Marseille and I go back a long way. I love the place. And, unlike me, it now looks better than when we first met. That was years ago and, by coincidence, on the occasion of the Chinese New Year. I spent the night eating and drinking in an oriental bar with French Chinese I’d never met before and never saw again.
On subsequent visits, I’ve been shot at (ok, it was a pre-teen hoodlum with an air pistol but still...) and have bolted from girlie bars when slapped with a multi-hundred pound bill for unspeakable "Champagne". I’ve been to the opera, a souk and soccer matches. I’ve tackled the fishiest fish dishes in the world.
And, best of all, I’ve walked the ragged limestone headlands at dawn when light flows in from the sea and, against all the odds, France’s oldest city is re-born.
Marseille was founded 2,600 years ago and hasn’t had a quiet moment since. Boisterousness bolts its DNA together. The two forts flanking the Old Port, focal point of the city, had their cannons pointing not out to sea but inland, a royal attempt to keep the Marseillais under control.
Music, soccer and crime
Some hope. It takes more than artillery to calm these people down. Cut off from the rest of France by limestone hills (and by choice), the city turns to the Mediterranean, which has brought in plague, prosperity and a wide variety of huddle masses. You can sense the 19th-century trading confidence in the Second Empire façades lined up like grandes dames along the magisterial Canebière main drag.
The 20th century was tougher. Like other great, floundering ports (Naples, Liverpool), Marseille took refuge in music and wit, soccer, crime and ladlefuls of bombast. The Marseillais’ self-image as down-trodden but defiant rapscallions developed. You went with a sense of anticipation but your hand on your wallet.
Culture and cappuccino
In recent times, though, they have been re-inventing the place. To the south of the centre, the huge Prado beaches – created from what was dug out to make the subway system – give the city breathing space. The high-speed TGV train has brought Parisians closer. Galleries and museums have sprung up or been renovated.
There are now as many designer hotels and purple-lit techno-bars as anyone could possible need, though more are on the way. Modern trams purr through the centre.
And, in one of those vast municipal schemes which the French so love, the old docklands are being transformed into a brave new world of boutiques, cultural spaces and cappuccino outlets. Marseille is already France’s second city. Now it’s angling for world city status.
Yet it resists respectability. There is, thank heavens, too much hot blood pumping through these southern veins. Where else do you find the grand opera house and the port, fashion shops and butchers, galleries, Armenian cafés, a North African market and all-night bars with pink-lit women…all within a few paces of one another, bang in the centre?
Marseille, in short, is always being adapted and always remaining unalterably its rumbustious self. There is no more exciting urban prospect in Europe.
Read about why Solange Hando thinks that Marseille's marvellous in her guide.