Arriving at Marseilles’s Gare St Charles in the early hours of a balmy October night, the first marvel of the city that is pointed out to me — both proudly and affectionately — is a large, well-fed rat that pours itself into a nook in the stone wall of the station. ‘Welcome to Marseilles,’ says Oliver, my laconic host, pushing his bicycle along the street to avoid running into a trio of high-cheekboned Maghrebian hip-hop devotees. As they saunter past, deltoids rippling, bouncing fluidly and elegantly on their toes to some innate city beat, Oliver adds, ‘Also known as North North Africa.’
With a population of 850,000 (1.6 million within the greater city limits), Marseilles is France’s second largest city, dwarfed only by Paris. Both cities have a large Moroccan/Tunisian/Algerian contingent, but while in Paris immigrants end up in the banlieues, in Marseilles everyone gets piled into the centre. When it comes to atmosphere, even though it’s 660km from the capital, Marseilles is a million miles from safe, polished Le Ville Lumière (not to mention the other tourist towns of the Cote D’Azur: St Tropez, Monte Carlo, Cannes). A port town, Marseilles is crowded, chaotic and ghetto-edgy. But you’ll must visit soon, because it may not be for much longer.
When I visited, much of the city was under construction, for in 2013 it is a European Capital of Culture, an honour shared with Košice in Slovakia. The initiative, for which cities prepare a year-long programme of cultural events, began in 1985 and rapidly spread through Europe’s smaller capitals — Athens, Amsterdam, Madrid, Stockholm — waving its fairy wand of rejuvenation. Now it spotlights more obscure cities that could do with a tidy up (viz. Liverpool in 2008), doing wonders for municipal confidence (and possibly lining a few pockets; but let’s not let cynicism ruin things).
My visit, then, is a bit mistimed: Marseilles’s many museums are a mess of construction works, the old port is all fenced off while cobbling takes place, and the area beside La Cathédrale de la Major — the stripy, bedomed Romeo-Byzantine 19th-century Catholic Cathedral — is piled with beer bottles and cans (a relatively typical Marseilles sea view foreground).
Some areas, however, have been tarted up and you can see the new Marseilles emerging from its cocoon of industrial grime. In the attractive district of Le Panier, Le Centre de la Vieille Charité (a 17th-century alms-house of honey-coloured molasse stone with galleried courtyard and a gorgeous baroque chapel at its centre; thankfully the complex escaped destruction in the heavy bombing of 1943) has been restored and sandblasted to within an inch of its life. Now a museum, it houses eclectic archaeological finds — Greek, Etruscan, African, Mexican — and contemporary art exhibitions.
To the east, Rue de la Republique — a grand, Parisian Haussmann-style 19th-century street — was bought in its ornate entirety by an American investment fund (and then passed around Lone Star and Lehman Brothers like a hot potato during the credit crunch; since Lehman’s collapse it has been refinanced to include one American and two French partners). The bid to completely remodel the decaying buildings has resulted in a smart, but mainly unoccupied, street — the rents are too high to allow anything but global chains such as H&M and Zara to open shops there.
This may well change. Wander down the Rue to the Vieux Port and you’ll find most of the ancient buildings — the 1656 Hôtel de Ville and the Louis XIV; the vintage pair of forts, Saint Jean and Saint Nicholas, guarding the harbour — rising like phoenixes from clouds of brick dust. The old port is set to be a new hub of tourism — after all, it’s only a short boat ride from the pier to the Isles de Frioul (including the fortress of Chateau D’If, of The Count of Monte Cristo fame) or the nearby turquoise-tinted Provençal fjords of Les Calanques. Along with the smartened-up waterfront, recently developed attractions such as a 40,000 sq. ft Museum of Mediterranean Civilisation (MuCEM) are aimed at enticing luxury-cruise passengers with a mix of culture, five-star hotels and restaurants and, of course, shopping.
Such visitors may not venture further than the port, or a walk up the hill to La Notre Dame de la Garde, an iconic Marseilles landmark. Its marble and gilt-encrusted interior is dazzling, although more affecting is the modest collection of stormy sea-themed paintings hung on the interior wall facing the Mediterranean (they certainly make one mindful of all the sailors who have perished in that harmless-looking brine). The view from here — sweeping over Le Corbusier’s massive vertical village of 337 apartments, ‘Unite’, built in 1952 and yet another building that has been rejuvenated — may convince the visitor they have ‘done’ Marseilles; but to limit the sights seen to these spruced-up official monuments would be a mistake. It’s the districts where people live that are an exotic delight to wander.
Noailles — the Arab quarter, with its spice market and mint tea shops — has more than a whiff of North Africa about it, while bohemian Cours Julien is plastered with highly colourful and creative street art and boasts independent boutiques, excellent boulangeries and a welcoming town square fringed by cafés and restaurants. In Chapître, street walkers lurk in the doorways by day and night. Experienced and comfortably upholstered, with lipstick, cigarette and high heels permanently in place, from time to time they are picked up by pillowy Marseillais men in old Peugeots. (‘I don’t like to think how much it costs,’ shudders my hostess, Matilde, as we pass. ‘It is probably the price of a baguette.’)
Co-operative associations are something of a way of life for many in Marseilles. Disused shops all over the city are taken over by organisations whose volunteers patch up bicycles or appreciate death metal; the better organised apply for grants, which eases the employment situation (in 2009, the unemployment rate here was 50 per cent more than the national average).
Gentrification is sweeping these rundown streets, and presumably will mean that apartments with such charming period features as outdoor lavs (in a feat of engineering, located on balconies) will be updated. What won’t, thankfully, is the views over oasis-like gardens ringed by tall 19th-century apartment buildings where music, whether vinyl or live, drifts out; it’s a romantic’s Mediterranean Rear Window.
Marseilles is a notoriously poor city but a lot of money is being lavished on it — the budget for ‘MP2013’ (as the European Capital of Culture is also known) is hundreds of millions of euros. Will it be gentrified into the 21st century? For the inhabitants, it’s probably about time it was. The great thing for visitors is that Marseilles, rough diamond that it is, will keep its character while it happens.