2018 to reach National 2 Groupe D and some games are played at the Stade Roger Lebert on rue Jules Rimet – bus No.44 to Floriana Rimet, also on the same line as Rond Point du Prado.
Endoume’s role as everyone’s favourite other local team has been usurped by Marseille Consolat. Founded in 1964, and once with former Marseille (and Manchester United) full back William Prunier as coach, GS (‘Groupe Sportif’) Consolat made the third flight National for the first time in 2014. A rebranding saw the club renamed Athlético Marseille in 2018. For the time being, l’AM still play at the modest. remote Stade la Martine, just off the A7 autoroute du Soleil north of the city. It’s a long bus ride, on line B2 from Métro Bougainville to La Martine.
Endoume and Athlético crossed paths before AM were relegated from the National 2 in 2019 – two derbies were played that season, as well as games against Marseille’s reserve side. Despite a strong campaign, including a 2-0 win at Endoume, Athlético were forcibly relegated due to administrative mismanagement.
Aéroport Marseille-Provence is 27 km (17 miles) north-west from town, linked by shuttle bus L91 (every 15-20min, journey time 40min, €10/€10.90 + 1 onward journey, under-25s €7, return €16/€17.40 +2 onward journeys) that runs to St-Charles station. Tickets bought online must be printed out. There’s a ticket office (cash/cards) just outside Arrivals, to your right as you exit the main terminal. If it’s closed, pay the driver on board. From town, buy your ticket from window No.1 of St-Charles bus terminus beside the train station.
A taxi (+33 4 91 02 20 20) into town should cost €50, €60 night-time.
The train from Paris Gare de Lyon takes 3hr 20min, advance single around €45. The Eurostar London-Marseille takes around 7hrs and costs around €100-€130. Most flights require a change in Paris, usually with one early direct service a day (6hrs 30min).
St-Charles, a 10-15min walk downhill into town, is the crossing point of the two-line metro system, part of a network of buses and three tramway lines run by rtm. You’ll need the metro or bus for the stadium. A single ticket is €1.70, a 24hr pass €5.20, 72hr €10.80. Machines distribute tickets at stations and main bus stops – there are ticket offices at St-Charles and Bourse.
Two hotels stand near the OM ticket office at the stadium: the AC Marseille Prado Velodrome in the Marriott group offers four-star comfort and a Med-focused restaurant, Oh Massalia, while alongside, the two-star, upper-budget chain B&B Marseille Prado Vélodrome provides several sports channels in its 162 rooms.
Also convenient for the Vélodrome on avenue du Prado, the Adagio Access Marseille Prado Périer offers affordable apartment-style units with hotel accoutrements, such as a reception area.
The Vieux Port is surrounded by hotels, such as the classic mid-range Alizé, right above the Brasserie OM. The nearby Escale Oceania and Grand Hotel Beauvau, where Chopin romanced George Sand, also provide views of the Vieux Port.
The Vieux Port is the place to be, particularly the stretch of quai de Rive Neuve around the timeless Bar de la Marine (No.15), backdrop for the Colin Firth proposal scene in Love Actually. Shamrock next door goes big on sport, while O’Malley’s (No.9) and Queen Victoria alongside bask in huge, harbour-front terraces.
Round the corner, the Little Temple Bar (7 rue de la Paix) is more about drinking than posing by the waterfront. The other sport-centric expat bar of note is Le Kilt (169 avenue du Prado), one métro stop towards town from the stadium, now more bistro than boisterous bar.
Back on the Vieux Port, don’t miss the Brasserie du Port OM Café, its terrace perfectly sited on quai des Belges, where you can tuck into a plate of salmon or veal for around €20, or just order up a Corsican Serena lager or Miraculeuse beer/vodka cocktail and watch the Med. OM-branded, with TV games shown, but without the sports-bar feel or Olympique-themed décor it used to have.