“The dregs of the world are here, unsifted. It is Port Said, Shanghai, Barcelona and Sydney combined. Now that San Francisco has reformed, Marseille is the world’s wickedest port.” Basil Woon, author of the assuredly straight 1929 opus, A Guide to The Gay World of France, was obviously less than enamoured by this great southern city. “Thieves, cutthroats, and other undesirables throng the narrow alleys,” he gasps, “and sisters of scarlet sit in the doorways of their places of business, catching you by the sleeve as you pass by.” Definitely sounds like my sort of place.
Half a century later and things don’t seem any more salubrious. “Skag city,” growls Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, in The French Connection II (1975), as he shoots his way past crumbling facades, festering alleys and streets greasy with grime and despair. Because Marseille is one of those cities that bears the brunt, albeit uncomplainingly, of eternal international infamy. MFK Fisher, one of America’s finest scribblers on food, visited often, and lived there for a while in the Seventies, too. Yet friends worried for her safety. A Scottish couple told her that people “had jokingly said before they left England, when they admitted they were going to Marseille, ‘How mad! Nobody goes to Marseille! But be sure to bring us a pocketful of Big H, if the bullets miss you! … some top quality fixes old boy!”’ Tres droll.
Marseille, though, is ruggedly tenacious, an ancient and ever-prosperous port, and France’s second biggest city, founded around 600BC, when Protis the Phocean leader first spotted a marshy cove, protected by two rocky outcrops, and thought it looked like a splendid place to set up camp. It survived countless invasions, from Greeks and Romans to Visigoths, Arogonese and Germans — the last of whom destroyed the Vieux Port in 1943 — plus endless sieges, attacks and plagues. Yet Fisher bemoans the indelible, seemingly eternal stereotype. “One of the most tantalising things about Marseille,” she writes in A Considerable Town, “is that most people who describe it… write the same things… the familiar line that Marseille is doing its best to live up to a legendary reputation as world capital for ‘dope, whores and street violence’. Apparently, people like to glance one more time at the same old words: evil, filth, dangerous.”
Just after noon, on the most brilliant blue of late autumnal afternoons, the evil seems far removed, whisked away on a brisk, crisp sea breeze. And the filth is more wear and tear than downright squalor while the only danger is the contemplation of that third glass of pastis. I’m sitting with my friend, chef and food writer Rowley Leigh, a man not given to praise, faint or otherwise. “But I love this place,” he admits. “It feels real, proper, vital and alive. It doesn’t pander to tourists, or give the slightest fuck what anyone thinks about it, either. Very much the Marseille way.”
We retreat back into comfortable silence, perched above the city on the terrace of the former 16th-century Hotel-Dieu hospital, now a rather comfortable InterContinental hotel. Ahead of us looms the basilica of Notre-Dame de La Garde, where a gleaming and gilded Mary and Child gaze benevolently upon a city wedged between Mediterranean and Provencal hills. Below, the Vieux-Port, with its overpriced bouillabaisse and faded hotels, soap shops and neat rows of tiny boats.
The port may have changed since the days of Dickens, but the faces of every hue, the “Hindoos, Russians, Chinese, Spaniards, Portuguese, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Genoese, Neapolitans, Venetians, Greeks, Turks, descendants from all the builders of Babel” he describes at the start of Little Dorrit, still loom large. As a gateway to the south, Marseille always attracted folk: Greeks, Italians, Armenians, Vietnamese, Corsicans and North Africans — Saharan Africans, pieds-noirs from Algeria and Maghrebis, too. A merry old mix, to say the least.