Thursday, July 14, 2011

City of Bodhisattvas

In the Radiant City
In the Radiant City, Marseilles, 2011

Marseilles has a bit of a rough reputation. It's known for pastis, sailors, rioting youth from the Northern Suburbs, pétanque, corruption, aggressive driving, unemployment, and particularly grim, pessimistic crime fiction known as "aioli thrillers," polar aïoli. 

Approaching Marseilles by land is not particularly inviting. You'll be driving along a crowded motorway with graffitoed concrete embankments and underpasses, as it winds through craggy hills of bleached limestone and dark-green scrub, with blocks of ugly tenements springing like mushrooms from a ground of red brick roofs. Then you'll drive past one of Europe's biggest ports, with its cranes, containers, and stockyard, through a massive construction site—the Euroméditerranée project—and get dumped into the Old Harbor, which is a rectangular basin full of relatively modest boats and yachts, with a busy street circling it, and rather grim, bleached stone fortifications around the entrance. In the distance you will see the bare-rock Frioul isles, with the stark silhouette of the prison-fortress of If of Count of Monte Cristo fame.

The standard visit of Marseilles would include dropping by Notre Dame de la Garde, the basilica on the hill with its huge, gilt Holy Virgin, a walk through the twisty alleys of Le Panier, maybe a visit to the ancient abbey of St Victor, and perhaps a look at the shops along the Canebière boulevard. The more adventurous or curious might take a peek around the corner to check out the immigrant quarters to the left and right of the Canebière, maybe even have a barley couscous at the Femina or smell the spices at the distinctly Arabian style market streets there.

Nothing all that special. The abbey is impressive enough, but not as impressive as Senanque. The basilica is nice, but Avignon's are nicer. The Canebière is a passable shopping street, but pretty shabby compared to even nearby Aix's Cours Mirabeau. And it's nowhere near as picturesque, immediately charming, or accommodating as Nice.

So you shrug, and move on.

Or not.

I've visited Marseilles a few times over the past twenty years or so, and it's growing on me. It's not a city that gives up its secrets easily. It's big and sprawling, and every quartier is different. And boy does it make you walk, around bends and street corners, up and down stairs, in twists and turns that feel like they're deliberately trying to get you lost.

And then you start discovering things.

There's the quiet, gently curving Rue du Vallon de l'Oriol, wending its way between the wooded hill of Roucas Blanc with its villas and the small, twisty streets of the Septième. It has palm trees and pastel walls, with baroque concrete ornamentation side by side with pure white art deco architecture. Families stroll along the narrow sidewalks towards the Beach of the Prophet. Behind a turn of the Corniche John Fitzgerald Kennedy is a miniature fishing village tucked away in a creek. Children play in the streets—in the streets! in the 21st century! in a big city!—as the people of the quartier are grilling sardines and playing pétanque on a court just by. The Mediterranean water is still clear and warm and welcoming.

There's the food. Not necessarily in the sprawling sidewalk cafés near Old Town, mind, but in the little family restaurants tucked away in side streets, or if you're in the mood to splurge, at Chez Fonfon where they'll serve you the catch of the day cooked to perfection in a simple, unadorned way. (Not cheap, though!)

Then you start noticing the people. All colors, shapes, sizes. Italian faces. Freckled redheads. Silver-haired dignified elderly ladies. Young women in their summer dresses, or hijabs, or blue jeans. East Africans with faces like carved ebony. Tattoos. Some clearly hacked by bored sailors on long voyages, or perhaps in prison. Some artistic, abstract designs with thin lines and curves and arrowheads. Tattoos that look like rashes. Yakuza tattoos. Motorcycle tattoos. A Polynesian with a broad face and the build of a Maori warrior, but pure Marseilles tattoos, and he's carrying a brightly-colored picture book for children. Mediterraneans with their olive skin and rounded features. Stocky, round-headed Armenians.

Marseilles has about three thousand years of practice at being a port. It is and has always been a city of immigrants. An elderly gent named Charles is sitting in a restaurant in an overgrown garden right by the Vieux Port, drinking pastis and grousing about there being way too many Arabs here these days. Turns out his parents were Armenian. They came to Marseilles after the massacres in Turkey. I'm pretty sure that fifty years from now, there'll be a Mourad or a Hakim there, grumbling about the damn Texans snatching purses, graffitoing up the walls, and hogging the beaches.

Ever since the Romans annexed the Greek colony of Massilia, Marseilles has been ruled from somewhere else. Most European cities of this size—and a great many that are much smaller—have been stamped by the ambitions of feudal lords. There are palaces and castles, cathedrals and boulevards; the kings and dukes, princes and princesses live on in street names, and sometimes in tabloid headlines. Aix's principal street is named the Court of Mirabeau. Marseilles' takes its name from hemp—in the age of sail, the ships using its port needed a lot of it. It is no coincidence that the Marseillaise hails from Marseilles: it has always been a working city, not a city of leisure, pleasure, pomp, or circumstance. And a revolutionary city. There's a tremendous energy for change there.

The Marseillais have a particular way of being. There's a tough edge to it; a sharp and ironic wit, an assertiveness; a low tolerance for bullshit that sometimes comes across as rudeness. But there's also an openness. A lady sweeping the street next to her home will stop to chat and complain about the "city" trimming the hedges but leaving the branches cluttering things up, and then point out places nearby worth seeing. A smile will be met by a smile: open, friendly, unabashed.

An old man gets on a bus. He's infirm, so much that he can barely walk. His steps are about a finger's length, and he leans on his cane. From somewhere, hands appear to lift him onboard and help him into a suddenly vacated seat. A few stops later, someone sees him start to move, and yells to the driver "Hé! Monsieur wants to get off here!" The doors open, more hands appear to help him out of his seat, through the magically parting crowd to the doors. Someone gets out and helps him gently, carefully onto the sidewalk, then climbs back in and shouts, and the bus moves along. Entirely naturally, automatically, without a second thought. I'm quite sure that Monsieur can navigate the whole city that way, carried on the 30,000 arms of Kanzeon.

I love cities. Most cities I love to visit. A very few I would like to live in. Marseilles is one of them.

Happy Quatorze Juillet, France.

If you're looking to visit, you could do worse than stay at Monique Vincent's B&B, Providencia. Say hello from les Finlandais. And ask her about things to do, places to go, places to eat.


  1. Très beau texte à propos de Marseille, qui me la ferait presque apprécier !

    Thank you for this rich discovery of a town I don't like so much, but... now...

  2. Il n'y a pas d'honte de ne pas beaucoup apprécier Marseille. C'est une ville compliquée. Ces choses-là sont come des amitiés, je pense – on ne devient pas ami avec tout le monde, même si on essaye.

    Mais avec Marseille, la première impression est trompeuse. Peut-être elle vaut une autre visite?