Med And Alive
On the Cote D’Azur, Marseille was always the odd destination out. France’s second city is the sunniest, driest coastal area thanks to both the Mistral and the Sirocco. It’s a complex port town with a working class multi-ethnic population, hard to traverse, confusingly filled with hilly streets and back alleys.
Founded in 600 BC, it was always going to be a centre for trade and commerce, but all that travel brought trouble, from plagues to criminals. Marseille’s shadier residents were able to evade the police in the maze of streets and take over entire neighbourhoods. The city has a reputation for kicking off, so much so that there’s a clip-reel of crime movies shot in Marseille at the museum (it has 24 museums and 42 theatres).
On my weekend trip I managed three museums and a few galleries. I can recommend la Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, with its astonishing lattice box design. I also loved the hipster areas behind the port, the calanques (narrow, steep-walled inlets with beaches that are often tricky to reach) and the boullebaise at Fon Fon, famous for decades, where the fish arrives separately from the broth, thus preventing that ‘dredging the mouth of the Humber’ effect you usually get at the bottom of such stews.
Travelling across the city is a challenge that involves buses, taxis, small passenger ferries and a lot of walking. Some streets fold down on themselves so steeply that you feel as if you’re in ‘Inception’ (I didn’t think to photograph them). Some areas are genuinely rough, not faux-rough. There’s nothing like eating a burger next to seriously scarred guys with pistols tattooed on their necks.
Yet some still moan that Marseille is becoming too gentrified. What do they want, drug-running back on the streets? Even so, the gigantic mirrored shelter at the end of the Vieux Port is a step too far, being in the finest French tradition of modern architecture ie. it’s shit, like Paris’s disastrously revamped ‘Les Halles’.
The city’s modern cuisine might also be avoided if it’s like the experimental restaurant I visited. A starter of sardines, carrots, pickles and shortbread was surprising, in the way that you’d be surprised to come home and find your spouse in bed with the dog. I lost a day to food poisoning, but the rest of the meals were great.
Marseille sails over the old question, ‘Would you come back?’ because there’s so much to do. There’s music and art everywhere, and the people-watching is fabulous because they’re not rich and identical, and therefore far more alive and interesting.
Mercifully none of the city’s charms are too obviously displayed, so you have to work at each choice, from finding good accommodation to indie shopping and odd little galleries. And if you want a cheap but excellent hotel, try the 3-star La Ruhl, no pool but a cool terrace and good restaurant, overlooking the sea.
Like the best cities, Marseille is paradoxical, messy, alarming and funny, and the locals are much friendlier here than anywhere else along the coastline. The tourists are coming now and the guides are shepherding obese cruise ship victims with walking poles. Visit before the old city residents are pushed out by the tourist dollar.
I’ve been asked to add one beautiful thing I saw. These elegant Algerian ladies were moving like swans through the jumble of indie shops, carefully examining and commenting upon each item. Out of modesty I was careful not to photograph their faces, which were ornamented with gold.