Tough love in Mar­seilles

A spruced-up Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture has re­tained its raff­ish charm

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SOPHIA MARTELLI

AR­RIV­ING at Gare St Charles in Mar­seilles in the early hours of a balmy Oc­to­ber night, the first mar­vel of the city that is pointed out to me — both proudly and af­fec­tion­ately — is a large, well-fed rat that pours it­self into a nook in the sta­tion’s stone wall.

‘‘Wel­come to Mar­seilles,’’ says Oliver, my la­conic host, push­ing his bi­cy­cle along the street to avoid run­ning into a trio of high-cheek­boned Maghre­bian hip-hop devotees. As they saunter past, del­toids rip­pling, bounc­ing flu­idly and el­e­gantly on their toes to some in­nate city beat, Oliver adds, ‘‘Also known as North North Africa.’’

With a pop­u­la­tion of 850,000 (1.6 mil­lion within the greater city lim­its), Mar­seilles is France’s sec­ond-largest city, af­ter Paris. Both cities have a large Moroc­canTu­nisian-Al­ge­rian con­tin­gent, but while in Paris im­mi­grants end up in the ban­lieues, in Mar­seilles ev­ery­one gets piled into the cen­tre. When it comes to at­mos­phere, even though it’s 660km from the cap­i­tal, Mar­seilles is a mil­lion miles from safe, pol­ished La Ville Lumiere (not to men­tion the other tourist towns of the Cote d’Azur: St Tropez, Monte Carlo and Cannes).

A port city, Mar­seilles is crowded, chaotic and ghet­toedgy. But this year it is a Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture, an hon­our shared with Kosice in Slo­vakia. The ini­tia­tive, for which cities pre­pare a year-long pro­gram of cul­tural events, be­gan in 1985 and passed through Europe’s smaller cap­i­tals — Athens, Am­s­ter­dam, Madrid, Stock­holm — wav­ing its fairy wand of re­ju­ve­na­tion.

Now it spot­lights more ob­scure cities that could do with a tidy-up (Liver­pool in 2008), do­ing won­ders for mu­nic­i­pal con­fi­dence (and pos­si­bly lin­ing a few pock­ets; but let’s not let cyn­i­cism ruin things).

Some ar­eas have been tarted up and you can see the new Mar­seilles emerg­ing from its co­coon of in­dus­trial grime. In the at­trac­tive dis­trict of Le Panier, Le Cen­tre de la Vieille Charite, a 17th-cen­tury alms-house of hon­ey­coloured mo­lasse stone with a gal­leried court­yard and a gor­geous baroque chapel at its cen­tre (thank­fully the com­plex es­caped de­struc­tion in the heavy bomb­ing of 1943), has been sand­blasted and re­stored to within an inch of its life. Now a mu­seum, it houses eclec­tic arche­o­log­i­cal finds — Greek, Etr­uscan, African, Mex­i­can — and con­tem­po­rary art exhibitions.

To the east, Rue de la Republique, a grand, Parisian Hauss­mann-style 19th-cen­tury street, was bought in its or­nate en­tirety by a US in­vest­ment fund, and then passed around Lone Star and Lehman Broth­ers like a hot potato dur­ing the credit crunch; since Lehman’s col­lapse it has been re­fi­nanced to in­clude one US and two French part­ners. The bid to com­pletely re­model the de­cay­ing build­ings has re­sulted in a smart, but mainly un­oc­cu­pied, street — the rents are too high to al­low any­thing but global chains such as H&Mand Zara to open shops there.

