What comes to mind when you think of Marseille? Crime? In fact, in 2012, one third of all murders committed in France were in the city. Drugs? A short boat hop from North Africa means all the illegal hashish you might possibly want ends up in the streets of Marseille. A large poor population might be why thefts and vandalism are real problems.
Actually, it seemed to me that Marseille is the French city with the strongest New York City vibe. It’s an immigrant city of outsiders, hustlers and survivors, with a global cultural power. Iconic French films have been set there, such as “Fanny,” “Borsalino” and “The French Connection.” The city gave its name to the national anthem.
In the two days in June that I spent there with a friend, you couldn’t help but notice that compared to Nice it is a young, dynamic and vibrant city. It is noisy, grimy, covered in graffiti, and many of the grand 19th century buildings need a renovation, but it is a city of the future. A future very different from the past.
Marseille is an ancient city, founded by Greeks who were perhaps the first to see the site’s strategic advantage as a major port on the Mediterranean. They weren’t the last. Its economic fortunes rose and fell with regular sackings by invaders (including Nazis). Attacks of plague brought by sailors wiped out a large proportion of the population more than once. You can imagine that the descendants of inhabitants past are made of hardy, proud stuff.
One used to go to Marseille to eat bouillabaisse, and take the little boat to the Chateau d’If, the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Or, to walk the Corniche out of the city towards the brilliantly hued “calanques” of La Ciotat or Cassis, where the French Riviera begins.
There’s even more than all that to draw tourists today. (who were notably absent on our trip due to the pandemic). Architecture by Norman Foster, Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid, Kengo Kuma and Jean Nouvel modernize the 19th century cityscape. MuCem, a museum that was still closed “par nouvel ordre” of Covid-19 when we were there, is a draw in and of itself. North Africans have settled in the center and populate a large open air daily market dotted with inexpensive eateries offering Moroccan tagines, Tunisian briks and Algerian couscous.
Some French refer to Marseille as “France’s first Arab city.” And that reveals another dimension to the place Marseille holds in the French mind today. As Europe diversifies, some see only problems. France needs the immigrant energy, in my opinion. By the way, those round loaves are great toasted, sprinkled with olive oil and a little oregano, topped with fresh creamy cheese, a la Marseillaise.