Arriving at a deserted Gare Saint Charles, late in the day after a transit of nearly 14 hours, sense of humour was at an all time shortage and the clammy Marseille dusk greeted us off the TGV like a searching pair of blackamoor hands. Weary travellers from the cold north, we boarded a cab and began the necessary process of acclimatisation which kicked off with the discovery that our hotel was situated in the seedy heart of a reeking rat-infested back-street quarter near Baille, complete with the charred remains of a burnt out Fiat and a fleet of heaving wheelie-bins (Poubelles -the very best of French vocab, once learnt never forgotten).
As it turns out, Hôtel Mama Shelter Marseille is in fact one of the coolest (both physically and figuratively) places to stay in this generally universally rat-infested city, and we soon settled into its loving arms. The barman mixes a mean cocktail, the music is edgy and brilliant, the design, by superstar Philippe Stark is refreshingly avant-garde, sexy and playful, and the staff are, every one of them, friendly, beautiful and obliging. From our street corner ‘shelter’, opposite a little Moroccan patisserie, and an even smaller tabac and pastis bar complete with inviting tables and chairs under the intensely green speading canopy of a white ash tree, it wasn’t long before we mastered the labyrinth of pungent, merde-de-chien-peppered 4th & 5th arrondissements, adopting them as our new patch.
Am I selling it to you yet?
France’s second city, (after Paris) and oldest, (established by the ancient Greeks), Marseille is still clinging to the economic benefits of having been 2013 City Of Culture, but is showing signs of strain. The technicolour slogans daubed on every wall hint at simmering unrest and social division. The French have long enjoyed this revolutionary form of expression, and the vandals here not only demonstrate a deep political consciousness, evidently paying close attention in philosophy class, but also possess sophisticated creative flair and skill.
Marseille has an up-front honesty that almost instantly cast a magic spell over us. Distracted by all that exuberant graffiti and the crumbling grandeur of sky-high 18th century shuttered apartment buildings with their colourful displays of laundry, we became inured to the shit and shabbiness and eagerly explored the neighbourhood venturing further afield to discover some of the city’s genuine charm and ancient secrets.
Initially we strolled through the thick heat towards the tall monument at Castellane and found ourselves drawn irresistibly, as tourist birds of a feather tend to do, towards the Vieux Port. Scooping up giant glistening palmiers for breakfast from one of the many patisseries, we paused to marvel at the colossal scale of The Préfecture building, (built by Napoleon’s nephew), and eventually we stumbled blinking onto the bright sparkling marina light of Quai des Belges at the end of a long rectangular old harbour flanked on three sides by bars, restaurants and savonneries.
All life is here at the quais. An exotic topless man passed us, whistling by on a bicycle with a blue macaw perched on his shoulder. Shoals of neon-clad tourists swam past, led by their guide on a Segway tour of the old town. A walnut faced beggar man hobbled to and fro pitifully, barely bothering to pester passers by. Towering battlements at the mouth of the harbour reflected a warm pinkish glow through the myriad boat masts motionless on the deep still marina where salty sea dogs coiled ropes and scraped barnacles from vessels suspended in slings from crane arms. This is a maritime mecca, and a cultural melting pot on a grand Mediterranean scale.
We offered ourselves up like sacrificial lambs to the tourist trap of this port-side district, knowing that until we got used to the heat, a more exhaustive hike to the authentic secret corners of the wider city could result in death by desiccation. So we joined the lunchtime shift of hot, thirsty visitors slumped in shaded canvas chairs beneath the heavenly edifice of the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, topped with its monumental 37ft gilded statue of The Virgin and Child beaming love and protection across the city. Later we boarded a little tourist train that took us up the urgonian limestone outcrop (I googled it for you geologists) to take a closer look at the basilica, and from there we cast our eyes over the whole massive entirety of the terracotta and limestone sprawl that is Marseille.
In the days to come we would get up early to see the fishermen bring in their catch for Le Marché de la Pêche, the reek of ozone and fresh fish guts drifting down to greet us off the metro station escalator at Vieux Port. Soon the vendors, with a flash of steel, had prepared brimming tabletops of tempting fruits de la mer: Giant glassy-eyed heads of thon (tuna) smiled skywards beside their own silky red steaks, ready for the grill. Barrels of waving speckled lobsters, trays of assorted glossy cephalopods, (which made Danny especially sad), and all shapes and sizes of colourful fish destined to become the city’s favourite, bouillabaisse, combined to recreate a daily scene which has been enacted here for centuries.
