("Marseilles" by Jean Dufy)
by Brooks Peters
[Having just seen the revelatory exhibit "Monet to Matisse on the French Coast" at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, FL, which covers life on France's coasts, in particular Provence, as captured by various artists of the era, I was reminded of a trip I'd made to Marseille many years ago for Travel & Leisure magazine. The editor who commissioned the piece was canned before I'd even finished the article, a not-uncommon ocurrence in the mercurial world of publishing, so the article, hélas, never ran. No doubt its details are no longer au courant. But I thought I'd share it here as a memento of time happily spent.]
For years I tried to interest friends in joining me on a journey to Marseille, the legendary, albeit notorious, port on the Mediterranean. But no one ever dared. Marseille, the fabled “Gateway to the Orient” of yore, loomed too immense and mysterious for them. I ultimately decided to venture on alone.
Even though it's the second-largest city in France, and the capital of Provence, most Americans know little about Marseille. Perhaps recalling The French Connection, they envision a corrupt backwater seething with gangsters and drug lords. Indeed, few cities have such a long-standing reputation for louche behavior and organized crime. In the 30s, the French themselves called it "Chicago-sur-Mer."
When confronted with the news of my imminent departure, many of my friends issued frantic, and absurd, warnings. Watch out for thieves, kidnappers, white slave traders. Sailors will drop Mickey Finns into your drinks, then pocket your passport and you'll be picked up by the police and subjected to tortures not even hinted at in Midnight Express. Others questioned my taste. What appeal did that seamy metropolis have when more sophisticated playpens like Cannes, St. Tropez and Monte Carlo were merely a stone's throw away?
Well, blame it on Marcel Pagnol. Ever since I first began studying French in high school, I'd been charmed by his novels, in particular the trilogy, Marius, Fanny and Cesar, that captures the plucky lives of the sailors, fishermen and their wives who live in and around the Vieux Port. I'd listen to Noel Coward's song, "Matelot", about mischievous French mariners, and be swept away. The works of Jean Genet, who lived for a spell among Marseille's pickpockets, drag queens and prostitutes, also inspired me, as did M.F.K. Fisher's fascinating gastronomic chronicle, A Considerable Town.
But atmosphere wasn't the only lure. George Sand had courted scandal to come here with her consumptive lover, Fredéric Chopin, so he could take in the healthy air. Cézanne, Braque and Renoir made pilgrimages here to paint, seduced by the port's shimmering light. Le Corbusier came to prove his theory that "God is in the details" by building his stunning landmark of urban design, La Cité Radieuse.
As for myself, I longed to explore the city's ancient Greek ruins, drown myself in bouillabaisse, sniff Pernod (I'd long ago quit drinking), toss boules under cloudless skies with young toughs I imagined would resemble Alain Delon. I had to see Alcazar, the nightclub in which Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour had risen to stardom; to hear the daring municipal Opéra where Placido Domingo and Leonie Rysanek had made their European debuts, and where audiences were known to boo performers they disliked for thirty minutes at a stretch. I desired to delve into the mystery that is Marseille, to experience its strange, exotic magic.
My first impression upon arriving at Aéroport de Marignane, however, was one of disappointment. Everything was so pristine. So clean! Where was the seediness I'd been cautioned against? I hailed a taxi, a comfortable Mercedes, and climbed aboard. The cab driver -- not exactly Alain Delon, but definitely handsome -- responded to my questions, posed in rusty French, with amiable answers in equally fractured English. He told me that Marseille was a great place to live but he wouldn't want to visit it. I was taken aback. "There's no nightlife," he said. "Everything shuts down early, not like New York." But what about the Alcazar? "Closed."
This was disconcerting. My driver asked me if I wanted to view some of the sights before I got to my hotel. Bien sûr! We tore off, barreling across a causeway that hugged the shore. Outside my window, along the Quai de la Joliette, I gazed at gigantic cargo ships moored at fittingly immense loading docks. Intricate cranes towered high above the azure sea. Alain explained that this was the newer commercial port, built in the mid-1800s to supplement the shallower old port in town. Off to my left were warehouses that had been divided up and transformed into luxury apartments. We sped past tiny pastel-colored villages, each with its own fountain and outdoor cafe. Nothing here was as gentrified as similar enclaves along the Riviera, but they had an authenticity and unpretentious beauty that was lacking in many of those more commercialized spots. The slanted tiled roofs had a quirky appeal; everything was slightly askew. In a flash, I could see why Braque is credited with having invented Cubism here while visiting the fishing village L'Estaque. He simply painted what he saw.
