MARSEILLE- European Capital of Culture Clash

Following a year with 24 shooting fatalities, many taking place in broad daylight in the city’s cafes and on the main streets, and where the local senator was recently stripped of his immunity and taken into custody, it looked as if  Marseille was back to the bad old days depicted so dramatically in the 1970’s film The French Connection. However, following a massive face lift and a clean up, becoming European Capital of Culure for 2013 might be just the tonic this unique city needs.

It can be said that there is no other European city quite like Marseille. There is, of course, Naples and Genoa, Piraeus and Cadiz, all fascinating and awash with history, but Marseille remains the port-city which has survived two and half thousand years and still amazes, frightens and delights one. It’s a city where East meets West and North meets South. If no longer a cauldron, it’s something more than a melting pot of races and religions, of creeds and colours. The northern French, bereft of their traditional industries flocked to the south following the Second World War looking for an easier life and also eager to take part in the vital regeneration of southern France with its new industries – gas, chemicals and petroleum, later finance and technology, as well as its booming tourist industry and property development. The French themselves brought about the forced emigration of hundreds of thousands of Algerians and Pieds Noirs from Algeria to the mainland in the 1950’s and 1960’s during the years of the bloody war for independence and many landed in Marseille with nowhere else to go. They were soon put to work doing those jobs the French workmen no longer fancied; cleaning the streets, digging the roads and helping to build the huge multi-storey apartment blocks which sprouted in the expanding suburbs of Marseille and which would become their own ghettos.  They were followed by Moroccans and Tunisians, also still French nationals, and by Africans from further afield, the French colonies of Africa’s West Coast and for whom Marseille was a first stopping place and a difficult place to move away from. Even more distant French from the colonies sought their fortunes in the French homeland and the ships from Indochina- Cambodia and Vietnam- offloaded their human cargo on the docks of Marseille where they soon found shelter and then commerce with shops and restaurants in the ancient quarters of the city. 

The first occupiers of Marseille were the Phoenicians and the Greeks soon followed, colonising the hills around the entry to the port where today quiet tree-lined squares still hold the atmosphere of an agora and where the ruins of a Greek theatre still lie. The Romans, of course, followed suit forming a prosperous trading centre and bringing grapes, olives, roads and canals, and all the attributes of a Roman culture. The city survived numerous invasions, but by the 11th century it was an independent republic with a thriving port and centre of commerce. It competed with Genoa as a departure point for the crusades, providing boats and supplies and legend has it that some devoted crusaders attempted to swim to the Holy land from Marseille. One doesn’t know how far they got. The Great Plague of 1720 halved the population, but Marseille soon revived and became a centre from which explorers and traders set off to the New World, the Americas and the Antilles. The markets of Marseille were bursting with sugar, coffee, tobacco, cocoa, textiles, precious stones and metals. The city welcomed the revolution of 1789 with enthusiasm, giving its name to France’s new national anthem. In the 19th century, other immigrants followed; the poor Piedmontese travelling west from northern Italy bringing with them an unmistakable Italian sing-song to the local accents, while during the years of the Spanish Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Spanish swept into southern France, escaping death or persecution, to settle forever in the Provence, many of them in Marseille.

Today the Centre Ville  is exploding with new buildings, around the Vieux Port, and along the coast once left spattered with derelict warehouses, docks and factories. There are  road works, repairs and renovations everywhere; inner city streets have been ripped up to fit in a new metro, a tramway, subways, flyovers and expressways. The mouldering facades of the 19th century six-storey houses are being exfoliated and carefully restored to their former elegance. Even the medieval stairways and courtyards of the old quarters are getting a make-over like none other. The world’s leading architects, including Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel have been called upon to renovate the Vieux Port, build new museums, galleries, theatres, office and apartment blocks, and it looks as if it will all be completed in 2013.

 But no amount of disruption can make Marseille slow down or lose that special mixture of hectic vitality and sun baked laissez-faire. The Marseille car driver, for instance,  is  like none other; panting at traffic lights, hooting with fury at a second’s delay and screeching to a stop as pedestrians nonchalantly wander across a busy city intersection, traffic lights at any colour. That Marseille can be a dangerous place is suggested by the omnipresent police patrol cars sidling through the streets of the city centre like cruising sharks, and more startlingly by a fleet of bright red vans hurtling down the bus lanes, sirens shrieking day and night. These have bold lettering along their sides stating their purpose- ‘safety, security and help for asphyxiation’ and indeed they contain a crew of medics, stretchers and life support machines. One wonders why so many people are in need of their assistance and so frequently. Violence is never far below the surface in Marseille, crime and corruption, back-handers and bribery, prostitution and protectionism have always been a way of life.

