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Marseille: A Mediterranean melting pot

BY Josh Ferry Woodard

22nd Oct 2017 Travel

Marseille: A Mediterranean melting pot

The French city is a cornucopia of different cultures and flavours. Here are some of the best things to see—and eat.

A fraudulently large orange moon rises from behind the white hotel bars on the fringes of Marseille’s famous Vieux Port as Sarah and I sip pastis, the city’s aperitif of choice, and wait for our pizzas to arrive.

Since Greek Phocaeans created the ancient city of Massalia 26 centuries ago, people have no doubt savoured scenes like this. The brilliant blue sky softening into the night.

Strategically placed in the north of the Mediterranean, the port of Marseille has attracted attention over the years. Greeks, Romans, Revolutionaries, Communists, Nazis, North Africans, Corsicans and Sicilians have all—to different extents—laid claim to the city. And they’ve all left their mark.


A Mediterranean way of life

Image via France Travel Guide

Hidden behind La Canebière, Marseille’s main thoroughfare cutting inland from the Old Port, the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille outlines the evolution from ancient Greek Massallia to modern day French Marseille.

Although the focus on subtle archaeological shifts may not set pulses racing, the exhibition highlights how some Greek and Roman social rituals, such as long mealtimes, have had a lasting impact on the local culture. And the dizzying number of regime changes helps explain why the city has never been afraid to say goodbye to the past and reinvent itself.

Indeed, nearby Fort Saint-Jean, a 17th-century fortification built by Louis XIV in response to a local uprising (with canons actually pointing inward towards the town!) was recently incorporated into France’s first national museum outside of Paris.

Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) is a stunning architectural space, spread across three sites, dedicated to the cultures and civilisations of the Mediterranean. The main museum building’s latticework fibre-reinforced concrete shell creates an interesting melee of fractured shadows, while its sheen glass façade absorbs the turquoise of the surrounding waters and shoots out beams of sparkling sunlight.

Image via Musea Acceuil

The space’s permanent exhibition speaks further of Marseille’s Mediterranean history. Olive oil, grapes and wheat were the triad of cereals that allowed civilisation to flourish thousands of years ago. And to this day the region is famed for the production of savon de Marseille (local soap made from olive oil), Côtes de Provence wine and, of course, le baguette.

A few steps across MuCEM’s lofty walkway lies Le Panier, the area first settled by the Greeks in the sixth century BC.

During the Second World War the district was a haven for members of La Résistance, refugees, prostitutes, Jews and Communists, making it a prime target for the Germans who assumed control of the city between 1942–1944. The Nazis evacuated 30,000 inhabitants in January 1943 and dynamited 1,500 houses but the area managed to maintain its rebellious spirit.

It is even believed that when the war was over the CIA actively supported a criminal network of Corsican and Sicilian drug smugglers–more on the French Connection later–in order to stamp out the growing wave of Communism that was taking root in Marseille’s most bohemian of districts.

Wide-eyed, and empty-stomached, Sarah and I stroll through this artsy neighbourhood looking for some lunch. Through cobbled streets we pass pastel-coloured apartments, artisan workshops, shaded squares and terraced cafés. Aloof ladies who lunch in sunglasses and stylish dresses pick at octopus salads and sip Sauvignon Blanc. The aroma of garlicky seafood mixes with the ever-present sweet scent of fresh bread from nearby boulangeries.

It turns out we’re too late for the lunchtime sitting, so we settle for Brie baguettes from one of the bakeries and eat them on the Frioul If Express.


Quarantine and the Count of Monte Cristo

Image via Atlas Obscura

Our 20-minute boat ride takes us from the Old Port to the Frioul Archipelago.

As the boat leaves the harbour, the limestone whites of the city are compressed into an ever-thinner strip on the horizon, swallowed between the vast expanses of salty waves and deep blue sky.

We approach Chateau d’If, the iconic setting of Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo, but sadly the water is too choppy to moor so we continue past the imposing former prison towards Iles du Frioul.

The Frioul Islands have their own dark, historical significance. Between the 16th and 19th centuries a hospital on the island of Pomégues was used as a quarantine centre for incoming trade ships. Tragically, in 1720 powerful city merchants pressured authorities to let a vessel from Lebanon unload in the city, even though several crew members had died in suspicious circumstances during the voyage.

The decision backfired stupendously. For although the merchants received their silk and cotton in time for the great medieval fair at Beaucaire, the plague spread with vicious efficiency. Fifty thousand of Marseille’s 90,000 inhabitants succumbed to the disease in the two years that followed.

The craggy island has a somewhat desolate feel—largely due to the vicious wailing wind—but there are plenty of hiking paths and numerous wild beaches. Restaurants and bars line the harbour strip, although these remain empty during our visit.