We raced through a tunnel and came out in the city's core, the Vieux Port, a narrow inlet packed tightly with brightly-colored yachts and sailboats, whose tall, pennant-bearing masts undulated and crisscrossed like giant pick-up sticks above the waves. When our car stopped briefly at the Quai des Belges, at the north end of the port, I asked my driver to wait a moment while I stepped outside. Fishermen were selling that day's catch on the dock. I could literally taste the biting brine of the sea. The aroma of pine nut tea pervaded the air. A warm breeze flowed in from the south. The heavily trafficked square was framed by banks of old hotels, most notably the Pullman-Beauvau, which I recalled, had been George Sand's favorite hideaway. Catty-cornered to that was a newer establishment: The Tonic Hotel, with sleek, neon lighting.
All around me, the crowds were manageable; the denizens gracious and civilized. And what variety! Men in leather motorcycle jackets mingled with women in veils. Turbans alternated with berets. Sophisticates drove by in Range Rovers and Jeeps, dodging trams and swarms of bicycles. On the plaza, old women draped in black, tossed bits of baguettes to pigeons bathing in a fountain. Across the way, a giant ferryboat disgorged passengers returning from a cruise to North Africa.
Everywhere I turned my head, I saw something totally unanticipated. But the image that struck me most profoundly was Notre Dame de la Garde, a cathedral situated high on a hill to the East, topped by a gilded statue of a woman and child. "That's La Bonne Mère," Alain told me as I got back in the cab. "She watches over the city." The Virgin Mary sculpture reminded me vaguely of the Statue of Liberty, but here the effect was slightly pagan, exuding maternal affection and warmth, not monumental aloofness.
Passing along the port, we drove via the Corniche John F. Kennedy until we reached my hotel, Le Petit Nice. Perched on a rocky promontory thrust into the sea, the inn had once been the villa of a famous opera singer. I had been expecting something out of The Night of the Iguana, but Le Petit Nice turned out to be a surprisingly chic little enclave with a balustrade terrace, swimming pool and circular parking area. My room, a small immaculate space with contemporary furnishings, offered endless views of mountainous shores, seaside villas and clear blue water. Even in early fall, the temperature was warm enough to leave my balcony windows wide open. Off in the distance, I could see a trio of arid islands, the Friouls. On one stood the ruins of Chateau d'If, the medieval fortress where Alexandre Dumas had set The Count of Monte Cristo.
After unpacking, I called the one person whose number I had in Marseille, a student named Philippe whom a contact had recommended as a good guide. Luckily, Philippe was home and arranged to meet me later that afternoon to show me the town. But first lunch beckoned. Le Petit Nice is well-known in Provence for its Michelin-rated two star restaurant, Le Passedat. Sited on a bluff overlooking the sea, Le Passedat specializes in Provencal cuisine: aioli, bourride, daurade à la creme d'oursins. The decor is extremely simple, but the food is elegantly presented, and delicious. Outside the restaurant's large picture windows, fishermen were scaling the rocks that lined the shore, while risk-seeking swimmers dived in the choppy waves. What struck me inside was the serious air of the clientele. Here not a foreign word was spoken, not a tourist was in sight. These were locals who took to their plates with the relish of dedicated connoisseurs.
Philippe arrived a little after six. A tall blond with classic Gallic good looks, he was in his mid-20s and casually dressed in gym clothes. He explained that he worked at a fitness club in his spare time. As we rode into town, Philippe took it upon himself to act as my guide, educating me about the city's rich history. He shared the legend of Protis, a Greek from Phocea, who founded the ancient city Massalia in 600 BC. Later, he explained, Mary Magdalene allegedly settled here, too, bringing Christianity to Europe. I had expected a bit more small talk, but Philippe seemed intent on conveying his deep sense of pride, his fierté for his native city. If the tables had been turned, would I have spoken so knowledgeably about New York?
But as I soon learned, civic pride is very much a local trait. The Marseillais have always evinced a passionate, patriotic spirit, one not easily subdued. Louis XIV declared that the port's cannons should face the city rather than the harbor, since the populace itself was his greatest threat. During WWII, the Germans razed a large section of the old city, in a brutal, and ultimately failed, attempt at eliminating the Resistance. And during the French Revolution, of course, the city's rousing marching song, La Marseillaise, became the national anthem -- an irony not lost upon a people who for centuries have had to put up with snobbish Parisians looking down their noses at them because of their thick Provencal accents and penchant for pastis.
One didn't have to be Parisian, I realized, to underestimate Marseille. We parked the car close by the Cours Honore d'Estienne D'Orves, a public square that only recently had been a parking garage. But that convenience wisely had been moved underground, opening up the spacious plaza to pedestrians and cafe lovers. It is now the city's hub, teeming with young men and women, sipping drinks, smoking Gitanes and laughing noisily. It reminded me of Nice's crowded Cours Saleya, but there was nothing touristy or artificial about this meeting place. Crossing the Cours, we stopped by Les Arcenaulx, owned by local publisher Jeanne Laffitte. Her shop, featuring books on the arts and travel, was a noted center of intellectual and political discussions, but also contained a highly popular restaurant and salon de thé. The energy was more Latin, it seemed to me, than French -- yet the food was the essence of Midi.
