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Magnificent Marseille: France's oldest city

Magnificent Marseille: France's oldest city
From couscous festivals to colourful graffiti, France’s oldest city remains as vibrant and diverse as it was more than two millennia ago
A young man in a t-shirt and jeans exchanges a few words in Arabic with the middle-aged woman baking flatbreads over an open flame in a tiny bakery. She cuts one and gives him a slice. It’s my second day in Marseille and, curious, I’ve stopped to watch. I’ve seen small neighborhood places like this in the Middle East but did not expect to find one in this southern French city. The customer turns to me with a welcoming smile. “Tourist?” he asks, as he drops a coin on the counter. He takes a bite of his bread and walks off down the narrow street without waiting for a reply.
I’m on the Rue Rodolphe Pollak in the Noailles area of Marseille, France’s second largest city (and its oldest), and its main trade seaport. The warren of streets is a few minutes’ walk from Vieux-Port, the tourist heart of the city. Noailles’s small open-fronted shops sell vegetables, meat, cleaning products, rattan furniture and, it seems, all the spices of the Middle East. In addition to French, languages spoken on the busy streets include Arabic and African French.
Eclectic LePanier, Marseille
Eclectic Le Panier © Photo by Paul Robert
This bakery the size of a small kitchen is run by Yasmina Ayab and her son Mohammed. When I flaunt a couple of words of Arabic, Yasmina smiles broadly and invites me to sit with her. She tells me she is from Algeria, having come to Marseille about ten years ago with her children, hoping to give them a better future. 

A cultural melting pot

It’s a familiar story here—one that tells the story of Marseille itself. Migration and invasions have shaped this sunny city on the Mediterranean ever since Greek merchants landed here 2,600 years ago, built a harbor, and mingled with the local Celts. Later came Romans, Jews, Visigoths, Burgundians and Franks. During the House of Bourbon dynasty in the 17th and 18th centuries, the port was transformed into a ship-building centre. In the 20th century came Armenians, West Africans, Comorans and Arabic-speaking people from North Africa. It all adds up to one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Europe. 
"In addition to French, languages spoken on the busy streets include Arabic and African French"
The Noailles neighborhood, situated a stone’s throw from the main commercial artery of La Canebière, is atmospheric: noisy, not very clean—and so colorful. There are graffiti slogans on the walls, and on a small square that honors the Greek roots of Marseille with a fountain dedicated to Homer, I come across an improvised monument with eight fading portraits. It commemorates the eight people killed in 2018 when two buildings suddenly collapsed for lack of maintenance. This is a neighborhood with a soul.
And it is very welcoming. Close to Yasmina Ayab’s bakery I discover an Algerian restaurant, Le Fémina, on the Rue du Musée. “This was established by my great-grandfather,” the owner, Mustapha Kachetel, tells me. He points at the fading black-and-white photos on the wall. “My great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father.” 

A culture of couscous

Cous cous with tomato and basil
According to Mustapha, couscous is an integral part of Marseille culture
The restaurant has been in this building since 1921, and Mustapha celebrated the centennial last year with what he describes as “a huge couscous festival.” He makes his signature dish with barley, not the usual wheat, using a recipe that hasn’t changed since the 1920s. It originates from a region in Algeria where his great-grandfather was born. 
“So, after four generations in France,” I ask, “do you feel French, or Algerian?” Mustapha doesn’t hesitate: “Algerian.” But then he puts it in perspective. “Algerian and French are only nationalities. So, I am Marseillais!” 
And, he insists, couscous itself is part of Marseille culture. Mustapha was a member of the Algerian delegation that supported couscous being registered on UNESCO’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. They were successful: The dish was added in 2020.
"Algerian and French are only nationalities. So, I am Marseillais!"
To be honest, before I travelled here, couscous had not been the first meal that came to mind when I thought of Marseille. It was bouillabaisse, the rich soup with olive oil, garlic, fennel and saffron that fishermen’s wives used to make from the catch they couldn’t sell to restaurants. (I was truly anticipating it; a couple of days earlier when I was on the train heading to the south of France from my home in Amsterdam, a friend texted me a question. I replied: “I’ll think about this over a bowl of bouillabaisse.”) I envisioned enjoying it with a pastis de Marseille—an anise-flavoured aperitif—at a small portside café in the company of locals who would be discussing the world in an incomprehensible dialect. 
This was clearly a romantic notion based on earlier experiences I’d had in out-of-the-way French villages. I quickly learned that Marseille was nothing like those places. For one thing, there are no small cafés at historic Vieux-Port. It is a huge, impressive marina lined with beautifully restored buildings, including hotels and a soap museum (olive-oil soap, along with pastis, is a signature product of Marseille), alongside 17th-century fortifications built under Louis XIV. The restaurants do serve bouillabaisse, but when I see the price at one place I am shocked: 69 euros! No bowl of soup should cost that much, even if they made it with gold-scaled fish. I check a neighboring place: 59 euros. 
I give up and end up two streets away from the old harbor in a new restaurant, Ourea, that’s popular with local foodies. For 28 euros, Chef Matthieu Roche serves a three-course lunch that includes one of the most delicious tuna steaks I’ve ever had. 

