By James d’Entremont
I recently returned to Marseille for the first time in over four decades, and came away wondering how I could have waited so long to go back.
My first visit was an odd stroke of luck. When I was a socially dysfunctional, meagerly put-together high school student, I won an essay contest sponsored by the executive club of American Export Lines. Today any thought of my juvenile take on “American Shipping in Today’s World” makes me wince, but in 1962 my composition satisfied judges who awarded me a summer aboard a freighter bound for ten European ports of call.
The Export Buyer‘s first and final stops in the Mediterranean, a month apart, were Marseille. This was my introduction to France. Arriving there by sea was to me an amazing event. Marseille unfolded in layers like a pop-up book as we passed the Iles de Frioul and the outer breakwater—first the shipyards, then Fort St. Louis and Fort St. Nicolas bracketing the inner harbor, the Vieux Port clogged with boats, low-rise buildings massed in the center, high-rise buildings looming behind them, the backdrop of low gray mountains, and Notre Dame de la Garde on its massive limestone perch, its belfry touching the sky.
I was so impatient to go ashore that if I’d known how to swim I might have dived off the bow and headed for the Quai des Belges. When the ship docked in the warehouse area north of Cathédrale de la Major, I headed for the gangplank. A ship’s officer headed me off, however, and said I was expected to remain on board to meet the press. Since no one had explained the PR aspects of my trip, this caught me by surprise.
The press release that preceded me built me up as a teen prodigy obsessed with maritime history and commerce. In the captain’s cabin, half a dozen French reporters fired questions at me through an interpreter about my nonexistent interest in oceangoing cargo ships. Asked about my future in shipping, I said that although I might consider such a career (a lie), I’d rather be an archaeologist Asked where I thought the worldwide shipping industry was headed, I said I didn’t know, but hoped there wouldn’t be any more collisions like the one that had sunk the Andrea Doria. My interrogators were polite except for a few quick snickers. The American Export Lines official who was present probably wanted to have me shot. My first shipping-industry press conference would as a result be my last. (One of my mother’s old scrapbooks nevertheless contains two or three boilerplate articles, one of which calls me, with tact or possibly sarcasm, “un jeune homme sympathique.”)
My eagerness to go ashore didn’t stem from any special knowledge of Marseille. My main impressions of France’s second city had come from the 1961 American movie Fanny, Joshua Logan’s sentimental pastiche of Marcel Pagnol’s Marseille trilogy. I also knew about Château d’If, the island prison, having read The Count of Monte Cristo. Beyond that, I knew Marseille was famed for crime and bouillabaisse.
I wasn’t quite sure what bouillabaisse was, but when I finally made it ashore I found out. I was taken to a seafood restaurant near the Vieux Port and put through a program of intimidation by disdainful, white-aproned, black-suited waiters with scary filleting skills. I wasn’t sure what I thought of bouillabaisse itself, except that it contained a lot of garlic, but the service felt like French revenge for my performance with the press. The only crime I would ever encounter in Marseille was my own unpremeditated fraudulence.
My first forays into the city involved sightseeing under the supervision of corporate keepers, but during the ship’s second, longer sojourn in Marseille I managed a half-day off my leash. The French American Export Lines employee who’d taken me to lunch, tired of babysitting after his second digestif, suggested I strike out on my own, which I gratefully did.
Marseille was, then as much as now, a city whose people lived outdoors, but at siesta time in summer, the streets were not crowded. Because I’d been told not to go there alone, I made a point of wandering up and down the half-deserted, slightly seedy Canebière—the “Can o’ Beer” to the Export Buyer‘s crew—where I had no adventures worth mentioning. I poked around the narrow streets of the Panier district, the site of ancient Massalia, where sounds and smells carried hints of North Africa. Doubling back past the Vieux Port, I headed toward Notre-Dame de la Garde.
The basilica commands the top of a 160-meter hill rising just behind the south side of the inner harbor. Completed in 1864, “la bonne mère” became an instant symbol of Marseille. A walk up the hillside in the stunning heat of July might be offered as a penitential gesture, but when I started climbing I had no such conscious intent. By the time I’d made it to the Jardin Pierre Puget, more than halfway up, I was panting and sweating and starting to get dizzy.
In the gardens below the basilica I ran into an elderly groundskeeper, the first local resident I’d encountered who wasn’t a reporter, a shipping executive, or a waiter. He shouted something too complex for me to grasp, although I could make out the words “chaleur” and “imbécile.” I spoke to him in grisly American high school French, and he turned friendly. “Prenez un peu d’eau,” he said, handing me a bottle.
Notre-Dame de la Garde itself, with its assertive gilt Virgin and dingy interior, impressed me less than the view from the esplanade around it. From there, the city looks like an amphitheatre built for gazing at the sea. No other French port embraces the sea as fully as Marseille.
On subsequent trips to France, my focal point was Paris. I always meant to return to Marseille, but somehow bypassed it even on forays into Provence.
When I finally came back, my partner Bob and I pulled into the Gare St. Charles on a train from Montpellier. Arriving by land felt disorienting to me, and somehow wrong.
The city was founded by sailors, Ionians who occupied the site in 600 BCE, over three hundred years before the inception of Paris. The Marseillais coastline now covers 26 miles of Mediterranean littoral from L’Estaque to the southeastern cliffs. With more than 1.6 million inhabitants, the city is, after Paris, the second most populous metropolitan district in France. Marseille is the departmental capital of Bouches du Rhône and the regional seat of Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur, but it has a cultural reach beyond provincial borders. It seems fitting (though the song itself came from Strasbourg) that the French national anthem should be called La Marseillaise.