One hot night we ventured into the boho Cours Julien in search of an uber cool lifestyle store called Oogie. Having wandered up and down past the Rastafarians and gypsies, looking like OCD Pokemon hunters, phones in hand tracking our location on Googlemaps and scratching our heads, we gave up and collapsed into an al fresco table at Le Jardin d’a Cote for dinner instead. The handsome jovial waiter commiserated with us, explaining that Oogie had only just closed down after the owner was offered a king’s ransom for the property. (Looks like Cours Julien May be destined for gentrification, so catch it now, while it’s still genuinely grungy) But before we could feel too disappointed about Oogie, an infernal African drummer and his band struck up behind us and we were in the midst of a high octane improvised display of feverish and bewitching tribal stomping by some of the more inebriated and drug-addled residents of this park lined precinct. The whole place felt like a psychedelic hallucination and my colourful squid salad danced the night away to the jungle beat.
On another day we struck out into Le Panier district for a delicious lunch in a dappled green square. A swelling samba drumbeat heralded the arrival of a glistening band of Brazilian strongmen who tumbled and somersaulted for our delectation in between friendly bouts of the most scintillating capoeira. After lunch we browsed enchanting little shops in the narrow old flower-decked lanes, spending far too long in an antique shop selling bizarre and intriguing taxidermy and other very cool objets. Instead of taking the stuffed pangolin with a little mother of pearl shell drinks tray in his scaly paws, we spent just €8 on a handful of miniature turned brass coffee pots and saucepans for our doll’s house.
Next we gaped at the Byzantine-striped cathedral of Saint-Marie-Majeure before turning to expose ourselves to the full glare of the sun as we crossed the wide open, white hot Promenade Robert Laffont to find the beautiful black filigree box housing part of MUCEM, the very serious but breathtakingly designed Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. Here we sought sanctuary in the dark air-conditioned coolth and attempted to gain perspective on the dizzying timeline of Mediterranean history. There was also a temporary exhibition of Dubuffet, which to Danny’s chagrin contained no buffet, but a great deal of over-blown artsy guff which accompanied the great man’s sometimes quite horrid looking art. I tried my best to like it, and earnestly read the blurb but concluded that it was all way over my head.
For me, the highlight of the visit to MUCEM was ascending the ramped walkway which spirals the massive building between its glass heart and its lacy carapace, and leads to the rooftop terrace where we availed ourselves of the sun loungers, and lounged, for a moment admiring a new, tracery-patterned vista of the port. A sleek black aerial bridge over the water connects the new building to the old Fort St. Jean, built in 1660 by the Sun King, Louis XIV. Here we explored the former prison, which has been beautifully and imaginatively restored, its golden courtyards planted with fruiting pomegranate trees and fragrant wild herbs. Everything in MUCEM is innovatively designed and thought-provoking, and one could spend days here just absorbing its loveliness, but the heat kept us moving.
The Metro is a perfectly simple, clean and cheap way to get around the heart of the city, which centres on the Vieux Port. Efficient train, tram and bus services allow the more intrepid visitor access to the wider sprawl of the region which covers over 240 square kilometres and includes a coastal area of national park, Les Calanques, known for it’s idyllic secluded limestone inlets and azure seas. It was to these that I was drawn after a few days in the dusty metropolis.
It would be good to return to this area in the cooler months perhaps when the mistral is passing to keep us from perishing, and we could hike the few miles to some of the hidden coves and swim in the crystalline waters. But with the temperature nudging 40º in the shade we were happy this time to alight at Cassis railway station and hop onto the sweaty little shuttle bus for the mile and a half ride into the pretty harbour town. Seated in the open windows of Le Perroquet we gulped litres of Vittel spying on the world drifting slowly by. In the dappled square across the road we watched as a long table was unfolded and a French family picnic feast was served. There I also enjoyed my first taste of fresh red snapper, the juicy little fillets eliciting groans of pleasure. We really liked Cassis.
