It has been an enduring love affair. Imagine our excitement therefore when we returned to Marseilles for a summer sojourn and found the place sparkling, fresh and fairly crackling with renewed vigour. What a transformation in four short years!
Being named European Capital of Culture for 2013 was the stimulus to complete the makeover. Without losing any of her old raffish charms it appears that the whole city of Marseilles responded to the call to dust off the cobwebs, smarten up and pop on a dazzling smile with which to greet her visitors. France’s old ‘dowager aunt’ port city has morphed into a vibrant, lively, creative and confident Grande Dame.
Looking to settle into a ‘local’ life for our extended stay, we unearthed a stylish simply renovated apartment in a marvellous old building right in the heart of the old port. This afforded us a most interesting, unimpeded view of the street life below and the extraordinary Norman Foster mirrored pavilion, situated at the bustling old port. Underneath which one could always see happy people, performing antics reflected from the mirrored surface above.
The ancient Old Port of Marseilles offers an extraordinary space where one can mingle with a passing mélange of locals and visitors every hour of the day and evening.
International super yachts berth side by side with working ferries, pleasure cruise yachts and small boats of every imaginable size, type, name, many painted in the colours of Provence.
Jostling for space the small working fishing boats directly disgorge their daily catch to be laid out on fish stalls along the wharf. Here a multi-cultural mix of shoppers haggle with the fishermen or their women over a stunning variety of small or large whole or filleted fish, oysters, mussels, octopus and clams to grace their tables for lunch. The seabirds sit patiently waiting for the guts, heads and cast off pieces of tuna, mackeral, sardines and more.
Casual restaurants, cafes and bars line one side of the port, while on the opposite side, sit more formal, long established venues, most offering their particular Provencal, Sardinian, Italian or Moroccan menus. After a decent sampling, the general standard of dishes is to be commended!
The wharf-side walkway along the port is a tourist mecca for tastes of Provence – tempting stalls of lavender; sweet macaroons, nougat; soaps; Provencal linens and small glasses of sweet yet piquant citron presse to whet a dry summer throat. Depending on the time of day a championship game of boules may be underway, a jazz band can burst into foot tapping tunes or the rumblings of a demonstration may be heard gathering in a crowd from the passing throng.
And away from the port the enticing boulevards and old streets have been scrubbed clean to welcome shoppers, seekers of culture, history and art with arms wide open and inviting venues full of sparkling ‘jewels’, reminiscent of a pirates treasure chest.
We tried several times to find the dark, narrow dodgy streets above the old port each crowded with exotic food stalls displaying their middle eastern sweets on open street tables. We had once driven down these corridors at speed, sweating, too fearful of being accosted to open the windows or stop. These days a less fearful, definite ‘stop and shop’ destination at the bustling friendly Middle Eastern bazaars and street stalls.
And up in the Panier district we found old buildings beautifully renovated as stylish new hotels, bustling narrow arcades filled with quaintly presented new ateliers offering creative individual arts, crafts, clothing and pre-loved bric-a-brac. Tiny ‘hole in the wall’ kitchens offer dishes piled high with delicious regional specialities.
Where the streets open out on to open spaces or Places can be found markets selling all manner of wares. Especially good are the fresh food markets displaying the best of the seasonal Provence produce, beckoning buyers with vegetables stacked high, snowy white goats and sheep’s cheeses, freshly baked organic breads, beautifully dressed poultry and lamb. Locals interspersed with the odd lucky visitor line up as politely as ever and wait their turn to purchase their chosen wares before it is all snapped up and the place once more provides a calm, quiet and shaded public space.
As exciting as ever, noisy, hot, mostly sunny, magnificently broody. An inspiring melting pot of cultures – so much culture, so many faces, art, history, so many languages, so much humanity – all pulsating with colour, restless energy and life, Marseilles endures.
Oh, I must tell you about….