Marseille : Mystifying
Jérôme Bloch (360Crossmedia)
Marseillais love the bad reputation that Parisians and the media like to pin on them. Far from contradicting it, they enjoy it and perpetuate a culture based on 2,600 years of rebellion and missed appointments with history. In 2024, the sailing events of the Olympic Games will take place in the Phocaean city. An ideal opportunity to visit.
Getting to Marseille
Marseille is a vertical city: when you arrive from the airport or from Aix-en-Provence, intuitively, you think you're coming in from the west of the city. These are the northern neighborhoods. Don't make a mistake: this area, composed of deserted docks for kilometers and unhealthy neighborhoods, is not safe. Just don't go there and you will enjoy a great and safe stay in Marseille. The true entrance to Marseille is marked by two majestic buildings designed by world-renowned architects: the CMA CGM Tower by Zaha Hadid and the 'Marseillaise' by Jean Nouvel. Located near the Old Port, they are one of the two prominent landmarks visible from the sea, the other being the hill of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, affectionately called the "Bonne Mère" by the locals.
2,600 years of history
The Paleolithic inhabitants didn't make a mistake: they settled in the region over 60,000 years ago. The Cosquer Cave, discovered in 1985 in the Calanque de Morgiou, has been reconstructed right next to the splendid MuCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. Both are worth a visit. In 600 BC, Greeks from Asia Minor – present-day Turkey – left Phocaea to found a city in the Lacydon Creek, the current Old Port. The Phocians thus created the oldest city in France and settled in the current Panier district, which offers both natural elevation sheltered from the wind, the protection of the Frioul Islands, and close proximity to the mouth of the Rhône for trade with the Gauls. They brought with them construction techniques, olive culture, and vineyards. Pytheas, a native of the city, explored the North Atlantic several centuries before its capture by Julius Caesar. Marseille then participated in the Roman peace in the Mediterranean, facilitating increased trade.
The fate of Fabio Montale
In Jean-Claude Izzo's trilogy, the hero, Fabio Montale, embodies a sensitive immigrant son, a fallen policeman, passionate about cultures, jazz, and women, whose life is marked by a succession of missed opportunities. A true metaphor for Marseille. Attached to France in 1487, it benefited from the religious wars thanks to its Mediterranean connections and navigated through troubled centuries until Louis XIV's arrival in 1660. As a symbol of his reassertion of control over the city, he had two buildings constructed at the entrance to the Old Port – Fort Saint-Nicolas and Fort Saint-Jean – facing the city and not the sea! The city then tripled in size. Its commercial growth suffered from a plague epidemic in 1720, but even more so from the consequences of the French Revolution, as European conflicts harmed the port. The capture of Algiers in 1830 and the country's colonial policy revived the city's attractiveness, increasing its population from 130,000 in 1830 to 550,000 in 1905. Two areas were created: a working-class one in the north and an affluent one in the south. But after the defeat of 1940, Marseille became the only port in the Free Zone and paid a heavy price imposed by the Germans. This was followed by a migratory shock, and surprisingly, most of its port activity was transferred to Fos. Today, like Fabio Montale, the city combines relative poverty with great cultural richness. When looking at the sea, its inhabitants cannot help but think – like the hero of Total Khéops – of its often painful past and missed opportunities that could have turned it into the New York of Europe.
"Marseille is an enigma, a house with several doors and windows always open."
Tahar Ben Jelloun
The Sacred Night
Marseille's miracle lies in its ability to accommodate inhabitants in constant motion from all corners of the world. While Notre-Dame de la Garde watches over its flock, most faithful gather in another church: the Vélodrome Stadium. And seeing these supporters united by a common culture of football, by the love of the jersey, recalls the song "Je danse le Mia" by I AM, a local group: "No fake stuff, open shirt, shining gold chain." Marseille, a city always a bit disoriented, where appearances matter more than elsewhere, and respect too. Here, people park in triple-file, and it is not uncommon to see two locals settle a dispute with their fists. A city where impertinence and defiance of authorities are part of the culture, but where the miracle of living together occurs – miraculously – for 2,600 years.
Land and Sea
Marseille is best explored on foot, by scooter, taxi, or boat. The sea route will allow you to contemplate the most enchanting profile of the Phocaean city, between the Frioul Islands, the Vallon des Auffes and its "Epuisette," Les Goudes at Christian Qui's, not to mention its timeless Calanques. By land, stroll through the Panier, have an aperitif at the Bar des 13 coins, go for a walk at the Cathedral La Major at sunset, and dine at Augustine or Place de Lenche. Have a drink at the Hôtel Dieu. Climb the Mont de la Bonne Mère in the morning and deepen your discovery. Visit the museums, wander on the Canebière, rest at Place aux Huiles – where a canal existed until 1925 – have an aperitif at Bar Julis on the Puget hill, just steps from the port. Treat yourself to dinner at Alexandre Mazzia's. Run along the Corniche at sunrise. Get lost. Find yourself. Go for a walk on foot in the Calanques. Immerse yourself in this cultural melting pot. Fall in love with the city. Go beyond the myth. Forgive the Marseillais for thinking you were a "Fada." Regret having let its bad reputation keep you away from this legendary city for so many years.