After dinner Philippe and I walked over to the Bar de la Marine, the timeless landmark that had played such a prominent role in Marcel Pagnol's trilogy. I had recently watched Marius, filmed in the 30s by Alexander Korda, and was delighted to see that very little had changed in the bar's decor. The funny murals, tiled floor and spiral staircase were still there. The droll little ferryboat, across the way, that shuttles passengers between the two sides of the port, is still there too. The distance it travels is no more than 500 meters, but that doesn't stop natives from treating it as a sacred ritual. Afterwards, Philippe and I snaked through maze-like backstreets lined with bistros and bars, many of which were no bigger than shoeboxes. Some of these, I soon gathered, were places of ill repute -- garishly painted women leaned against beaded doorways, lewdly inviting us to come inside for a drink.
Philippe and I walked along Rue Moliere, past the Opéra, an architectural jewel on a small public square. After checking out that week's schedule (I was not surprised to see that Marseille was performing "Lady Macbeth From Mtensk," a rarely heard masterpiece by Shostakovich), we slipped into O' Stop, a spot popular with opera lovers who come from all over Europe to take in Marseille's unusual productions. Here the mood was ecstatic; the laughter contagious, with pictures of famous opera stars on the wall. Philippe told me he'd once seen Dame Gwyneth Jones in here, enjoying a late sandwich with friends after an endless night singing Wagner.
Back outside, I was losing my sense of direction, but Philippe assured me the port was just a block behind us. He led me along Rue Beauvau to a non-descript speakeasy called MP. Here one had to announce oneself at the door, before disappearing into its dark interior. A large crowd of young men was smoking up a storm. A few women were shooting pool in the back. Murky music videos were being played on TV screens over the bar. This was the local gay hangout, Philippe explained. I couldn't help notice the irony in the situation. I had fantasized for years about Marseille’s scandalous nightlife -- and here I was in a club that was no more raucous than an Elks Lodge.
Around midnight, we headed up La Canebière, the world famous boulevard that English sailors had nicknamed "Can O' Beer." After years of steady decline, the major artery was finally experiencing a comeback as upscale art galleries, restaurants and cinemas have sprung up. Late at night, the energy was electric. Many of the cafes were crowded with college students and young couples having a late drink. But even a newcomer like me could see that it has a way to go before it recaptures its former glory.
As we walked along the port, Philippe and I talked more about Marseille. I asked him pointed questions about the terrible things I'd heard over the years. Where were all the sleazy sailors, drug lords and thieves? He laughed and explained that ever since the collapse of French colonialism, the port had diminished in prominence, if not size, and the city no longer had as many international sailors roaming its streets. Organized crime had given up its stranglehold on the city after the collapse of Communism in the Eastern Bloc since the bulk of the drug trade had moved further east to Poland and Berlin.
Later, Philippe's comments were affirmed by other Marseillais, who were amused and bewildered by the false impression I, and other Americans they had met, had of their city. If anything, Marseille is redoubling its efforts to attract tourism. The subway is finally finished, and running smoothly. The beaches have been enlarged; boardwalks and parks developed. The famous Gare St. Charles and its grand stone stairway has been renovated, making an entrance by train an unforgettable experience. Behind the Hotel de Ville, where recently yet another ancient ship was unearthed, plans are underway to restore the plaza destroyed by the Nazis.
But I was troubled by a swastika I'd seen spray-painted on a road sign earlier that day. I asked Philippe if Marseilles were succumbing to a tide of anti-immigrant hysteria as elsewhere in Europe. With nearly a million people, Philippe explained, Marseille has more than its share of ethnic tensions. The neighborhood Belsunce is home to les maghrebins, immigrants from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. But the city also houses numerous Orthodox Jews, Middle Eastern Arabs, Africans from Ghana and Senegal, Corsicans, Vietnamese, Chinese and Armenians. When France gave up its colonies, many pieds noirs came back here to live. The eclectic mix is a melting pot that is always in danger of boiling over with resentments. And yet, considering its size, Marseille has been spared the excessive violence that plagues so many European cities. In fact, according to the New York Times, it ranked twelfth among French cities in violent crime at that time.
That night, Philippe and I drove out of town, no more than a couple of miles really, but very quickly the terrain changed from urban to rural. We turned into a dirt road that slashed through a ravine and descended steep hills bracketed with brush until we came to an open space carved out amid high cliffs. Philippe explained that this was one of Marseille's celebrated calanques, or limestone coves. The coastline as far east as Cassis is carved out with thousands of these natural formations, rich with wildlife and challenging terrain for rock climbers. Many of the calanques feature fishing cottages decorated with hanging plants, flowering vines and gardens. This was a side to Marseille I had never even dreamed of.
