PERCHED high on a hilltop, she has protected her people for centuries. The gigantic golden statue of Our Lady, Notre Dame de la Garde, peers over Marseille, the oldest and second largest city in France.

The panoramic view from this ancient Basilica is breathtaking.

You can see enchanting islands, rugged coastline, old port, quaint streets, stunning architecture and luxury yachts.

Bathed in 300 days of sunshine, it is a relaxing haven just waiting to be explored.

You will discover fascinating secrets.

‘Massalia’ was founded by traders from Asia Minor 2,600 years ago.

Its protected harbour created a natural creek to import copper, silver and bronze statues into the western Mediterranean.

Steeped in history and culture, this intriguing city is an ideal short break destination.

Low cost flights mean you can now reach it in only two hours.

It already attracts 1.2 million tourists a year, including 350,000 cruise ship passengers.

If you enjoy fish, festivals, walking, diving, sailing, shopping and exploring, you will love this friendly region.

Share the fun and banter at the daily fish market as colourful characters compete to sell their catch.

You do not have to get up at the crack of dawn as stalls are open until midday.

Weird and wonderful species lie waiting to be weighed.

You can learn how to prepare the famous Bouillabaisse, a highly seasoned fish stew.

A top chef will take you to the market, select the best ingredients and show you how to make this complicated dish. You will then have the satisfaction of savouring your own homemade Mediterranean lunch.

There is so much to do, you will be spoilt for choice.

Visit intriguing islands on a magical boat trip.

Chateau d’If, an island fortress, was constructed in 1524 to protect Marseille from invasion.

It later became a gaol.

Best-selling novelist Alexandre Dumas brought worldwide fame, imprisoning his hero Edmond Dantes there in The Count of Monte-Cristo.

Ramble round the cells and you can still see where prisoners carved holes in the rock to talk to each other.

The dungeons are so dank, dark and dingy, you can not imagine what it must have been like to be locked up in for years on end.

By contrast, the neighbouring Frioul islands are like paradise.

Only horses and carriages are allowed as you savour the tranquillity of hidden beaches.

Marseille is made up of 111 villages, full of surprises.

One minute you are in the middle of the bustling city, the next you can roam past fishermen mending nets beside colourful bobbing boats.

Do not be surprised if you come across camera crews as it is the second most it easy to explore.

popular city in France after Paris for film and television locations.

Trams, a metro and buses make it easy to explore. Or you can borrow a blue bike from one of the new hire bays and ride round the city.

The 86 bus takes you along the spectacular coastline.

Divers have discovered hidden treasures in 300 wrecks lost at sea.

The Calanque, rocky coves home to more than 9,000 flowering plants and remarkable rare birds are fascinating to explore.

Tucked away down little coves you will stumble on superb little restaurants.

La Marine des Goudes overlooking the sea is typical.

Moules grilled with almonds, garlic and tomatoes, sea bream served with aromatic rice and garlic courgettes, followed by floating islands are just some of the sumptuous dishes on offer.

There are so many places to eat, with something to suit every budget.

The city’s ancient quarter, Le Panier, named after a 17th century inn, Le Logis du Panier, is well worth a visit.

Simply follow the red line on the ground to discover France’s oldest district.

Climbing steps, roaming round quaint narrow streets, you feel as though time has stood still.

Do not forget to look up at the intricate architecture.

La Vielle Charite, a 16th century workhouse, designed by Pierre Pugit, now houses a cultural museum and exhibition centre.

Striking arched wings look out onto a courtyard surrounding a magnificent domed chapel.

Two major exhibitions are coming.

Priceless works by Van Gogh and Monticelli go on show from September to January 2009.

Picasso and Cezanne visits Aix en Provence next year from June to September.

Peer into the tiny shops and you will see ancient arts still alive.

You can watch craftswomen create ‘santons’, little replicas of tradesmen and women, made out of fire clay and then painstakingly painted.

Crib figures and animals are moulded in the same way used at the first santon fair in 1789.

Every imaginable variety of chocolate, even onion flavour, is made in a tiny chocolatier.

Marseille is the only place in the world that uses 72 per cent pure olive oil to make soap.

Skilled craftsmen use the same antiquated machines their ancestors developed centuries ago.

Only three of the 90 soap factories survive.

You can visit Savonnerie Marseillaise de la Licorne and watch the fascinating process.

Intoxicating scents of lavender and lemon infuse the air as you browse in the factory shop.

Beautifully wrapped, they make a unique gift.

Hop on a tram and visit The Palais Longchamp, a magnificent monument built to celebrate the arrival of water in the city.

Colossal colonnades surround a fountain, adorned by sculptures created by the greatest artists of the period.

The fine arts museum and natural history museums are on either side.

The intimate atmosphere of a 19th century private mansion, with rare sculptures, paintings, furniture, tapestries and drawings are displayed in the Grobet Labadie museum.

The city one or two day pass offers free entry to 14 museums, access to metro, bus and trams, a boat trip, a visit to Chateau d’If, a train ride to Notre Dame de la Garde, guided tours and other concessions. It is available from the tourist office.