But Marseille is also a place where in a city bus, packed to bursting point and hurtling through the maze of road works, an elderly woman addresses no one in particular; “I’ve just bought a DVD player. Does anyone know how to work it?” In the back row a Harry Potter look-alike creases up with silent giggles, but he offers some tips, his expertise being already out of her reach. Indeed, it’s impossible to spend more than a few minutes on a bus or in a café without striking up a conversation with a stranger. Women help each other with babies and buggies and Marseille is still city where on asking a local for help with directions, they will insist on accompanying you to your destination.

I spent a few months in Marseille towards the end of the Algerian war when ‘les plastiques’ would explode around our hotel in the middle of the night, rocking the building on its foundations. We were engaged at the Opera House where we worked for an overweight and overwrought ballet master whose admittedly fertile imagination was fuelled by chemicals readily available on the streets of Marseille, rather than by the sea air. We stayed in a small hotel at the side of the Opera House and were surrounded by the comings and goings of the busy lives of the local prostitutes who worked in the neighbouring buildings. The arrival of an American ship would bring about much excitement and the girls would bring out their flashiest dresses to wear and pile on the make-up. A number of ‘clochards’ had taken up residence in the emergency door exits of the Opera House where they were apparently tolerated. Each evening they would carefully line the ground with many layers of newspaper, before settling down, first for a snack of whatever they had managed to salvage from the city’s litter bins or local restaurants, and then to roll up in layers of grubby clothing for the night. We once watched fascinated as one such man, now euphemistically called ‘one without a fixed residence’, settled down next to us in a local restaurant. He had smartened himself up enough for the waiter to bring him a carafe of water and basket of bread with the menu, and to leave him to make a choice. The man carefully ‘dressed’ the pieces of baguette with olive oil, salt and pepper, ate the lot , washed down with the carafe of water and left. But there are still more homeless people to be seen in Marseille than in most French cities these days, and recently I watched a group of them settle down for the evening on the very edge of the quay of the Vieux Port, with a couple of convivial bottles of wine and a carefully placed porcelain vase of fresh flowers as a centre piece. The hotels surrounding the Opera House have closed but the buildings are still there, apparently empty with boarded up facades covered with graffiti and torn posters.

The Vieux Port, the heart of the city since its beginnings became too shallow for ocean liners  many years ago, and these, together with the cargo ships, and the many passenger ships which regularly criss-cross the Mediterranean now have a new home a little along the coast. Travellers in the early 20th century write of the old port being so full of boats that one could walk across from one side to the other. It is still a busy port packed with pleasure boats of all kinds, not those hugely pretentious luxury yachts to be found in St.Tropez or in Monte Carlo, but sailing boats and motor boats belonging to the people of Marseille, to be used for a day’s fishing or a family excursion. A small ferry crosses the port regularly during the day, carrying those unwilling to walk the horseshoe ring of the Vieux Port from the National Theatre to the old Hotel de Ville. One can also take a motor launch to see the ‘Calanques’, the huge rugged cliffs and inlets, east of Marseille,  many of which are only accessible by sea, or go to the Chateau d’If on a small island just at the entrance of the harbour made famous byAlexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Christo. If the Count was only a writer’s creation, many, mostly political prisoners, were held on the desolate and rocky island. And there is still a daily fish market on the Quai des Belges, when the quay is lined with small, sturdy and brightly coloured fishing boats and the fishermen sell the night’s catch from rickety tressle tables. This is nothing to compare with earlier days, and no doubt a result of the diminishing fish stocks in the Mediterranean, but you can still find huge, blood red tuna – in season – swordfish, piles of small red mullet, sea bream, cat fish, and baby squid.