The next week flew by in a flurry of activity. I went back to the calanques during the day to enjoy the sun. I attended the Opera, a concert of Cameroon drummers, a comedy cabaret. Philippe and I dined at Patalain, a superb restaurant run by a charming chef named Suzanne Quaglia. Guidebooks in hand, I explored L'Abbaye Saint-Victor, a noble 9th century sanctuary, noted for its early Christian and Greek crypts; Musee Cantini, a former 19th-century hotel particulier now filled with contemporary art and faience, and Le Cours Julien, an area for avant-garde theater and trendy restaurants that turns into a lively antique book fair on weekends. My favorite area was Le Panier (or "breadbasket"), the city's oldest neighborhood, marked by narrow, steep streets and unusual architectural landmarks, such as La Vieille Charité, a magnificent 17th century baroque hospice designed by Pierre Puget, a Marseille native. Its four gracefully arched loggias embrace a beautiful chapel with an egg-shaped cupola.
One afternoon, alone, I roamed the labyrinthine streets of Marseille's exotic Belsunce neighborhood, the Arab district located within a triangle formed by La Canebière, Rue d'Aix and Boulevard d'Athènes. Here I saw sights one might expect to find in Morocco: street vendors selling live chickens, wild boars dangling from hooks, white-washed mosques, and outdoor bazaars displaying vegetables and spices whose names in English I don't even know. Above me through shuttered yellow windows, I could hear the shrill cries of a young girl singing, or ululating. She was preparing, I was later told, for an upcoming wedding. At Place Jules Guesde, site of the city's Arc de Triomphe (a smaller version of the one in Paris), Africans dressed in colorful caftans and tribal costumes were hawking costume jewelry, carved sculptures and incense. On Cours Belsunce, I passed by the defunct Alcazar theatre, now nothing more than a graffiti-covered shell. There were plans of converting it into a department store. [It later was incorporated as the entrance to a towering sleek new library.]
Finally at the famous Gare St. Lazare, I paused for a cup of espresso. Standing on its grand staircase at sunset, I watched as the quarter's faded rose-stone walls were bathed in a fiery orange glow. Spread out before me was the vast skyline of the city, cascading down to the sea. I've been all over France, from Mont St. Michel to the Pyrenees, but I'd never seen anything to rival this for sheer dramatic intensity.
Threading my way through Marseille’s myriad neighborhoods, many of which could definitely use a splash of fresh paint, I was constantly reminded of something Philippe pointed out. In Marseille, one must never judge by externals -- an hotel particulier might seem on the brink of ruin, but behind its shabby exterior lies a lavishly appointed home with a private courtyard and garden. Circling the Place Castellane are dozens of haute bourgeois mansions whose stone and brick facades are fading, but the families inside still prosper. Outside town, the rich live in crumbling bastides with expansive gardens overlooking the sea.
The next morning, I visited La Treille ("the Trellis"), the hilltop village near Aubagne that Pagnol brought so vividly to life as Les Bastides Blanches in his novels Jean de Florette and Manon of the Springs. Having seen the recent film versions by Claude Berri, I was enchanted to find that here too nothing has changed. The village fountain sits where it was, and men still gather under an arbor to play pétanque. They looked like santons, the little clay figurines popular in Marseille's yearly folk festivals, come to life. Winding my way up the dusty steep streets, I was greeted by half a dozen dogs, petted a few stray horses, and admired the sanctity of the jumbled medieval houses, many decorated with bright lavender shutters and flowering trellises.
One of the villagers in La Treille, an old man with the gravelly voice of a seasoned raconteur, took me to see Pagnol's grave in a small cemetery at the base of the mountain. He had known Pagnol personally, he told me, as he swept some leaves off the tombstone. They'd been close friends, and had worked together on the original film versions of Pagnol's rustic fables. "Nothing has changed," he assured me, indicating the olive groves, the rolling hills and the cemetery. "Marseille will always be the same."
"Marseille?" I asked, somewhat confused. My guide pointed to a street sign that read IXème Arr. I was astonished to discover that we were still inside the city's limits. I turned to look behind me. Off in the distance, I could just make out a sliver of blue, the Mediterranean, and set into that, like a gemstone, was the port. The moment was uncanny, but it's the one that comes closest to describing the strange spell cast by Marseille. A city that time has ignored, it retains a joyful eccentricity while everything else on the Côte d'Azur is being over-commercialized and made commonplace. Yes, Marseille remains a mystery, but not the one I expected. Rather, it's a place that stays with you, like memories of a good friend, long after you've said "au revoir."