Marseilles: What's Not to Love?

Marseilles: What's Not to Love?

Cedric Angeles
Cedric Angeles
How things change. In only a few years, France's second-largest city has become ground zero for a rebirth of cool

On a bleak back street near the Marseilles train station lies a former cigarette factory where Gitanes and Gauloises were once rolled, before the manufacturers realized Gitanes and Gauloises could be rolled far more cheaply elsewhere. The building is called La Friche la Belle de Mai, or "the Beauty of May Wasteland"—a half-appropriate name for a dreary concrete slab covered in dust and neglect. But while the exterior spells desolation, the inside is all about urban renaissance. The 164,000-square-foot space is entirely dedicated to dance, theater, music, film, visual arts, and literature—with room for rehearsals, performances, workshops, a radio station, and lounges for hanging out.

In a studio scrawled over with graffiti, hip-hop star DJ Rebel sits behind his turntables surrounded by wannabe disc jockeys, the youngest of whom is all of 12. This afternoon session is billed as a "Scratch DJ" workshop, but after two hours of intense debate they've yet to put on a record. They have, however, managed to solve the problem of Third World debt and political corruption on a global scale.

Upstairs in a plywood box of a studio pasted with hip-hop fliers, DJ Oil is playing live on Radio Grenouille, mixing electronic sounds with a funky blend of trip-hop, jungle, and soul. He's 28, and born, bred, and based here.

"People are waking up in Marseilles," he says between tracks. "Before, we were so sick of Parisians controlling the music scene. Now we've got more confidence, and the Marseilles music scene is making itself heard." (Case in point: Oil's band the Troublemakers has just signed a deal with Guidance Recordings in Chicago.)

Meanwhile, in the center of town at the Musée de la Mode, president Maryline Vigouroux sits in her sun-drenched office over the glittering Vieux Port and ponders the city's image makeover. "Marseillais used to be a little ashamed of coming from here," she admits. "They'd say, 'Oh, actually, I was born in Aix,' or 'Cassis.'" She breaks into a wry smile. "But today the words I'm from Marseilles have become a plus."

Ever since the revolution, when 500 rabble-rousers marched up to Paris chanting what was to become "The Marseillaise," France's second-largest city has had a reputation problem. The nation's premier port, it was once the gateway to Africa and the Orient. But after World War II and the loss of the French colonies, after the rise of air travel and the rerouting of trade lines, Marseilles watched its commercial power slide irretrievably away. The situation worsened in the 1970's when recession struck, dockers went on strike, and the cruise ships steamed out of port for good. Marseilles was left high and dry, with massive unemployment and an uncontrolled influx of immigrants, tainted by organized crime, rampant prostitution, and a severe drug problem.

The city didn't even have tourism to fall back on: despite its 35 miles of gorgeous coastline and its cosmopolitan charm, Marseilles's pulling power for travelers was negligible. The city has never acquired the jet-set gloss of the rest of the Côte d'Azur. In the eighties things got so bad that guidebooks took to flagging Marseilles with a safety warning. Furthermore, in the French consciousness, the Marseillais themselves were reduced to a caricature of pastis-drinking, boules-playing football fans with a tendency toward exaggeration and an almighty inferiority complex vis-à-vis Paris.

But after decades of doubt, the fortunes of Marseilles are suddenly changing. Over the last three years tourism has risen 14 percent. Cruise ships are sailing back. Scaffolding is cropping up all over town, with ambitious construction projects hot off the drawing board: a huge concert hall in a former grain silo; a three-story cyberbar in a Napoleon III-era building; a vast new cruise ship terminal; general titivation of the Vieux Port sidewalks. Even the French are starting to take Marseilles seriously. In a recent poll of under-25's, French youth chose Marseilles as the top city to live in, while Paris scraped by in third place tied with Bordeaux (Montpellier came in second).

Just walk through the cobbled square of Estienne-d'Orves to see how much has changed. On one side is a slick Agnès B. boutique; alongside that, in the former city arsenal, a literary wine bar, Les Arcenaulx, where office workers lunch alfresco on plates of grilled octopus and fragrant couscous. Nothing remarkable about that, you think, but bear in mind that none of this was here even a few years ago, when this now gleaming piazza was the site of a dank car park that doubled as Marseilles's headquarters for heroin dealing.

Everyone here has a theory for what prompted the city's turnaround—but of course in Marseilles everyone has a theory on any subject you could throw at them. The 1998 World Cup was undoubtedly a blessing, not only because the draw and several matches were held here, but, perhaps more significantly, because four players on the winning French team came from Marseilles. (Two years on, the city still basks in the afterglow: all over town the face of French-Algerian soccer hero Zinedine Zidane looks out from Adidas billboards emblazoned MARSEILLAIS—AND PROUD TO BE.) A further economic boost has come from the regional presence of firms like Eurocopter, the world's largest helicopter maker; smart-card manufacturer Gemplus; and Comex, a marine and nuclear engineering group.