Historically, Marseille has absorbed—at times reluctantly—swarms of Greeks, Gauls, Romans, Spaniards, Arabs, Italians, Turks, Armenians, Comoro Islanders, and more. The town has sustained itself through conquest, revolution, and disaster. For a time in the early 18th century it was hemmed in by a wall intended to contain an outbreak of plague that wiped out half its population. During World War II, Nazi occupiers destroyed the warrens of the hostile and subversive poor. Allied bombings pulverized much of the Vieux Port. Since then, urban renewal has erased or reconfigured additional neighborhoods.
Through it all, by some miracle, Marseille has stayed essentially the same. As the American writer M.F.K. Fisher noted in the late 1970s, in her Marseille memoir A Considerable Town, “Most people who describe it… write the same things…. [A] typically modern opinion could have been written in 1550 as well as 1977.”
Negative judgments on Marseille are nothing new. “Apparently people like to glance one more time at the same old words,” complained Fisher, “—evil, filthy, dangerous.” While online travelers’ reviews of Marseille tend to be positive, some reflect their authors’ xenophobia. Others bring up seemingly legitimate safety questions.
The city has been tidied up since 1962, equipped with a modern two-line subway system and infrastructural improvements. The scruffy Marseille depicted by resident Marseillais filmmaker Robert Guédiguian (La ville est tranquille) still exists, but Bob and I wandered off the beaten tourist path, often at night, and never felt any more threatened than in other major European or North American city—including Boston, our reputedly staid hometown.
The Quartier du Panier is now as gentrified as the Parisian Marais. Administrative offices dominate parts of the Canebière. Notre-Dame de la Garde, which we reached this time by bus, seems cleaner and brighter. Fishmongers still hawk their wares every morning along the Quai des Belges, but the Vieux Port seems more tourist-friendly than ever.
Marseille’s African flavor has grown more assertive. Along with ethnic Algerians, Tunisians, and Moroccans whose families have lived there for generations, recent immigrants from the Maghreb and points south are dispersed all over the inner city—in contrast to Paris, where racial and ethnic minorities tend to be pushed into outlying suburbs. Some Marseille neighborhoods are startlingly North African. As the Rue d’Aix approaches the Arc de Triomphe de Marseille, it seems to morph into a street in Tunis, full of Arabic-speaking men and women in chechias and safsaris. Around the Marché de Noailles, aromas of henna, mint, filfil, and cumin evoke the souks.
A newly visible part of the Marseillais cultural mélange is a lively gay community whose Pride events draw tens of thousands of participants every July. Gay businesses have entered the mainstream and prospered. One of the better restaurants we discovered was the gay-owned-and-operated Casa No Name, whose eclectic menu fuses Asian, North African, and French cuisine.
Throughout the city there’s a fresh profusion of restaurants, hotels, tour options, and visitor amenities. Some are small and operated by a new breed of proprietor such as Jean-Laurent Colleter and Phillipe Bénard who, drawn by the Mediterranean ambiance, relocated to Marseille from Paris in 2001. The pair has run the B&B Les Amis de Marseille in their spacious apartment near the Place Castellane for nearly four years. (“We love living in Marseille,” says Colleter. “We want to share it with everyone else.”) The hosts’ graciousness, managerial competence, impeccable guest rooms, and spectacular garden terrace facing Notre-Dame de la Garde—not to mention the bread they bake on the premises daily—make Les Amis perhaps the best establishment of its kind I’ve found anywhere.
In Marseille, it’s wise to stay at a central location. The local calendar of events brims over with dance, opera, theatre, music. Visitors can devote a week to museums alone and not take everything in. For football fanatics, there are matches at the Stade Vélodrome (capacity 60,000), home of the Olympiques de Marseille soccer team. But in this maritime city, outdoor recreation is almost synonymous with the sea. America’s Cup preliminaries and parts of the Sailing Tour de France take place in the Bay of Marseille. Recreational boats bring thousands of passengers daily to the Frioul Archipelago, to Château d’If, and to the Calanques, the chain of cliff-rimmed, fjord-like inlets that serrates the coast from Marseille to Cassis. Within the city limits, the Corniche runs past sandy stretches of public beach.
Returning to Marseille as an adult meant making my peace with bouillabaisse. This milestone was brought about through lunch at Chez Fonfon, a local institution hidden away in Vallon des Auffes, a pocket fishing port below the Corniche. The restaurant is upscale but casual. With proprietor Alexandre Pinna and staff turning in a bravura ensemble performance, the service was precise but humane. Before we knew quite what we were doing, we’d overindulged in the main course—rounds of bread, a peppery rouille, and immaculately fresh rascasse, grondin, John Dory, monkfish, and conger eel accompanied by fragrant, saffron-accented broth.
On close inspection, Marseille itself is an unexpectedly subtle mix of flavors. The precise quality that has drawn so many people there is hard to sort out. M.F.K. Fisher thought the most appropriate French adjective for Marseille was insolite—unique, with a hint of mystery. She wrote of the city’s “phoenixlike vitality, its implacably realistic beauty and brutality.” Today vitality and beauty seem to be keeping the brutality at bay. The feisty old port has mellowed into a place I find harder than ever to leave.
Businesses noted in this article
Restaurant: Chez Fonfon, 140 Vallon des Auffes, 13007 Marseille. Tel. 04 91 52 14 38. www.chez-fonfon.com
Restaurant: Casa No Name, 7 rue André Poggioli, 13006 Marseille. Tel. 04 91 45 75 82. www.casanoname.com
B & B: Les Amis de Marseille, Parc Castellane, 84 rue de Lodi, Bat F, 13006 Marseille. Tel. 06 74 89 66 26 or 06 63 76 88 49. (Editor’s note. In 2014 this B&B was closed and the owners opened the B&B Bleu Calanques by the sea.)
James d’Entremont is a journalist, playwright, and civil liberties activist.
© 2009, James d’Entremont