It is the height of summer and I live where others spend their vacation: in Marseille, capital of the French region PACA ((Provence- Côte d’Azur-Alpes). In the city where people don’t order, in a noble manner, “pain” (bread), but rather ask for “peng” in the bakery while nurturing a passionate dislike for poshy Paris, I spend the summer to learn French. At the moment I live with an elderly, very chic French madame with a fridge filled with cheese. I look at French limestone mountains from my window and see the “Notre Dame de la Garde”, the landmark of Marseille watching proudly over the city, from the kitchen.In 2013 Marseille was the European Cultural Capital and the city has been “dressed up” for that occasion. Looking back at a millennial-old, very eventful history which has always revolved around the port and the tight connections to the most exotic parts of the world, it does not surprise that Marseille was never really considered a safe city. As a port city Marseille was – and still is – always moving and back in the days this brought not only prosperity, but also all kinds of shadey people with their even shadier businesses who felt home in the twisting and winding alleys of the old town.
The winding alleys are gone, and so is the prosperity. Crime has shifted towards specific areas: gang fights for example demand too many young victims every year. Drug dealing, prostitution and a lot of dirt are still existent in the city, but I feel safe and well most of the times, even if urine puddles and black rats give me a hard time, sometimes.
But in general, and very superficial: Let’s say, I’d have one day in Marseille – what would I got to see?
I start the tour at the metro station „Noailles”. The city welcomes me with a colourful market, right in the Arab quarter. Here, the stores are packed with colourful boxes filled with loose spices, teas and dried fruits, enormous butcher stores sell their meat halal and it’s easy to find something good – and cheap – to eat. But you’ll search long for some French delicacies. This is where French and Arab culture – and cuisine – merge. Marseille is a city on the move and (im)migration has left its footprint on the people, the culture and the identity of the city.
Towards the street Canebiére I leave the colourful bustle and find myself suddenly in another world. The facades of the big commercial street have been cleaned and renovated for the tourists, lured by the title of Cultural Capital, and the road leads straight towards the port.
Since 1481 Marseille is a part of France and many architecture projects have been initiated by the kings of France. But it was only Louis XIV, the sun king and embodiment of the courtly absolutism, changed the typical style of the Provence in the city in the 17th century. He had grand plans to enlarge the city and some of those were translated into reality. With streets running straight towards the harbour his architects created a symmetrical and splendid quarter which appealed more to the monarch than the dark alleys and steep stairs which – breeding ground for criminality – coined the looks and the reputation of the old Marseille.
Many Marseillaise dislike the houses in Parisian chic which set the style for the quarter around the old harbour in the 19th century. The style of the Provence is still valued as authentic and important expression of the own identity.
Before I stroll past the retro merry-go-round towards the harbour which I can see already from this point, I take a quick turn to the right, pass the Palais de la Bourse, built as well in mid-19th century and stop right next to the noble shopping centre “Galerie Lafayettes” to glance at an ancient excavation site. By accident the walls, alongside many valuable remains dated back to the beginnings of Marseille approx. 600 BC, were found when the construction of the shopping centre started. That’s Marseille – chances are big that you’ll find some ancient shards and pieces in your yard one day (and enough decide not to tell anybody, because it’s such a hassle to have all the archaeologists around). For 2013 the historical museum of Marseille was opened right by the site and I can only recommend it!
But now, I finally take a turn towards the port, the most touristic spot in Marseille. Nowadays only private yachts, small fisher boats and tourist ferries dock here. Latter bring you for example to the Chateau d’If. That’s where – apparently – the Comte de Monte Christo escaped and that is where the commander of the ship which very likely is responsible for bringing the plague “Pest” to Northern Europe (because it bought its way out of the obligatory quarantine) was imprisoned in a rather nice cell with an enormous fire place while the black death took about a half of the city’s population.
They also go for the island Frioul where it’s very nice to bath or swim and where great first aid helpers will take care of you in case you, let’s say, cut your foot open in the sea (I speak of experience, very nice guys). And they obviously also bring you to the Calanques, the marvellous milestone bays between Marseille and Cassis.
At the right hand of the harbour I enter the old town of Marseille, Le Panier, or rather, what’s left of it. The medieval Marseille is gone completely, and only some buildings and structures of the old town remain. In the 1940th the Nazis bombed quite a part of the old quarter and all around the port, because their tanks couldn’t go through, or just because they didn’t like it, and the gaps were later filled with 50th blocks. Not so pretty. Still pretty is the townhall, L’Hôtel de Ville, and behind it the Hôtel Dieu, back in the days a hospital, nowadays a fancy hotel with black interior. Le PanierPanier is still pretty ragged, but gentrification is slowly setting in: small art businesses settle in, designer and artists. In front of the Vieille Charité, another old hospital aka madhouse, I like to have an afternoon wine or enjoy some (French) food.
Past small “concept” stores I leave the old quarter and suddenly, an impressive church is rising in front of me. Enormously high, magnificent and majestic: La Cathédrale de la Major. The church was built shortly after the Notre Dame de la Garde in the 19th century and is in constant competition with the “Bonne Mére” (how the Marseillaise call the Notre Dame de la Garde) and loses. But she is definitely worth a visit. Outside the church a strong wind blows and I struggle with my skirt. Not far some men don’t care about the weather and throw their balls for a play of “pétanque”, boule. Undisturbed are as well the harbour cranes at the water: that’s where the new harbour begins. In the 20th century the old port didn’t do it anymore with the growing cargo boats. Nowadays the “new harbour” is mostly used for ferries to Corsica or Tunisia or elswehere and for cruise boats which pump their black smoke into the blue sky. For commercial use an even newer harbour was built.
From the cathedral I don’t have a long way to the MUCEM, built as well for the event in 2013, very interesting to visit and through a bridge connected with the Fort Saint-Jean. MUCEM is the first French national museum outside of Paris and carries the name “Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations“. Worth a visit!
The Fort Saint-Jean – and facing it across the water on the other side of the port entry the Fort Saint-Nicholas – were as well erected on demand by Louis XIV who was worried about peace and order in Marseille. That’s why the cannon windows don’t face the sea – to target intruders – but the city. When in need the cannons could fire at rebellious troublemakers in Marseille (there were enough of them).
By now the sun is getting lower, she still is beaming and burning hot, but I don’t always notice, because the strong wind cools my skin. The weather in Marseille is dangerous for fragile people like me who don’t exactly love the sun.
Anyone who wants to by the traditional Savon de Marseille gets the chance right here at the kai: The original soap is brown-green (never colourful), smells odd and consists of 72% olive oil.
The day’s coming to an end, the night comes and at night there’s only one place where I, together with the young people of Marseille, want to be: The Course Julien, right at the metro station Notre Dame du Mont.
Uphill through shopping streets and then through dirty, smelly alleys it takes roughly 20 minutes by foot and I find myself underneath a colourful stairway. Up I go to the place where the walls are decorated with graffiti, where too many drugs are around, but where I can get beer, wine and food for the best price and in the best atmosphere.
For me, Marseille is a very likeable city, despite being quite bizarre as well; a bit gruffly, but very sincere, and a bit neglected. It is a city full of storied and those stories vary from quarter to quarter and from street to street. At the port the city shows a different face than ten minutes later at the Arabic market and surrounded by hipsters and people searching for something, with or without meaning, at the Course Julien I find myself again in a whole new world.
I haven’t understood Marseille yet, but I don’t even try. For the moment I enjoy the discoveries and the happiness when I have found yet another corner, with a whole new feeling to it.