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Monday, June 27, 2022

A love letter to Marseille

Siân Lawrence explores the culture, history, and attractions of her Year Abroad home.

450 miles south of Paris and the same distance across the Mediterranean from Algiers, a mere afternoon’s drive to the Spanish and Italian borders, at the beginning of the Côte d’Azur, trapped between the mountains and the sea, lies France’s second largest city. Marseille, my home for the last nine months.

Marseille is a theatrical city, a city that has never failed to conjure strong opinions from our neighbours across the channel. One of my favourites is that of 18th century revolutionary Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron who proclaimed it to be “beyond cure, save for a massive deportation of all its inhabitants and a transfusion of men from the north.”  Another favourite is a more loving description from Marseillais playwright, poet and novelist Jean-Claude Izzo, who writes of “its eternity, a utopia. The only utopia in the world. A place where anyone, of whatever colour, could get off a boat or a train, his case in his hand, without any money in his pocket, and melt into the wave of other people. A city where as soon as he put his foot on the ground, this man could say ‘Here it is: I’m home’.”

So why has this beautiful and chaotic city been dividing, baffling, enticing, angering and fascinating people for centuries?

France’s oldest city, often donned the Phocaean city, was colonised by Greeks from Phocaea in what is now Turkey, as Massalia, in 600 BC. There is, however, strong evidence of an earlier Gaulish society here. From its first days, it has been impossible to pinpoint who makes up Marseille. Over the next 2600 years the city would see various waves of immigrants from rural France, Catalonia and Spain, Italy, the south and eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, West Africa. Rough statistics (in France it is illegal to collect data about ethnicity) tell us that around 200,000 of Marseille’s almost 900,000 inhabitants have Maghbrebian heritage.

In many respects, it is a Mediterranean city before it is a French one. It is also not uncommon to feel as though allegiance is to city rather than to country, with many of its inhabitants feeling ‘Marseillais’ rather than ‘French’.  People in bars are quick to tell you that their grandmother is Spanish or Moroccan or Napolese, that they love Marseille and that they have nothing to do with Paris.

I have found it to be an exceptionally welcoming place, something I don’t think can be said for a lot of France, typically speaking at least. Some Parisiens might still mutter or snigger disdain about Marseille. But let there be no mistake – the laughter is louder on the other side. The anti-Paris, anti-Macron, anti-establishment feeling is palpable.

Marseille is halfway between Paris and Algiers, literally and in spirit. Generally, the immigrant communities are remarkably harmonious, compared to some of its other European rivals, but the situation must not be over romanticised. Heralded as the ‘gateway to the empire’ by the French colonial enterprise, Marseille benefited enormously from imperial trade. Yet it was also often seen from the north as just as exotic as the African and Asian colonies the boats departed to from its famous port. The huge, grand steps of St Charles train station are still adorned with sculptures depicting the exotic riches of French colonies. Today, poorer areas of the city are disproportionately populated by immigrant communities and unemployment rates are high.

France is plagued by right-wing press and politicians who talk about Marseille losing its European identity. These kinds of articles, in magazines such as Le Causeur, often make the error of insinuating that immigration and cultural diversity is a recent phenomenon for the city… There is documentation about trade between Marseille and North Africa long before the invasion of Algeria in 1830. There are records of language courses in Arabic attended by French merchants since 1670. This kind of negative press also suggests division in the city. However, in Marseille there are no outlying segregated banlieues circling the city as in many French metropoles, but different communities are found dotted all across the city, mingling.

In the city’s 16 arrondissements there is an astounding diversity of atmosphere. A mere 30-minute walk from one neighbourhood to another might entirely transport you.