Having recce’d the Plage de la Grand Mer, (Grandma’s Beach?) shimmering with tightly packed roasting bodies like a David Attenborough documentary about seal colonies, I checked my map and confidently predicted that the smaller beach beyond the lighthouse might be less of a riot. So, while the boys elected to lurk in the back street shadows, Rose and I hiked over the hill to Plage Bestouan, another, smaller seal colony, but more exclusive, with a better class of beach shack, where we purchased a straw hat and a glittery inflatable for our afternoon’s thalassotherapy. The desire to be fully submerged in the azure water was almost crippling as I hopped awkwardly on one leg casting off shirt and shorts and hotfooting it over the sunbaked pebbles into the big blue. After three days in the city this is a great way to unwind and cool off. We loved our little cove so much we went back there on our last day, again without the beach-phobic boys, and returned on the evening train comparing tan-lines, and feeling rested.
Meanwhile, the boys had been bonding over a shisha pipe and a muslim mocktail in the Hookah Lounge on Quai du Port, while Danny screwed up the courage, like so many rugged sailors before him, to face the nifty needle of Francesca, chief inker at Humble Tattoo Studio. We met up with them later for dinner in a bar along Quai de Rive Neuve, (famed for it’s great location and beautiful old vaulted ceilinged warehouse but NOT for it’s steaks) where, over a complimentary limoncello (on account of the shite meal) there was a dramatic reveal as Danny rolled up his shirt sleeve to show off his favourite memento of our visit, a four-inch Cancerian crab that had now taken up permanent inky residence on his bulging deltoid. Never before have I seen him this happy. Francesca had indeed done a beautiful job, and was booked at ten o’clock the next morning to bestow a smaller memento on my wrist before our long and winding train journey home.
As we wended our weary way back to the Metro that night, we were embroiled in an impromptu street party where a dozen or so merry Algerian men had attracted quite a crowd with their dancing and singing. One of them played a manic trumpet while another one hollered out folk songs and others danced, drummed and waved their enormous moon and star flag above their heads. We were momentarily seduced by the Saharan beat and the joyousness of the crowd’s eager participation. Everyone seemed to know the words and it all felt rather jolly, reflected above our heads in the canopy of Norman Foster’s Ombriere Mirror, until Danny muttered something alarming about the Foreign Office travel advice to avoid large crowds, and Algerians. The gathering took on a sinister tone in my head and I imagined their song might be a thrilling tale of seventy-two black eyed virgins, so we slipped away into the night.
Sadly, being a flaky artist-type, (I know them well) Francesca the tattoo lady was not there when I arrived, panting like an over-exited school girl the next day outside her shuttered shop on rue d’Endoume. I wandered past two more times, feeling cheated, but the enticing wafts from a nearby bakery lured me away and I drifted inside to investigate this curious biscuit that I had seen heaped in boulangerie windows all over the city. A Navette, (modern translation: ‘shuttle bus’) is a smooth hard biscuit, flavoured with orange flower. They have been baked on these premises, at Four des Navettes, the oldest bakery in the city, for 238 years. According to tradition they represent little boats like that which brought Mary Jacobe, Mary Salome, their maid Sara (whoever they were) and Lazarus, (I’ve heard of him, the patron saint of Marseille) to Saintes-Maries de la Mer, in the nearby Camargue region. Every year, on 2 February, the Archbishop comes out of the nearby abbey gates to bless the city and then the first batch of navettes out of this old oven, for Candlemas. I bought a box for my mother in law. It weighed a ton, like a dozen church candles, and I’m told they are an acquired taste, but the experience of visiting this special place, seemingly unchanged for centuries, was a welcome distraction from the disappointment of my unfulfilled Marseille moon tattoo. Then beneath the bakery on the street below I spotted a very superior soap shop, far more sophisticated and authentic than those on the tourist trail, and I indulged in my passion for oils and unguents, lotions and potions, buying a few soaps and essential oils to remind us of this magical city.
Marseille, like a hulking old half-wild animal, smelly, a possible touch of rabies and mange is surprisingly hard to resist embracing, and with its kind old eyes and curious unpredictable quirks, I came to adore it. We never did make it to the Marché du Capucins to shop for African spices and, presumably, monkeys. We never did eat bouillabaisse and aioli, and we ducked out on the deluxe catamaran picnic (With the current exchange rate, 75€ each seemed extravagant). So, I’ll be back. Possibly alone. To wander the streets unfettered by the needs of teens and spouse. And just maybe I’ll run away with a Moroccan baker, build a seaside snorkeling cabin in a secret calanque or join a travelling circus, but I’ll definitely visit Francesca and hold her to that promise of a moon tattoo.