This may well change. Wan­der down the rue to the Vieux Port and you’ll find most of the an­cient build­ings — the 1656 Ho­tel de Ville and the Louis XIV; the vin­tage pair of forts, Saint Jean and Saint Nicholas, guard­ing the har­bour — ris­ing like phoenixes from clouds of brick dust. The old port is set to be a new hub of tourism; af­ter all, it’s only a short boat ride from the pier to the Fri­oul ar­chi­pel­ago (in­clud­ing the fortress of Chateau d’If, of The Count of Monte Cristo fame) or the nearby turquoise- tinted Proven­cal fjords of Les Calan­ques. With the smartenedup wa­ter­front, new at­trac­tions such as the Mu­seum of Civil­i­sa­tions from Europe and the Mediter­ranean aim to en­tice lux­ury-cruise pas­sen­gers with a mix of cul­ture, five-star ho­tels and restau­rants and, of course, shop­ping.

Such vis­i­tors may not ven­ture fur­ther than the port, or a walk up the hill to Notre-Dame de la Garde, an iconic Mar­seilles land­mark. Its mar­ble and gilt-en­crusted in­te­rior is daz­zling, al­though more af­fect­ing is the mod­est col­lec­tion of stormy sea-themed paint­ings hung on the in­te­rior wall fac­ing the Mediter­ranean (they cer­tainly make one mind­ful of all the sailors who have per­ished in that harm­less-look­ing brine).

The view from here, sweep­ing over Le Cor­bus­ier’s mas­sive ver­ti­cal vil­lage of 337 apart­ments, Unite, built in 1952 and yet an­other re­ju­ve­nated build­ing, may con­vince the vis­i­tor they have done Mar­seilles. But to limit the sights to th­ese spruced-up of­fi­cial mon­u­ments would be a mis­take. It’s the dis­tricts where peo­ple live that are an ex­otic de­light to wan­der.

Noailles — the Arab quar­ter, with its spice mar­ket and mint tea shops — has more than a whiff of North Africa about it, while bo­hemian Cours Julien is plas­tered with colour­ful and creative street art and boasts in­de­pen­dent bou­tiques, ex­cel­lent boulan­geries and a wel­com­ing town square fringed by cafes and restau­rants.

In Chapitre, street walk­ers lurk in the door­ways by day and night. Ex­pe­ri­enced and com­fort­ably up­hol­stered, with lip­stick, cig­a­rette and high heels per­ma­nently in place, from time to time they are picked up by pil­lowy Mar­seilles men in old Peu­geots. (‘‘I don’t like to think how much it costs,’’ shud­ders my host­ess, Matilde, as we pass. ‘‘It is prob­a­bly the price of a baguette.’’)

Co-op­er­a­tive as­so­ci­a­tions are some­thing of a way of life for many in Mar­seilles. Dis­used shops all over the city are taken over by or­gan­i­sa­tions whose vol­un­teers patch up bi­cy­cles or ap­pre­ci­ate death me­tal; the bet­ter or­gan­ised ap­ply for grants, which eases the un­em­ploy­ment.

Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is sweep­ing th­ese run­down streets, and pre­sum­ably will mean that apart­ments with such charm­ing pe­riod fea­tures as out­door lava­to­ries (in a feat of en­gi­neer­ing, lo­cated on bal­conies) will be up­dated. What won’t, thank­fully, are the views over oasis-like gar­dens ringed by tall 19th-cen­tury apart­ment build­ings where mu­sic, whether vinyl or live, drifts out.

Mar­seilles is a no­to­ri­ously poor city but a lot of money has been lav­ished on it. The bud­get for MP2013 (as the Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture is also known) was hun­dreds of mil­lions of eu­ros. Will it be gen­tri­fied into the 21st cen­tury? For the in­hab­i­tants, it’s prob­a­bly about time it was. The great thing for vis­i­tors is that Mar­seilles, rough di­a­mond that it is, will keep its char­ac­ter while it hap­pens. mar­seil­lecity­of­cul­ture.eu mp2013.fr au.franceguide.com

PIC­TURES: AFP (MAIN); AP

Street artists per­form as vis­i­tors queue for the open­ing of the Mu­seum of Civil­i­sa­tions from Europe and the Mediter­ranean, top; the mu­seum’s ex­te­rior, next to Fort-Saint Jean

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