Among the many discoveries we made in Provence, Marseilles was perhaps the most surprising one. Like most foreigners, we had only a vague idea of Marseilles and a negative one at that. Movies like The French Connection as well as a number of crime reports in newspapers had given us the impression of a dangerous city, one where you carefully stayed within the well-trodden Vieux Port and went perhaps on a boat ride to one of the nearby islands, purse tightly clutched to your chest. It was not until we made friends in Marseilles that we got to know the city and came to love it.
In my opinion, the bad reputation of Marseilles as a mafia hotbed is no more deserved than the bad reputation of Washington, D.C., as “murder capital of the world.” A grain of truth, regularly watered by bad press, has bloomed into a distorted image of both cities. Marseilles is a port city and as such a place of transit for drugs, illegal immigration, and—inevitably, it seems—a certain criminal element. Le grand banditisme we sometimes read about is the type of organized crime that robs Brinks trucks and wages war with rival criminals for the control of juicy markets such as gambling and drugs. Certainly, these are not choir boys, but the average tourist would be hard pressed to catch a glimpse of these heavies or get in the way of their territorial battles.
Therefore, it is not only safe but highly recommended to visit the wonderful Vieux Port of Marseilles that serves today as yacht harbor and departure point for boat trips to the Calanques and the islands. Its opening to the sea is flanked by two forts, the Fort St. Jean of twelfth-century origin but expanded and fortified by Louis XIV in 1670, and on the opposite side the Fort St. Nicolas, built ten years later by Louis XIV to control the rebellious city. A good introduction to Marseilles would be to climb the stairs of the Fort St. Jean tower for a beautiful panoramic view, before walking the entire periphery of the Vieux Port to Fort St. Nicolas, past City Hall, the Tourist Office, the fish market (in the morning) and numerous outdoor cafés. You have now smelled the sea, heard the Marseillais accent, and felt the laid-back ambience of the place. You are ready to go exploring.
Our first surprise was that Marseilles has thirty-five miles of coastline, running from L’Estaque at the north end to Les Goudes at the south, and a number of islands just off shore. Driving along the Corniche Président Kennedy towards the Parc Balnéaire du Prado—an area of beaches, bicycle paths, swimming pools, volleyball fields, windsurfing—you are now about midway between the Vieux Port and Les Goudes, a tiny fishing village which for all its remoteness from the center is in fact in the eighteenth arrondissement of Marseilles. Soon after Les Goudes the paved road ends, you park your car and walk a few hundred meters towards Cap Croisette which closes the Gulf of Marseilles and to the steep steps cut into the rocks down to the well-hidden Baie des Singes. You have come to finisterra—the end of the earth—and the most spectacular view of the blue infinity of the Mediterranean. Here the water is crystalline turquoise and because of its remoteness the quietest piece of Mediterranean you are likely to swim in. Just a stone’s throw away is a tiny rocky island without any visible vegetation that nevertheless sustains a small herd of wild goats. When I saw a she-goat and her kids walking along the crest I thought myself in ancient Greece—yet, I was still within the city limits of Marseilles!
Driving back along the coast toward the Vieux Port, we spotted the archipelago of Frioul and its little island of If made famous by Alexandre Dumas, whose Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned in the notorious fortress-prison of Chateau d’If. We stopped for a minute at Le Vallon des Auffes, another seaside neighborhood of Marseilles, built around a small inlet lined with colorful little houses and bobbing with brightly painted pointus, the typical little fishing boats so named because they are pointed fore and aft. This little Vallon also houses Chez Fonfon, a fish restaurant that is known far beyond Marseilles for its bouillabaisse.
Back in the Vieux Port and turning our back to the Mediterranean, we walked to the nearby Roman Docks museum with its multitude of ancient amphora found on shipwrecked Roman galleons off Marseilles, and not far from one of my favorite parts of town, Le Panier. This hilly and densely populated poor neighborhood is rapidly being gentrified and is home to the most beautiful historic site in town, La Vieille Charité—a seventeenth-century hospice housed in a quadrangle of three-story arcaded galleries that surround a magnificent chapel with an unusual elliptical dome, the entire complex transformed into a museum in the 1970s. Lines of laundry span the narrow streets of Le Panier and remind you of Naples, while the pockets of Arabic heard here and there speak of the Maghreb and its many immigrants that poured into France by way of Marseilles.
Taking the stairs down the steep streets of Le Panier, we passed a little chocolate shop that seemed very popular. It turned out that there was space for only three or four people inside, so others awaited their turn outside. The place could not have been simpler—a little family business with a recipe for chunky blocks of dark chocolate that made addicts of its customers. According to a friend, here was the best orange-zest-laced dark chocolate in the world, even though the packaging left a bit to be desired. No pretty pralines here, not even a nice little box. A simple white paper bag is what you got, and either the shop owner would cut the block in pieces for you here or you took a hammer to it at home.
Another few blocks took us back to the Vieux Port where we decided to take a rest at one of the outdoor cafes. Looking up from our pastis we found the Basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, built on a hill high above the port. There, on top of the steeple stands the gold-painted statue of La Bonne Mère, as she is affectionately called by the Marseillais, to watch over the nearly one million citizens below and the sailors out at sea, over the forty-five thousand students of the Université de Marseille, and the countless immigrants who came to find work here and ended up staying, creating their own neighborhoods and markets. She sees the ultra-modern silent tram gliding through the city streets; the glass expanse of the renovated St. Charles railway station whence a monumental carved stairway deposits travelers one hundred and four steps below onto La Canebière, the once very chic hotel-lined artery leading directly to the Vieux Port; the busy passenger port with its va-et-vient of ferryboats and cruise ships; the industrial port with its cargo ships and container docks; the sixty-thousand-seat stadium for football-mad Marseilles; the calanques, those beautiful fjordlike inlets carved by the sea into the tall limestone cliffs—and she knows that she is guarding a blessed place.
Naples having lost much of its luster in recent years no longer is the must-see city before dying. Marseilles is an excellent candidate, I think. Take a twenty-minute boat ride from the island of Frioul at sunset and watch in awe as the multi-hued city approaches, offset against its mountainous background, turning pink and opening its welcoming arms as you glide between the two forts into the Vieux Port, admire the scintillating Bonne Mère high above on your right and the beautiful City Hall on your left that so miraculously escaped the German bombs in World War II. When the boat drops you off on the Quai des Belges, don’t—please don’t—leave until you have seen the lights come on and hold your breath in admiration at the sight of the two forts, the Mairie, the entire Vieux Port and of course La Bonne Mère illuminated in a magnificent glow against the night sky. Then see if you don’t agree with me: see Marseilles and die.