Noailles, generally known as the Arabic quarter, home to the daily market on the Rue du Marché-des-Capucins, nicknamed ‘le ventre de Marseille’ (‘the stomach of Marseille’), is located a stone’s throw from the tourist hub of the Vieux Port and the chain shopping streets. People from every corner of Marseille’s immigrant community gather in Noailles’ labyrinthine streets to sell and buy spices, tea, meat, ceramics, fabrics, duty free cigarettes for 75 cents and anything and everything else in the souk-like daily market. The area traverses Marseille’s historic thoroughfare, La Canebiere, and continues up to the Porte d’Aix, the slightly bizarre miniature Arc de Triomphe, by way of the Cours Belsunce, lined with the best falafel, kebab, couscous and mint tea shops on the continent and the beautiful Bibliotheque Alcazar, jazz age music hall turned public library.

Wandering slightly beyond Noailles, you’ll find yourself in Cours Julien and La Plaine – the arty, on-its-way-to-being-gentrified, liveliest neighbourhood in Marseille. In any three nights here you might watch a play in the tiny Théâtre Carré Rond, see a live jazz musician in Soma, and pry a glass from one of the sticky tables of Au Petit Nice to drink your €1 tequila or €1.60 rosé. On a Wednesday morning you’ll be greeted by the farmers market and a flurry of young people with piercings handing you leaflets for music events.

There is a restaurant from probably every country on the planet, clothes, and antiques to buy from every decade and not a blank patch of wall thanks to the endless colourful graffiti. For those that want to dance, La Friche(translated as ‘wasteland or ‘wilderness’) is a former tobacco factory a few neighbourhoods on, in Belle de Mai, converted into a veritable cultural jungle. Boules and pastis (Marseille’s famous yellow aniseed liquor), indie cinemas, author panels, exhibitions, skate-boarding and street dancing by day precede DJs at the revered warehouse-clubs Le Chapiteauand Cabaret Aléatoire, showcasing some of Marseille’s freshest music collectives. Art, literature and music are part of the fabric of Marseille, and always have been; its title as European City of Culture in 2013 bears testament.

Les quartiers nords, ‘the northern districts’, are the poorest and most stigmatised areas of Marseille, and often the only areas people have heard of or that make the national or international press, hence the dangerous and troubled image of the city. They are the areas we are told never to go to, the areas that make people nervous. The sensationalist media representation, as well as films, recently Bac Nord and Shéhérazade (beautiful films nonetheless) are what generally paint the image of the city. I do not seek to deny the difficulties faced by these neighbourhoods – Marseille’s 3rd Arrondissement is the poorest in Europe – but the vilifying, fearful or patronising approach is no way of combating them.

Le Panier, Marseille’s oldest district, located on the north bank of the port, now a touristy area filled with too-smart graffiti and oil painting or jewellery ateliers, was once known for its Italian and Corsican mafia. It is rumoured that much of the property in the area is still owned by a few families. These immigrant groups settled in the area and saw a rise in organised crime, inspiring the film The French Connection, which depicts a million-dollar heroin smuggling incident.

Ever a place of contrast, Marseille is also home to some of the most idyllic and increasingly desired places to live in the country, being located on the sea and boasting the top spot as the sunniest place in France. Malmousque and the rest of the 7th and 8th arrondissements to the south of the city, on the rocky, sparkling blue coastline, without the polished expense of the Côte d’Azur, have seen their house prices gradually rising for the last few years. The tiny fishing villages that used to constitute the outskirts of the city have retained their rural feeling and the rest of the metropolis has simply sprung up around them. These neighbourhoods are quiet, picturesque, yet less than 30 minutes from the city centre.

Marseille has a unique energy and a buzz; maybe the negative image doesn’t matter because ‘at least it will be free of tourists and Parisiens’, a local, jokingly ironic dream. People have spent their lives writing books or, more characteristically, deep in discussion on terasses in the sunshine, pastis and a cigarette in hand, trying to figure out Marseille, so I’m certainly not going to in just a year. But I feel very lucky to have been granted the time to explore it and become somewhat enamoured of it in the process.

Image credit: Siân Lawrence.

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