It also means a decent lunch. We leave the hotel, and puff up the narrow streets, looking back and out to sea, over Dumas’ “gloomy fortress”, the Chateau d’lf, “which seemed to Edmond Dantes [aka The Count of Monte Cristo], ‘like a scaffold to a malefactor’”. We wander up the hill past loitering youths, north African and Caucasian alike. Their tracksuits, pristine white trainers and sullen stares are easily interchangeable, but they’re bored rather than bullish. The city has edge, sure, but that’s rather different from outright hostility. In dark corners, the occasional prone body stirs under stained blankets, and drawn faces are briefly illuminated by the flare of a lighter; and sometimes, the stench of old piss assails the nostrils. These people, the usual underclass of any large city, though, are too enmeshed in their own lives to care much about the swaying gait of two greedy tourists.
Anyway, “the actuality of Marseille and its reputation are chasmically apart,” according to brilliant polymath iconoclast Jonathan Meades, who has lived here, in the Le Corbusier-designed Unite d’Habitation — which the architect called “La Cite Radieuse” — for some years. “The crime is mostly gang warfare between competing drug gangs whose grasp of economics is imperfect: if everyone is a dealer where is the demand going to come from?” That said, it’s not the sort of place that suits a swagger. If you went looking for trouble, you wouldn’t have to venture far. Nor is it a city in thrall to the tourist buck. “We moved here because we found an enormous flat,” Meades continues. “The city, slow to reveal itself, is kind of lovable. Forget the wild side, the area where we live is about as edgy as St John’s Wood.”
Pizzaria Chez Etienne, with its wood- burning oven, faded pictures of Syracuse and photos of stars unknown, may seem Italian, but it’s Marseillaise, no doubt about that. We briefly consider pieds et paquets, that classic dish of Marseilles involving stuffed sheep’s tripe and trotters. I expect Rowley to leap upon it, as some chefs tend to do when faced with stinky offal. But no. “Way too shitty for me,” he says. A happy escape.
We order pizza; pizza that would make a Neapolitan weep tears of anger. The first has a crisp, thin crust slathered with a good inch of sweating anonymous cheese. Plus olives. It’s joyously greasy, magnificently salty and honking of raw garlic. “A Frenchman’s view of Italian food,” Rowley says between bites. “Or rather, Marseille-style pizza. And that raw garlic — it’s a very Marseille thing.” The other pizza is covered with an intense tomato sauce and studded with anchovies. Again, the flavours sit between the bold and the downright pushy. Salad comes drenched in a thick, muscular dressing, while just-chewy supions (baby squid), cooked with a learned hand, wear more garlic still. In Marseille, flavours are as bold as those scarlet-clad brasses.
Meades is a fan. “Their pizza is superior to the ‘authentic’ Neapolitan things. And the Marseille version veers towards a tarte fine. Excellence beats authenticity hands down. That pizza, plus supions, pieds et paquets, panisse (fried rounds of chickpea batter) are the great dishes of Marseille. And fish soup, the simple stuff.” Certainly not bouillabaisse; most definitely not.
But bouillabaisse, I hear you cry, is surely the great dish of Marseilles, its defining delight. One can barely move an inch without being peddled the “authentic” or “best in town”. In fact, this is the one tourist trade that is embraced with genuine gusto. “Bouillabaisse,” they whisper and cajole as you walk through the port. “You like soup, very good price.” It’s certainly not cheap, with prices starting at €30 per person. A rather regal price for a one-pot dish made by fishermen at the end of the day to use up all the random bits and pieces they couldn’t sell.