But others credit culture, not the economy, for Marseilles's revival. "Artists are again interested in Marseilles as a place to work and live," says architect Eric Castaldi, who is himself partly responsible for the aesthetic changes here. Northwest of the Vieux Port, Castaldi has been transforming disused docks into a thriving business complex with Zen-like reflecting pools. "Marseilles has become a center of living, popular culture," Castaldi says.


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."


The Facts

Where to Stay
Le Petit-Nice Passédat 160 Corniche Président-J.-F.-Kennedy; 33-4/91-59-25-92, fax 33-4/91-59-28-08; doubles from $438. An intimate and secluded Relais & Châteaux hotel overlooking the sea, about 10 minutes' drive from the center of town, with a tiny outdoor seawater pool. The restaurant is one of Marseilles's best.
Hôtel Sofitel Vieux Port 36 Blvd. Charles-Livon; 33-4/91-15-59-00, fax 33-4/91-15-59-50; doubles from $159. Upscale chain hotel with bland interiors but amazing views over the Vieux Port.
Hôtel Mercure Beauvau 4 Rue Beauvau; 33-4/91-54-91-00, fax 33-4/91-54-15-76; doubles from $96. Historic hotel (Chopin and George Sand stayed here) in the heart of the Vieux Port, with antique furniture but modern interiors, and excellent breakfast and brunch.

Restaurants, Cafés, and Bars
Chez Vincent 2 bis Ave. Chartreux; 33-4/91-49-62-34; dinner for two $46. A marvelous pizza, pasta, and fish restaurant that's been around for years. The decoration is unremarkable, the scene authentic and hip, and the food simple and fresh.
L'Oliveraie 10 Place aux Huiles; 33-4/91-33-34-41; dinner for two $40. Provençal restaurant with a 15th-century stone vaulted interior, serving up tasty fish in fragrant sauces.
Pizzeria Chez Jeannot 129 Vallon des Auffes; 33-4/91-52-11-28; dinner for two $30. Family pizza restaurant in a tiny cove jammed with fishing boats. The best tables are out in the wooden shack perched above the water.
Il Canaletto 8 Cours Jean-Ballard; 33-4/91-33-90-12; dinner for two $40. A great spot in the Vieux Port for Italian food, with a cool crowd and the dreamiest, creamiest tiramisù.
Torréfaction Debout 46 Rue Francis-Davso; 33-4/91-33-00-12. Espresso and handmade chocolates.
O.M. Café 3 Quai des Belges; 33-4/91-33-80-33. Owned by a former Olympique Marseille soccer club goalkeeper, which explains the blue-and-white interior (team colors), the terrace packed with soccer fans, the match playing on TV, and the principal topic of conversation.

Shopping
A.R.M. Marseille 22 Rue Bussy l'Indien; 33-4/91-42-40-57. Cool, contemporary takes on Provençal furniture and linens: gorgeous beds, chic consoles, and huge bureaus, in creamy beige and steel gray, all of which can be made to order and shipped home.
La Compagnie de Provence 1 Rue Caisserie; 33-4/91-56-20-94. Marseilles boys Philippe Boigeol and Pascal Bourelly took a standard household item—olive-oil soap—repackaged it in brown paper and credibility, and made it a cult. Their boutique sells the whole range of linen waters, shower gels, body creams, and soaps.
Vilebrequin 32 Rue Grignan; 33-4/91-33-65-15. The ultimate men's swimsuits, in gorgeous pastel colors, with big florals and well-cut design.
Manon Martin 10 Rue de la Tour; 33-4/91-55-60-95. Flirty, funky handmade hats, including silk turbans, pearl-embroidered skullcaps, and darling toile de Jouy kiddies' caps.
Diable Noir 69 Cours Julien, 33-4/91-42-86-73; also at 5 Rue de la Tour, 33-4/91-55-66-33. Designer Marc Bommarchou gives a corset or traditional Camargue riding skirt a contemporary spin with a flurry of ribbons and print.
Xuly Bët 21 Rue Bussy l'Indien; 33-4/96-12-45-73. Sexy street wear for those not yet acquainted with cellulite.

Great Escape
Plage du Prado is one of Marseilles's best beaches—a 15-minute drive east of town in the middle of the Parc Balnéaire du Prado.

A bowl of steaming bouillabaisse is still an essential element of the Marseilles diet, a holdover from the days when fishermen would make a spicy soup using the odds and ends that they couldn't sell. For a delicious bouillabaisse that you don't have to order in advance, try Le Miramar (12 Quai du Port; 33-4/91-91-10-40; $85 for two). Alternatively, join le tout Marseilles at the lively Brasserie New York (33 Quai des Belges; 33-4/91-33-60-98; $72 for two), overlooking the Vieux Port. Or try the postmodern, deconstructed bouillabaisse served by the luxe restaurant at Le Petit-Nice Passédat (see above; $55 for two).

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