Marseille: a digital tour by means of books, movie, meals and music | Marseille holidays
IIt is impossible to be ambivalent about Marseille. Those of us who call the city home – native and adopted Marseillais – know that for some first-time visitors, it’s a place that doesn’t reveal its considerable charm as easily as other corners of southern France. Many bypass the lively Mediterranean port on their way to sleepy Provencal villages or to the Côte d’Azur. They don’t know what they are missing.
The founders of Marseille, Phocaean, went around 600 BC. Anchored in its natural harbor. Since then, France’s oldest city has been marked by millennia of migration – from the Romans to Corsicans and Algerians to Spanish, Armenians, Comoros and Vietnamese – and the extremely proud Cité Phocéenne, as some still point out, moves at its own rhythm. The culinary historian Emmanuel Perrodin likes to repeat a local saying: “First you have the sea, then the city, and then another country called France.”
Outsiders who struggle to categorize post-industrial Marseille often compare it to places they know: for Italians, it’s like Naples; For many Britons, it’s the Liverpool of France. Lebanese say the city’s beauty amidst the chaos reminds them of Beirut. A New York record producer who decided to bring Marseille home says it’s like Brooklyn mixed with California. A local sociologist calls it Detroit, France. “It’s a mess after my own heart,” said Swiss-born writer Blaise Cendrars.
Patti Smith at Saint Charles train station in Marseille, where she named a waiting room for the poet Arthur Rimbaud. Photo: Alamy
Appreciated by German philosophers such as Walter Benjamin and singer Patti Smith (whose beloved Rimbaud died there), Marseille rewards those willing to pull back the thick layers of their history and move beyond the stereotypes of the French fraternity to explore their modern realities . What they discover is one of the most fascinating and cosmopolitan cities in France, the real Ville Carrefour or crossroads town on the Mediterranean, a place where life is big and often lived in several languages.
While there is no substitute for walking the sunny streets of Marseille, the many writers, filmmakers, artists and musicians who have tried to capture their spirit – with all its complexities and contradictions – offer opportunities to see and watch the city feel until another visit is possible.
Marseille is France’s second largest city, but surprisingly few books about it – including travel guides – are available in English. The late British historian Nicholas Hewitt was intrigued by the place it occupies in the French imagination and how the city created – and often falls victim – its own mythology. His book Bad city (discussed here by Jonathan Meades, a longtime Marseille resident) traces two centuries of its cultural history, from 19th century writers to stars of the music hall and the current rap scene.
James Ellroy, author of LA Confidential, told local writer François Thomazeau that if he had been Marseillais, he would have written Marseille Confidential. The city has proven to be a rich hub for polar crime writers. The stories that make up this Black anthology of Marseille offer a newer setting, but the city’s most famous writer remains the late one Jean-Claude Izzo, whose die-hard trilogy with detective Fabio Montale put the polar polar of Marseille on the map in the 1990s. It still reads well today, even if Izzos Marseille has changed as a result of investments and a new urban policy (the city has been led by a green-left coalition since the right-wing former mayor retired after a quarter of a century last year ). Izzo’s lesser known collection of essays, Garlic, mint and sweet basil, is a love letter to his hometown and the Mediterranean that surrounds it. “Wherever you come from,” he writes, “you feel at home in Marseille.”
The city receives a chapter in Johny Pitts’ award-winning travelogue Afropean, Notes from Black Europe. “Marseille is a hybrid of a metropolis, and all the things that made other people turn their noses up made me feel at home,” he writes. “I had found a place where I could exist in Europe without questions of belonging.”
Marseille has inspired several foreign writers. Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay used his experience working on the Marseille docks in the late 1920s to produce two city-based novels: banjo, which focuses on a group of black migrants, and Romance in Marseille, the story of Lafala, a disabled West African sailor who lives among his dock workers and prostitutes. McKay is remembered by a street named after him next to the port of Vieux.
Chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain loved Marseille’s saltiness and frenetic energy so much that he wanted to retire there. The Marseille episode of him Parts unknown The series is in praise of the city he described as “not France in the best possible way,” and encouraged many Americans to make their first visit.
