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Marseilles: What's Not to Love?

He's right: the city now harbors a dynamic creative community made up of musicians, filmmakers, theater directors, and fashion and furniture designers. Producer Luc Besson and director Gérard Pirès made the quirky comedy Taxi here three years back, and Marseilles director Robert Guediguian set his brilliant romance, Marius et Jeannette, in the working-class neighborhood of L'Estaque. Meanwhile, hot rap bands such as IAM and Fonky Family and ragga group Massilia Sound System have forged a definable Marseilles sound and put the city at the pulse-point of French hip-hop.

Marseilles seduces by its very rawness, which gives the city an edge neither Nice nor Aix-en-Provence can come close to. "This is a real city, not some provincial town," says Olivier Saillard, curator of the Musée de la Mode. "And there's something electric about a city by the water."

Down at the Vieux Port, ships' riggings slap in the breeze and the mellow sound of bossa nova-tinged jazz drifts into the night. Behind a peeling hotel façade, up a rickety staircase, the bar La Caravelle is in full swing as a trio of septuagenarian musicians gets groovy on xylophone, sax, and piano.

After his set, pianist Claude Gros, suave in a cream roll-neck, with slick platinum hair, explains the allure of his hometown. "We've had a mix of races here for twenty-six hundred years," he says, referring to the Phocaeans' arrival in Marseilles around 600 B.C. "And all those races mix and coexist in the most extraordinary way. You've got everything here: Lebanese, Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Italians, Armenians. . . . Yet there's a cohesion that you could find nowhere else."

Break away from the main street in La Canebière and you stumble upon a street market straight out of Algeria, where men wear crocheted skullcaps, gossip in Arabic, sip mint tea, and pick over piles of coriander. In the old Le Panier district—a tangle of skinny streets and drying laundry—the smell of spicy tagine being cooked wafts from high windows. And everywhere in Marseilles you find a remarkable blend of faces, features, dialects, and dress.

Why does integration work here, when so much of Provence is a hotbed of National Front racism?For one thing, in any great port, immigration is accepted as inevitable. Furthermore, Marseillais are unabashedly proud of their roots both here and abroad; everyone seems to have an ancestral tale to tell. As Philippe Boigeol, co-founder of Marseilles beauty brand Compagnie de Provence, says, "At one point or other, every single one of us arrived here with a suitcase."

What's most fascinating about Marseilles's image upgrade is that it has been achieved without turning the city into an antiseptic, picture-perfect paradise. This is still very much a gritty, defiantly working-class town, with all its eccentricities and complexities. "It is not idyllic," says Boigeol. "But it is sensual, rebellious, emotional." Marseillaise girls are sexy in an earthy, careless, streetwise way; they have none of that Parisian practiced perfection, preferring shrunken graffiti T-shirts and weathered tans, platform heels and exposed flesh. The boys are swarthy and cocksure, full of the roguish charm that promises you the world and delivers . . . Marseilles.

Meanwhile, over a drink at La Caravelle, Claude Gros is reflecting on his 75 years in Marseilles. "So much has changed. It's unrecognizable as the city of Marcel Pagnol," he says nostalgically, referring to the great Marseillais playwright and filmmaker of the 1930's. But when asked which he prefers, past or present, Claude doesn't miss a beat. "Oh," he says, smiling. "I like the new Marseilles."


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