A more relaxed way of life

More and more young, talented people are discovering that Marseille is an ideal place to realize their dreams. Some, like Roche, are locals, but there is also a growing number of Parisians moving here every year. In fact, those who leave the capital are choosing Marseille over anywhere else in France. Tired of the rush and expense of life in larger cities, the newcomers—dubbed “bourgeois bohemians,” or “bobos” for short—come looking for the more relaxed Mediterranean way of life. 
“I worked in finance in London,” says Claire Lombard, the 34-year-old co-owner of Maison des Nines, a small restaurant/shop/gallery on the edge of Noailles. “I had to leave England because of Brexit, but I didn’t want to go home to Paris. I wanted something different. Here in Marseille, it is easier to start something new. You don’t need a fortune to live, so in the worst case, you can afford to fail.”
Lombard started Maison des Nines with two other women. One, Estelle Billet, 29, worked in marketing and retail in Paris and now runs the boutique section of this combined business selling items such as artisanal soap, perfume and jewellery. The three friends also sell vintage clothes.
Olive oil soap
Olive oil soap, a favourite souvenir
The bobo invasion has led to the gradual gentrification of the poorer neighborhoods in downtown Marseille. One is Le Panier, a village-like area just north of Vieux-Port with boutiques, restaurants and cultural spaces set among old houses in narrow lanes. Whereas in Noailles the street art is gritty, in Le Panier entire walls display sophisticated art by various artists, each with specific styles.
My tour guide here is Corinne Ferrand. She has turned her love of her hometown into her profession, but I’ve asked her to forget about tourist highlights as she shows me around. (After all, the Marseille Cathedral and the splendid Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica, which towers over the city from a hilltop, are easy enough to spot.) As we walk through Le Panier, we pass a pétanque court, where the local variant of France’s iconic ball game boules is played. “The court is run by the community but it can also be rented for corporate events,” Ferrand explains. (Did I mention the creeping gentrification?) 
"The bobo invasion has led to the gradual gentrification of the poorer neighborhoods in downtown Marseille"
Before heading out of Le Panier along the Quai de la Joliette, where ferries head to and from places like Corsica, Algeria and Tunisia, we turn from one small street to the next, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere that contrasts with the buzz of Noailles. 

Mareillais first

Walking through these contrasting neighborhoods of Marseille—avoiding, like most locals do, the crime-ridden districts in the city’s north—I wonder if the mix of cultures ever leads to problems. That evening I ask Fabien Chabord, who owns a bar on Place Jean-Jaurès in a hipster area up a hill from Noailles. The bars on the square are filled with locals of all ethnicities watching the TV screens; the city’s football team, Olympique de Marseille (referred to as OM), is playing Lokomotiv Moscow. OM is ahead and the mood is cheerful. 
“You can see that the different groups band together,” says Fabien. “The later it gets, you sometimes get tensions; this is a tough town.” Laughing, he adds: “I always retire at 2am. That is a good time to do so.” 
Bar owner Fabien Chabord with some patrosn
Bar owner Fabien Chabord (right) with staff © Photo by Paul Robert
Later, as I walk back through Noailles to my hotel, I think about the distinct communities here living in the same neighborhoods—together, side by side, but not mixed. There are Tunisian bakeries, Algerian butchers, Armenian grocery stores, Syrian restaurants and bobo vintage-clothing shops. Like Mustapha, their owners may also feel they are Marseillais first. 
“You’ve seen that very well,” says Adrien Joly when I bounce this idea off him the next day. Joly is a director at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (Mucem). Established in 2013, it is France’s biggest national museum outside of Paris. It covers anthropology, history, archaeology, and art. Joly takes me around the playfully displayed collection that explains the history of Marseille and its enduring focus on the Mediterranean world, rather than on the European continent to the north. 
It is splendid, though locals were slow to warm to this cultural newcomer because, as Joly puts it, anything that comes from the central government in Paris “is to be distrusted. But when they see it, they love it,” he says. “I think Marseille is now proud of it.” 
The museum, like so many newcomers to this grand old city over the centuries, has had to work at earning its place in people’s hearts. And one day, it too will be truly Marseillais. 
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