The Netflix series Marseille, billed as the French house of cards, has been panned by locals, who often joke that the city’s politics in real life trump anything the screenwriters could come up with. That said, the city looks beautiful.
Also on Netflix is the debut of the Marseille-born filmmaker Jean-Bernard Marlin. Scheherazade. While some reviewers went back to stereotypes – Variety said it “reaffirmed Marseille’s status as one of the most dangerous cities in France” – the film’s delicate love story between two marginalized teenagers avoids sensationalism. Corniche Kennedy, a luscious shot named after the street that hugs the coast of Marseille, explores related topics, and is available on Netflix.
Robert Guédiguian, whose Armenian migrant father worked on the docks of Marseille, tells stories about the city’s working class in films Marius and Jeannette to the newer ones Fame of the world, a family drama against the gig economy.
Marseille’s musical mix ranges from Algerian raï to Congolese rumba, but rap has long been the city’s main soundtrack. Local rappers I AM were pioneers with their 1991 album De la Planète Mars, the title of which is a reference to an affectionate nickname for the city.
Last year, several generations of rappers from Marseille formed the 13 Collective Organized. Their only gang organized became the sound of Marseille’s summer pandemic and went platinum on the French charts. The accompanying video, which has been viewed more than 250 million times on YouTube, shows the Stade Vélodrome, home of the prestigious football team Olympique de Marseille, and the Bonne Mère, the church overlooking the city. The lyrics are full of Marseillai’s boast and the line “C’est pas la capitale (nah), c’est Marseille, bébé” has become a local catchphrase.
Rap merges with Raï On Oran Marseille, a collaboration between IAM and Khaled, the Algerian singer best known as the King of Raï. Many Marseillais go back to the Algerian city of Oran and the track captures the nostalgia of exile as well as the gloomy realities of life in Marseille.
American jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal | considers Marseille his second home and dedicated an album to him in 2017. The title track, MarseilleWith rapper Abd Al Malik, Jamal recalls what he calls the city of eternity.
A huge poster of the French football player Zinedine Zidane on the coast in Marseille. Photo: Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters
Marseille’s die-hard Quartiers Nords – home to sprawling skyscrapers where the city’s most famous son, soccer player Zinedine Zidane, grew up – is often the focus of media coverage that builds reputations for crime and drugs. photographer Yohanne Lamoulère has documented life there for more than a decade, examining the profound structural challenges that have paralyzed its neighborhoods and the conflicting visions of how they should be addressed. Her series Gyptis & Protis focuses on young love in the Quartiers Nords, while Faux-Bourgs offers a portrait of a city that is not sure of its future.
fashion designer Jacquemus grew up near Marseille and is one of the city’s greatest champions. He organizes runway shows on the beach and publish a book in collaboration with 14 artists with the title Marseille Je t’aime. Last summer he put together a three-part city guide on Instagram, My Marseille
A typical Marseillais dish is more couscous – here in the Algerian style – than tourist bouillabaisse. Photo: Alexander Mychko / Alamy
American television chef Julia Child lived in Marseille in the early 1950s and cherished it because it wasn’t Paris. “For many of our northern French friends, it was Terra Incognita: They have never been here and viewed it as a harsh, rude ‘southern’ place. But it seemed like a rich broth of lively, emotional and unrestrained life, ”she wrote in her autobiography My Life in France.
In recent years, a new generation of chefs from Marseille have shed the city’s tired old associations (bouillabaisse may have been invented here, but nowadays it’s mostly eaten by tourists) and take inspiration from its diaspora communities. Alexis SteinmanThe Marseille-based American food writer believes the city’s intricate history is best told through the culinary legacy that generations of migrants have left behind. Prior to Covid, Steinman led a food tour of Marseille by the name Beyond Bouillabaisse. Now she writes about the various traditions – from Maghrebi to Armenian, Sephardic Jews, Italians and Corsicans – that have contributed to the city’s cuisine.
Whatever a Marseillais would like to eat – pizza is a particular favorite in town, a nod to the many Marseillais with Neapolitan roots – they’ll likely end their day with one aperitif. The typical glass of pastis or rosé wine is often served with panisses: salty fritters made from chickpea flour and olive oil (recipe can be found here) on the website of the local foodie Pierre Psaltis).