The city of Marseille is a gateway for immigrants, and has been since its founding more than 2, 000 years ago by the Greeks from the city of Phocea. Since then, it has been the gate of entry for immigrants from Italy, Modern Greece, Turkey and North Africa. In the 1980s, Marseille finally overtook Lyon as the second city of France. It is a fitting reflection of the changes in French society itself, as it makes the transition from the France of green pastures and traditional villages to a dynamic, multicultural society.
The historic quarters
The city is dominated by Vieux Port, the old port. A well protected harbour with a U-shaped bay, it is today mostly used by pleasure craft and other small vessels, with the main port now located further away at Port de la Joliette.
In the 1970s, the French Connection movie starring Gene Hackman, presented Marseille as a gritty gangster town where heroin operations supplied Americans with their fix of drugs. Marseille today is fast cleaning up its act, with much restoration going on in the inner city neighbourhoods. But if you really must catch some of the scenes from the movie, you can. The La Samaritaine is located at a corner lot facing the Vieux Port docks, on the Rue de la Republique. It was in the opening shot for the movie, and still looks much as it did then. With bright umbrellas and canvas awnings, you can sit down to enjoy the people coming and going. No hints of sinister events anymore, but apart from that, everything else looks old enough to have seen the comings and goings of this city — the decor, the traditional menu and the haughty demeanour of the waiters.
The old quarter known as La Panier (pic above), or the breadbasket in English, is a medieval district with virtually unmapped streets and an ideal hideout. You can take a ride in what may well be the world’s shortest ferry — a two minute boat ride across the Vieux Port — to reach La Panier. In the French Connection, a man is shot in a doorway, after which the killer breaks off a baguette coolly while making his escape. Today, as you make your way along the cobblestone roads you walk into a neighbourhood which has long served as a haven for refugees. During the Second World War, Jews from around Europe huddled here, causing the authorities to plan the overnight destruction of a large swathe of the houses and streets. Today, you might come across Tunisians, Algerians or West Africans plying their wares or cuisine in these narrow streets.
The dish of Marseille is Bouillabaisse, fittingly a fish soup with a hint of saffron. Once, in the past, the soup was made of discarded fish parts which made for a cheap diet affordable by fisherman and dockworkers. Today, it is considered a fine food, and there is a rule several types of fish must be used — usually six, from a variety of scorpion fish, dory and monkfish. In the grand French tradition of exacting standards for cooking, a “Bouillabaisse Charter” was drafted to ensure that certain standards, such as the number of fish types required, had to be met in order for a dish to qualify as authentic bouillabaisse.Le Ruhl, a restaurant located in Corniche John F. Kennedy, set the original standards, and is frequented by President Chirac.
French Rap arrives on “Mars”
Rap music has taken a hold in Marseille as well. This American cultural import has been given a French makeover. The rap group IAM hails from Marseille, and have been successful in marketing their brand of Gallic-inflected rap internationally. Their songs often make references to their hometown using the shortened form “Mars”. While the language of their songs may be French, the rappers themselves hail from the various immigrant communities — Italians, northern and west Africans. You may be lucky to catch an impromptu performance by these youngsters as you make your way around the streets, as rap is all about spontaneity and challenges made by one rapper to another.
For a breath of the fresh sea air, take a walk down Corniche John F. Kennedy. Named after the 35th President of the United States, this scenic road extends south from Vieux Port and has a pedestrian walkway popular with joggers. The Corniche was first first built in 1848 to connect the city with the fishermen’s huts in the south. Today, it features a contender for the title of the longest bench in the world, built after the corniche was widened in the 1960s. At 3km in length, it offers tired walkers a respite and a chance to take in the view of the waves crashing to the rocky shore.
The Canabiere is a majestic promenade that serves as the main thoroughfare of the city. Once dilapidated, the area has seen a great deal of restoration in recent years as it shakes off its previous notoriety as a red light district. American soldiers in the Second World War dubbed the place “can of beer”, but the new Canabiere may not necessarily be all about malt and froth. Cleaned up already, this is a great place to enjoy a drink or seafood dinner while watching the the people go by.
The heart of Algerian Marseille lies in the Quartier Belsance area. A triangular area located to the north of Canebiere, the music, people and smells of the district throbs Algerian. Arabic people from all over congregate here to trade. Spices, handwoven cloth and the odd carpet are traded for Western goods such as home electronics and suits. The traders have made themselves at home in the narrow alleys, which now look more like a souk in Algiers.