Culture vulture: Marseilles

Sandwiched between Europe and North Africa, with a reputation for excitement and excess, Mal Rogers finds menace and beauty blend seamlessly in Marseille


Marseille has a long history of contrariness, one of taking umbrage.Julius Caesar, Louis XIV, the Revolutionary Convention, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Vatican, the Visigoths – the citizens hereabouts put manners on all of ’em. Hitler abhorred Marseille – surely a recommendation in itself.

Never particularly into multiculturalism, the Führer despised the cosmopolitan élan of the city, so he had the old quarter blown up. Despite this long history – probably no more chequered than you might expect from any port earning its living sandwiched between Europe and North Africa for 26 centuries – today you might tend to think of Marseille in terms of The French Connection , the Count of Monte Cristo or the local dish, bouillabaisse. Also, it might be remembered that the French national anthem has something to do with the city.

Given its exotic reputation, few will be surprised to hear that Marseille is this year’s EU city of culture. For long a place where a knees-up of bacchanalian proportions could be guaranteed, Marseille is celebrating 2013 with over 500 events. Some €800 million has been invested in regenerating the city, with state-of-the-art museums, galleries and exhibition centres playing host to the festivities.

Being at the fulcrum of French affairs will be nothing new for Marseille. This is the country’s oldest city and arguably its most exciting. Founded by the Greeks some 2,600 years ago, it has been living at full throttle ever since. Combining Gallic cool, Mediterranean panache and North African exuberance, Marseille is a place where you can experience, see, eat, drink, buy, visit, kiss, stroke or fondle anything you want, any time of the day or night.

To be fair, this availability of diversion has left the city with a mixed reputation. Marseille’s flair for entertainment of all sorts is counter-balanced by a well-developed gift for crime – this has long been a centre of excellence for gangsters and general ne’er-do-wells who could hold their own in the nastiest of company.

Marseille’s old mediaeval quarter, Le Panier – despite the Nazis’ best efforts – remains intact and solidly muscular, the dark underbelly of the city. Menace and beauty seamlessly blend here, but the area has steadily become less hard-edged.

Regeneration has meant that the winding streets are now home to quirky boutiques and bistros – and cats sleeping in the sun. Still, watch your wallet – others probably will be too. Originally called Massalia, the city was shaped by the great mincing machine of Mediterranean history.

Greek fishermen founded it, Carthaginians and Romans both saw its potential as a trading port, Crusaders realised it was a handy stopping off point – all, and many more, left their imprimatur. Hence the wealth of architecture, style, culture, gastronomy and music on show today.

Marseille joined enthusiastically in the French Revolution. Volunteers marching on Paris sang The War Song of the Rhine Army . So catchy did this prove, it was renamed La Marseillaise and promptly became the French national anthem. Even by the standards of national jingles, it’s a tad bloodthirsty. Hum these lyrics to yourself as you saunter along the old streets:

Can you hear in the fields the howling of these fearsome soldiers

Coming into our midst to cut the throats of our sons and consorts?

Not exactly X-Factor material, but catchy enough after a glass or two of the local hooch, pastis. (It comes in at around 45 per cent alcohol – it has added zest from aniseed and spices.)

Meanwhile, on the Quai des Belges, the fishing boats disgorge their catches, as they have done for centuries. Fishwives holler out their wares, soon to be grilled, fried, braised, baked and transformed into one of many legendary Marseille dishes.

Bouillabaisse (literally “boil right down”), the region’s celebrated fish stew, represents total seafood conviction. Opinions vary as to the classic recipe, but any self-respecting bouillabaisse should include at least three kinds of fresh fish cooked in an onion broth, other types of seafood – ranging from sea urchin to spider crabs – tomatoes, saffron and various herbs and spices.

Any of the hundreds of restaurants and cafes that jostle round the old port will be able to furnish you with a bowl of Marseille’s culinary gift to the world. The perfect accompaniment for bouillabaisse is cassis, the local white wine from the vineyards just to the east of the city.

Given the nature of the city, it is probably no coincidence that the headquarters of the French Foreign Legion is here. Should that be your reason for reading this guide to the city, the following information may be helpful: convicted felons are discouraged from joining the service. However a legionnaire can enter the service under an assumed name and, after four years of service, you can change your name at will. You will also receive French citizenship.

The current headquarters are in Aubagne, also the birthplace of Marcel Pagnol, the writer of Jean de Florette, a sort of French version of The Field . Of celebrated craftiness and jaw-dropping cheekiness, the Marseillaise are an attractive bunch – generous and gregarious – although at times lugubrious. No wonder local boy Pagnol is revered here. Occupying a position just a little sunnier than Samuel Beckett, here’s what he had to say about life:

“The reason people find it so hard to be happy is that they always see the past better than it was, the present worse than it is and the future less resolved than it will be.” In other words, “C’est la vie – mais c’est la morte aussi”. Haven’t French phrases got a certain I-don’t-know-what about them?

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