First, Marseille is said to be pestilentially hot in summertime. Second, its charms are immortalized in three films by Marcel Pagnol, the first screenwriter admitted to the Académie Française. Marius, Fanny, and César depict Marseille’s Old Port in the late 1920s and ’30s as lively, humorous, and enviably comfortable even in times of travail. When you see the movies, you want to live there — not only in the town, but inside the movies themselves. Yet even if Pagnol’s portrait of Marseille was ever realistic, it’s pure fantasy now. The Nazis ploughed under a great deal of the Panier, the neighborhood around the Old Port, and the piers are lined now with pleasure boats. Though fishermen do sell their fresh-caught wares along the Quai des Belges every morning, their little boats have to fight their way there. Going to Marseille in search of Pagnol’s vision would be like going to Brooklyn in search of Ralph and Alice Kramden — I knew that.
The third reputation was perhaps the most daunting. After World War II, the Marseillais built a new port — that’s where most of the fishermen and stevedores went, along with smugglers of every known commodity, from jewels to drugs to humans. It’s probably the single most notorious locus of crime in the nation, and its influx of illegal immigration (primarily from Africa) and economic downturns have given many Marseillais a particularly unpleasant strain of politics. As my friend Joshua White and I prepared to leave this week, we heard and read countless warnings from well-meaning French people: Go there and expect to be mugged at knifepoint by rabid nationalists. Yet what we found turned out to be quite different from what we’d been led to expect.
Metropolitan Marseille covers a vast area, and yet we concentrated almost exclusively on the Vieux Port, hardly touching the three-day Métro passes we’d bought. Twenty-six centuries ago, a colony of Greeks, driven out of Turkey, landed at what was an excellent natural harbor, beautifully sheltered from the Mediterranean. They decided to stay, naming the new town Massalia. Almost immediately, their port was one of the busiest in the ancient world, an economic powerhouse whose wealth can be seen in the artifacts that turn up seemingly any time a modern Marseillais plants a shovel. One museum features row upon row of enormous terra cotta storage urns, pretty much where the Ancient Romans left them; archaeologists believe that the docks extend even further, with still more urns lying buried.
This is the sort of thing that thrills me. The conductor Leonardo Vordoni once famously remarked to me that “Paris is a very new city,” and while his intent was ironic (I think), it’s true my musical friend labors under the somewhat warped perspective that comes from growing up in Italy, surrounded by crumbling antic marble on every hillside. I grew up in suburban Dallas, where I seldom saw any structure that predated the Korean War. When I stand at the intersection of the Boulevards Saint-Germain and Saint-Michel in Paris, I’m standing at the crossroads of the original Roman settlement, still four of the busiest corners in town, two thousand years later. It’s mind-blowing to me.
Thus I thoroughly enjoyed poking around the Vieux Port and finding everywhere traces of what it used to be. In the 1970s, when developers broke ground for a shopping mall (which is monstrously ugly), they uncovered another chunk of the harbor, including the remnants of a ship still moored at the dock. The shopping mall was redesigned to include a historical museum, and you can see all sorts of ancient booty there; step outside, and you’re in the Jardin des Vestiges, with its exposed ruins. The area was lousy with pottery factories — and I use that word “factories” advisedly — where scores of urns were turned out to store traded goods from near and far.
Marseille started out as a major industrial port, and it has remained one steadfastly; about its status as a tourist destination, the city is ambivalent at best. Its monuments are ancient but neglected, its museums numerous but indifferently curated. (I was disappointed to find that the Musée des Beaux-Arts, in the ludicrously ornate Palais de Longchamps, is closed for renovation.) Even the traditional Marseillais accent seems to have gone into hiding: I didn’t hear the rolling Rs and accentuated Es at all. Other of the city’s charms are available, but they have to be coaxed a bit.
One can, for example, take an excursion along the coastline, with its calanques, rocky fjords — but the boats are crowded and most fares are quite expensive. (I’ve seen the calanques of Corsica, so I didn’t feel cheated by missing their Marseillais counterparts.) If you’ve got a car, you can drive to l’Estaque, a nearby village where Cézanne and other Impressionists lived and painted; just looking out the window of the train, one sees a constant display of evocative landscapes. It’s lovely, and quite possibly mandatory, to sit in a café on the Vieux Port and to sip one’s pastis in late afternoon, yet one misses the sea: the Vieux Port is so sheltered that it’s ultimately somewhat claustrophobic.
A brief word on pastis: it’s a powerful alcohol made with anise, licorice, and sometimes other herbal flavorings. The mixture (and the alcohol content) is what defines it, and so I was pleased to learn at the Maison du Pastis that the words pastis and pastiche are related. It’s served in little glasses, with a pitcher of cool water: one pours the water into the glass, the liquor turns cloudy, and one sips. Any Provençal worth his salt can make a single dose of pastis last for hours, and striking the right balance of water and liquor is a process attended by almost ritualistic fervor.
The owner demurred when I asked
whether she could taste the difference.
(Photo courtesy of La Maison du Pastis.)
On one of my strolls, I glimpsed a little table of grubbily picturesque Marseillais types, like characters from the Pagnol films or figures in a Cézanne painting as they drank what I presume to have been their first pastis of the day, around noon. If I had Stuart Finkelstein’s knack for snapping candid photos without being detected, or Catherine Karnow’s gift for asking strangers to pose, I’d have taken a picture, and you could see for yourself. But I was still too afraid of Marseille’s violent reputation to make the attempt.
As it turned out, Marseille didn’t harm a whisker on our chinny-chin-chins. Though I’m sure there are areas that tourists would be well advised to avoid (around the new port, for example), we got nowhere near them. Generally, the city has taken steps in recent years to clean up bad neighborhoods and to make its streets safer; as for us, Joshua and I are both hardy urbanites, and with our practiced savvy, we had no trouble at all.
We didn’t achieve the degustatory bliss that I’ve enjoyed on other trips to the south, notably in Nice with Mark Dennis, but Joshua and I sampled several regional specialties in better-than-average restaurants. Bouillabaisse was a necessity to us, since Marseille is famous for it, though we’re told it’s actually from Toulon; every door beckoned with promises of grilled, fresh-caught daurade and loup. I tried the panisse, a little chickpea pancake that gave its name to one of Pagnol’s most beloved characters (and to Alice Waters’ California restaurant), and brousse, a fresh goat’s milk cheese whose Corsican cousin, brocciu, is one of my favorites.
On any future trip, I hope to make it up to Notre Dame de la Garde, the church that watches over the city from a hilltop perch (the architecture isn’t great, but the view must be fantastic from up there), and to the Château d’If, the fortress where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned; it stands on a small island just south of the Vieux Port. And yeah, I’d like to see the calanques and some of the coastal villages, too. One of these days. But now at last I can say that I have crossed Marseille off my list, and I know France a bit better as a result.