Marseilles – The East Comes West: A French Mirage On The Mediterranean

It was supposed to be dangerous and beautiful, seedy yet enchanting, full of life as well as a place where you might fear for your life.  This was what I was led to believe before traveling to Marseilles, that gritty, idyllic French city that rises from the dreamy blue shore of the Mediterranean. My initial impressions helped peel back the multi-faceted layers that make up Marseilles. Everything I had read and researched beforehand turned out to be true, but there was so much more.

The Mediterranean as viewed from the Notre Dame de la Garde

The Mediterranean as viewed from the Notre Dame de la Garde

In France, But Not Of France – A Mediterranean City
It may be France’s second largest city, but Marseilles is rarely mentioned in the same sentence as Lyon, Nice, Strasbourg, Bordeaux or Toulouse, let alone Paris. It ranks low on the list of destination cities for visitors to France. That is odd because regionally Marseilles is often included in two of the most attractive and well-known tourist destinations in the world, Provence and the Cote d’Azur. While it might be included as part of these, the city really stands apart. There is nothing like it in France or for that matter, the world. It is an urban conurbation that size-wise is even larger than Paris. From the perspective of cultural geography the city is a contradiction. Marseilles is in France, but only partly of France. It is more a Mediterranean than a French city. It has a grittiness that is reminiscent of Eastern European cities, but a grandeur that is unmistakably French.

Though it is geographically in Western Europe, much of the eastern aspect that gives the city such a distinct identity washed onto its shores via a port that ranks as the 8th largest in the world. Due to the fact that topographically it is hemmed in and segregated from the interior of France by hills, Marseilles has looked southward to the Mediterranean for its economic and cultural life. Over the past couple of hundred years Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, Italians fleeing poverty, Armenians fleeing genocide, Spaniards fleeing fascism,  Algerians, Tunisians and  Moroccans fleeing poverty all came to Marseilles seeking refuge, wealth and most importantly, a new start. This has made the city a mélange of cultures, with French culture leaving its imprint on them all.

Spice of life - in the Arab market area of Marseille

Spice of life – in the Arab market area of Marseille

Making Anyone Feel Foreign – Arabia In Marseilles
Marseilles does not suffer nearly as much segregation as other French cities. The dividing line between rich and poor, upper middle class, working class and low brow had often been blurred. Fortune and misfortune rub elbows on a daily basis. From the Vieux Port (Old Port) area inequality and the vicissitudes of fortune radiate outward. Beggars and bankers side step one another along the city’s main boulevard, La Canebiere. A couple of blocks away glittering Zara-esque storefronts sparkle while a homeless man lurks one doorway down. Haute couture fashion shops stand along un-swept streets as high heels and cigarette butts share the same sidewalks. Then the visitor suddenly arrives at the Arab Market, an ascent or descent into another world depending upon one’s perspective. It is an all-out assault on the senses. Here the Maghreb meets Marseilles. French gives way to Arabic, the skin of its merchants is a delicate, pale brown, noise and energy proliferate as do crowds of hawkers and gawkers.

A bit further onward from the market are streets filled with all the disparate and desperate forms of life. Storefronts indicate the minority cultures that have found a home here. Afro-hair extensions on offer, men standing in doorways watching, talking and waiting for a living, a decadent, exuberant dynamism can be felt in every alleyway and rubbish strewn street. Darkness lurks in daylight as crime seems to be around every corner, but such a feeling is fleeting. It is loudly contradicted by the vibrancy and variety of life to be discovered amid these pulsing streets. The area is fraught with ambiguity, an Arabian France, where friendliness and danger are to be felt in equal measure. Here is the kind of place that can make almost anyone feel foreign. The outsider imagines the worst. And the worst turns out to be less than imagined. In my case it happened to be a young man who tried to short change me out of one euro over a bag of jellybeans. He smiled politely, while his eyes attempted to evade mine when I called him out for his petty attempt at crime.

The path to Notre Dame de la Garde

The path to Notre Dame de la Garde on the highest hilltop in Marseilles

Scaling the Heights – The Way To Notre Dame de la Garde
A bit further out from the city center Marseilles crawls away from the Mediterranean scaling the hillsides. Steep streets defeat even the most vigorous urban hiker making their way through the 6th arrondissement to the city’s highest hilltop. Hundreds of steps lead to precipitously inclining pavements. They then merge into yet another set of steps. Directional signs lead the way through a withering array of twists and turns to the highest hilltop in the city. The tourist fails to notice that they are striding past the more refined, upper middle class Marseilles. Dirty white and sea foam green shutters cover large windows. Homes are hidden by large walls or gates, with every entry point requiring a code. A rage for privacy pervades these silent streets. The bark of dogs is heard much more often than voices. People seem to live here, but they are rarely seen.

The architectural achievement that crowns the heights above this neighborhood and the culmination of many a visitor’s itinerary is the Notre Dame de la Garde. It can be glimpsed in fits and starts on a trek to the top. Disappearing and then reappearing in bit parts, always a false summit farther away. The irony of this faraway so close feature of the church will not be lost on the hunchbacked pilgrim plodding up to these heights. From many miles away in the city the church can be seen soaring prominently skyward. Then as one begins to make the lung bursting ascent it disappears completely from view. On faith, the pilgrim must follow signs and steps and stairs until they arrive with their forehead frothing with sweat just beneath the church’s towering presence. It is at this point that the pilgrim’s heart must fall. For all their climbing, they must suddenly realize the Notre Dame de la Garde reaches heights that can never quite be reached. The gold Madonna that tops the church seems to reach the heavens. Glancing back from just outside the church reveals a panoramic view of the city, its buildings glowing white and luminous, looking like a mirage. This could only be Marseilles.