In the evening the entire town appears to fill the cafes and restaurants in the quarter around the Arsenal and the Place aux Huiles. These buildings, which formerly housed the warehouses and the workshops serving the fishing and boating industry, have now been coverted into lofts and apartments with cafes and restaurants grouped around shady squares with fountains and cobbled streets and squares. The The Quai du Rive Neuve, once famed for its boulabaisse restaurants is now buzzing with bars and cafes overlooking the port with its forest of boat masts and stretches towards the entrance of the Vieux Port dominated by the huge Fort St Nicholas, its magnificent sandstone walls garishly lit evenings in amber and deep indigo. There are ‘off’ theatres here, cabaret and comedy, political satire in café-theatres as well as the impressive National Theatre of Marseille housed in the La Criee, a super-modern theatre in what was the city’s main fish market. Smells from the drains do still remind one of Asia as one picks one’s way through the inevitable road works – gashes in the sidewalks, pits in the road- and where narrow dark alleys remain from the ‘old’ Marseille and from where one expects Gene Hackman or Jean Reno appear in a trenchcoat and trilby.

Visiting Marseille today, it is difficult to ignore the flotsam of a new era; grubby Romanian children press wilting flowers in one’s hand, sun-scorched Albanians serenade with croaking voices and tall, slim Africans, their skin as black as polished jet, wait listlessly behind a display of their goods, everything from African masks to imitation designer sun glasses. It is, of course, just a continuation of the 2,500 years of new arrivals in Marseille and no doubt, many will settle to become part of the patchwork of the city.

Despite the disruption of the road works, Marseille’s main road, La Canabiere is still the main artery of the city. It is packed with shops and shoppers although is in the nearby back streets, one of which is called  rue du Paradis, where the new trendy boutiques are to be found. Designer shops compete with speciality food shops, tea rooms and beauty salons. Without warning, one can find oneself in the ‘souk’ of Marseille where goods  tumble onto the narrow footpaths, tropical fruit and vegetables; spices and herbs fill the air with pungent and exotic smells, and clothes and materials are piled  in glittering bundles with bowls and dishes glowing in copper and brass. The shopkeepers wear kaftans and fez’s and speak among each other in the soft, guttural tones of Arabic, but their customers include housewives from the inner city slums, smart young women from the banlieus, as well as Africans, Indians, Chinese and a good scattering of tourists. One shop on the edge of Arab quarter, only a few metres from the bustling La Canabiere, offers an alarming window display: everything from hand guns to kalashnikovs, Swiss army knives and scimitars. There are knuckle-dusters with inch long blades and a chain with a spiked metal ball nestling among a selection of handcuffs. Once again, Marseille pulls you up sharp and you find yourself looking over your shoulder.

There are many beautiful and impressive buildings in Marseille, built at the end of the 19th century when the opening of the Suez Canal brought renewed prosperity to the city. Elegant merchants’ mansions, both Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau embellished, line the avenues of the ‘good’ quarters, but the most impressive of Marseille’s monuments must be the approach to the main train station, the Gare St. Charles, built in 1926. It is not often that a train station is perched at the top of a hill, but the Gare St. Charles is just there, demanding an unequalled climb up a huge and impressive wide staircase of 104 steps. As if to encourage one’s ascent, the designer has allowed for regular landings, no doubt to give a little respite for those laden with bags and suitcases, and decorated them with statues of  nymphs and cupids, god and goddesses, obelisques and, for some reason, lions. It is both baroque and oriental, all very charming and very beautiful. The station itself is disappointingly ordinary but the view from the top of the staircase is a reward for all the effort and it is exciting to think that today’s tourists, arriving in Marseille with the super fast TGV train line will get their first view of Marseille  from this vantage point. The panorama extends over the sprawl of the city below to the port itself and to the Fort St Nicholas, guarding the city from the entrance to the harbour and the Mediterranean beyond. Looking directly ahead and all around the city are the hills of the Provence, the rough, stony soil where only the hardiest plants survive the meagre rainfall and the blast of the Mistral, an icy wind which whips down the Rhone valley to blow into the Provence and to fan out to the Cote-d’Azur. This vegetation is known as the ‘garrigue’, or the ‘maquis’ , a name also given to those toughest and bravest resistance fights in the Second World War. Opposite the station and almost at the same height, glistening in a cobalt blue sky is the dome of the Cathédral de la Garde, built in the oriental style at the same time as Sacre Coeur in Paris, and placed high above the city to guard over the people of Marseille, and their life with, and around, the sea.

copyright: Christina Gallea Roy 2013