The French Connection

Image via Phileas Fogg

Another facet of Marseille’s Mediterranean history that both frightened and fascinates its citizens is the French Connection. This infamous criminal network of Corsican and Sicilian drug smugglers put Marseille on the map for all the wrong reasons in the 1960s. Turkish opium was transformed into highly pure heroin in labs dotted around the city, before being shipped out for consumption in the United States. In 1969 the French Connection was thought to account for around 90% of heroin on the streets of America.

This criminal activity gave the city a shady reputation. The world saw Marseille as a lawless state where drug lords acted with impunity and gangland killings were the norm.

“The Opera district is the former domain of the French Connection,” Marion from the Tourist Office explains to me. “If you visit the area today it is very different, but you can still see remnants of where the gangsters used to hang out.”

Despite carrying out atrocious acts of violence, the families at the head of the French Connection were seen to abide by a code of conduct and honour. They were stylish criminals.

The plush Opera district retains a certain air of luxury. Today, the streets are littered with glass façades, designer boutiques and expensive price tags. Contemporary art galleries such as Musée Cantini imply high cultural aspirations.

Perhaps fancifully, with a closer look I find pockets of the neighbourhood that hint at its gangster past: cramped marbled bars with raised stools; smoky cafés frequented by olive-skinned, sharply dressed elderly gentlemen.


A melting pot of cultures

Image via Les Carnets de Gee

The refined order of the Opera district swiftly dissolves into the loud, pungent vibrancy of Noailles, and the open-air African Marché de Noailles. Unlike other French urban areas such as Paris or Lyon, where immigrant populations are largely scattered around the outskirts of the city, Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians, Malians, Cameroonians, Comorians and others reside within Marseille’s first arrondissement.

While economic depravity is still a major issue in the city, an indifference towards racial and religious differences helps foster a common cultural identity among the people of Marseille (the Marseillais). Arabs, Atheists, Catholics, Jews—and anyone else who might happen to need some fresh produce—mingle among the Maghreb spice stalls, Mediterranean fishmongers and Sub-Saharan vegetable vendors.

Vivid orange, yellow, pink and blue street art murals signal the end of the market and the beginning of Cours Julien, a trendy neighbourhood popular with students, hipsters and aspiring artists.

Here French bistros share terrace space with Syrian canteens, vegan cafés and indie cinema bars. Each restaurant may serve different dishes but the Greco-Roman traditions, and the Mediterranean cereals, succeed: three-course meals cooked in local olive oil are enjoyed with bread and wine.


Into the Med

Image via The Luberon

Marseille’s identity as a multicultural Mediterranean port city is inexorably linked to the sea. But to best experience the Med you need to get out of the city.

Gritty reclaimed sand detracts from the experience at most of the urban beaches (Plages du Prado) but dreamlike turquoise waters await those willing to take the ‘Blue Coast Train Line’ from the central Saint Charles train station.

A series of small villages line the coast from Marseille to Miramas and the scenic railway line is the perfect way to explore Marseille’s lesser-known northern Calanques (the southern Calanques are only accessible by boat during the summer due to frequent forest fires).

As the train chugs along, in and out of cliff passageways, we are afforded picture-perfect snapshots of the bay. Crystal-clear waters, vertiginous white cliffs, quaint harbours, grand aqueducts. Each fleeting vista is punctuated by the darkness of the next tunnel.

We stop for some grilled sea bass at a shaded restaurant in Sausset-les-Pins, before climbing down the steep path that leads from Ensuès-la-Redonne train station to the fishing village below. While Sarah suns herself and reads a book, I submit to the shimmering shallow water. Shoals of fish swim among the rocks beneath my feet.


Marseille’s lasting impression

Image via Flickr

Having mostly dined on the food of Marseille’s many Mediterranean settlers—Sicilian pizza, Algerian tagines, Lebanese mezze—Sarah and I choose to spend our last evening in the city enjoying its own contribution to the culinary world: bouillabaisse.

We arrive in Vallon des Auffes, a dreamy fishing creek set back from the ocean behind an arched bridge, just in time to catch the sunset from a harbourside stool. Once the night has swallowed the blue sky we take our seat upstairs in the elegant but unpretentious Chez Fonfon.

First, our waiter brings us a basket of toasted croutons, a small plate of diced Provençal vegetables and a thick slab of devilishly strong garlic rouille.

Then we are served orange broth, flavoured with four types of fish, fennel seeds, orange peel and saffron.

And finally, fillets of scorpion fish, conger eel, red gurnard and monkfish arrive on a platter, along with another spoonful of the famous fish soup.

Salty, subtly aromatic and extremely garlicky: the dish is not for the fainthearted. Like the city it hails from, bouillabaisse is a melting pot of Mediterranean flavours that leaves a lasting impression.


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