This is the one city in France people tell you to avoid. Too much crime, they say, too many Arabs, too many Africans, a Mafia stronghold that was known as the “French Chicago” back in the 1930s, a time when British writer Basil Woon labeled it “the world’s wickedest port.”
During World War II, the Nazis were so disgusted with its ancient Saint-Jean district—a place replete with 16th-century mansions, and nearly every one of them a brothel—that they blew it up. That’s still a sore point in a city that was supposed to be a “free zone” during the war, and indeed it was a refuge for artists and intellectuals like André Breton, Walter Benjamin, and Max Ernst. Mississippi writer Richard Wright likely stopped in Marseilles on his many trips from his expatriate home in Paris to destinations in Africa after the war.
Alexandre Dumas put one of literature’s most famous prisoners, Edmond Dantes, the Count of Monte Cristo, in the 16th-century fortress that still stands on Chateau d’If just off the coast of Marseilles. The count existed only in Dumas’ mind, but tourists can visit what’s claimed to be his cell in the old prison today!
For all these reasons, and more, I’ve always wanted to go to Marseilles. Reading the crime novels of the late so-called father of “Mediterranean Noir”, Jean-Claude Izzo, in recent years only whetted my appetite more.
“Marseilles is a city of exiles,” Izzo writes in Chourmo, the second volume of his Marseilles Trilogy. “It’ll always be the last port of call in the world” even if Europeans, by and large, consider it “the first city of the Third World.”
Izzo’s love for his city ran deep even if he knew its many flaws. “A place where anyone, of any color, could get off a boat or a train with his suitcase in his hand and not a cent in his pocket, and melt into the crowd,” he writes in the first volume, Total Chaos. “A city where, as soon as he’d set foot on its soil, this man could say, `This is it. I’m home.’”
“I’m going to meet you in Marseilles,” I told my wife Suzanne as she prepared for a two-week work trip to France. “I’ll find us a good hotel,” Suzanne responded immediately. She’s an internal auditor for FedEx in Memphis and serves on their international team. Her assignment was to head a group of FedEx auditors assessing the company’s operations across France.
When my son Michael heard the news, he said, “I’ll join you!” Michael is a U.S. Coast Guard officer based in Maastricht, The Netherlands, from which he travels to Africa and the Middle East to inspect ships. “I’ll swing down to Marseilles when I get back from Dubai.”
So in late January, we three Oxonians met at the Grand Hotel Beauvau in the Vieux Port, the heart of Old Marseilles, a 201-year-old hotel where the Polish composer Frederick Chopin once stayed. Just around the corner was Marseilles’ grandest boulevard, the Canebière, what American sailors called “Can o’ Beer” street for all the bars and taverns that once lined its sidewalks. Banks and trendy shops have replaced most of the bars.
At the end of Canebière, just yards from our hotel, is the port itself, teeming with fishmongers, peddlers of flowers and trinkets, puppeteers, musicians, and the swirling melting pot of humanity that has always been what defines Marseilles.
Karine Anglade, who sells flowers alongside the flotilla of boats of all sizes that fill the port, wants to know what’s not to love about Marseilles. “There’s less stress, less distress. You have the sun. You have the sea.”
Marseilles’ people with their love of the sea, music, and sports (the great soccer player Zinedine “Zizou” Zidane came from Marseilles) are its real charm, says Tshiukenke Milolo, a native of the Congo who worked the front desk at our hotel.
“Marseilles is a mix of a lot of cultures–from the Orient, from Africa. And then there’s the good weather.”
Lotfi Rachel, a 23-year-old native Parisian who works as a waiter at nearby La Cuisine Au Beurre restaurant, agrees for the most part. “Marseilles is unique because of the mentality. It’s special. The French press, the newspapers, say Marseilles is dangerous, and it is dangerous, but Marseilles is Marseilles. Things are not as bad as before.”
He’s right. Founded by the ancient Greeks and later ruled (with great difficulty) by the Romans, the 2,600-year-old city, France’s oldest, has the long history of crime—and organized crime—that many port cities have. City officials say violent crime dropped 46 percent between 2012 and 2014, including significant drops in armed robbery and gang-related murders. Poverty and unemployment remain higher here than in the rest of France, while the average household income is a third lower than elsewhere in the country.
Declared a “European Capital of Culture” by the European Union in 2013, Marseilles is experiencing a building boom along the outer reaches of the Vieux Port, with new museums and high-rise hotels that boosters say point to a bright future and which critics bemoan as an EU-pushed creeping disassociation with the past.
Much of the crime in Marseilles is in the northern districts where huge populations of immigrants live. Nearly a fourth of Marseilles’ 850,000 residents—it is France’s second largest city—are Muslim. North African Jews and Armenians each claim nearly a 10th of the population. From its poverty-stricken districts come some of France’s most vibrant rap music with musicians like IAM, PSY4 de la Rime, and Jul earning national reputations.
“Marseille lyrics can be full of rage, but they’re not violent the way those of certain Parisian bands are,” wrote the New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman back in 2007. “Melancholy is the word often used to describe the local rap style. … Marseille boasts a groovier style. It mixes in blues, flamenco, Jamaican ragga.”
In other words, Marseilles’ rap music is the same cultural mix that the city as a whole is. It also reflects the rebellious streak that resists any comparison to Paris, a determination to forge its own way that goes back to Caesar’s times. Marseilles gave the French Revolution and the nation their anthem, welcomed Italian revolutionary Guiseppe Garibaldi with open arms, supported the Paris Commune in 1871, and kept a legendary Socialist mayor, Gaston Defferre, in office 35 years.
It also gave birth to the anti-immigrant right-wing Front National, whose candidate Marine Le Pen is making a strong bid for president in this year’s elections. Marseilles has been a magnet for immigrants at least since Mary Magdalene, who, legend has it, came here after the death of Jesus and preached in the streets. It was ground zero in the waves of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East that began landing on Europe’s shore in recent decades. Although the city has avoided the acts of terrorism that have plagued other parts of Europe, tensions exist. “I have a lot of hate in me,” a 20-year-old salesman at a downtown store confided to me during our visit. “How can I not be racist?”
Refusing to give his name, he told me stories of being cursed and insulted by Arabs at a local café and of friends being attacked by Arab gangs. “It’s not only our fault. It’s their fault, too. The kids are not educated by their parents.” Still, as Suzanne, Michael and I made our way through this city, we couldn’t help agreeing with Karine Anglade that there’s a lot to love.
We traveled along the coastal highway known as the Corniche up the hill that oversees Marseilles to the towering Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde and the giant statue of Mary atop its dome, the “Bonne Mère” who watches over her city. We walked the little streets of the old port and the ancient forts that guard it. We dined at the Michelin star restaurant, Une Table, Au Sud, and, of course, ordered bouillabaisse with its variety of fish fresh from the Mediterranean tossed into a Marseilles-style mix of garlic, saffron, laurel, fennel, sage and the Spanish pimento sauce known as “rouille.” Delicious.
“It’s so weird us sitting here,” Michael said as we sat earlier that day at Le Café des Arts in the Vieux Port. Michael was enjoying a beer, Suzanne a glass of Provencal wine, and myself Marseilles’ favorite aperitif, the anise-flavored Pastis. We laughed and agreed, and we drank a toast to a unique reunion in a city whose entire history is one of people coming together.
JOSEPH B. ATKINS is a veteran writer and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. He is author of the novel Casey’s Last Chance (Satoris Literary Group, 2015), among other books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.