Wednesday 30 May 2012

Marseille: bright and foreign

   "You could feel age and foreignness exude from the walls. For centuries this was the quarter that housed the thousands of slaves, criminals and captured Turks who rowed Marseilles' fleet of war galleys. The buildings above were scabrous and peeling. (...) And when the day's market is over and darkness approaches, there drifts through the air the same faint but unmistakable warning that has drifted through the air of this street forever. Go home, it says, before the business of the night begins. Foul things have happend here before, and will happen again. Go home now."

                                                                                from Seeking Provence
                                                                                by Nicholas Woodsworth

Round where we are, Marseille is considered exciting but comes with grave warnings for the casual visitor. Be careful where you park your car. Don't take too much cash and only one credit card. Our local newspaper La Provence positively relishes its coverage of gang shoot-outs there and wars between rival mafia drugs barons. "Le Chicago de Provence," they call it, calling up salty tales of the days of Al Capone to season the lurid pictures of its four-page spreads.

France's second city has a proud character all its own, and a strong and vibrant social cohesion built up over centuries. Whatever outsiders may assume, the city looks after its own. It is, and always has been, a trading place, in whatever form that takes.

Nicholas Woodsworth captures it perfectly in Seeking Provence: Old Myths, New Paths, in which he examines the long cultural history of the region. His book is a delight, from lovely prose to the entertaining and serious observations of the stark reality of life in Provence. He comes to the same conclusions as I did as I wrote The Lantern: that the sensuous experience here - the smells and tastes and textures - is a vital connection to the past and our understanding of it.

  "But for the moment all was brightness and colour and shafts of sun penetrating the street's depths from high above. We passed one stall, one stand, one open shop doorway after another. Each unloaded a  different cargo onto the still air. If the portside fish market was all noise, the rue Longues des Capucins was all smells. Thick and fragrant, clouds of blue smoke rose skyward from sidewalk kebab grills. We sniffed sweet bunches of mint and basil, their leaves sprinkled with silvery pearls of water. (...) At a place where a Moroccan corner shop sat opposite a Vietnamese grocer's the odours of two continents waged a war of attrition - where citron confit, briny olives and spicy red harissa meet sliced ginger, pickled fish and sour tamarind paste there can be no clear winner." 
                                                                                       from Seeking Provence

I highly recommend Woodsworth's book for anyone planning to travel to the South France. The photographs here are taken from another recommended source of information: Belle Provence Travels, a superb blog written by Tuula Rampont, with pictures you will want to lose yourself in. She includes guides and plenty of local information as well as personal recommendations for food, shops and markets. Just reading will make you feel like booking a trip immediately!

Tuula goes to Marseille in this post, 4 Hours in Le Panier, and it's fascinating to read her reactions and how they dovetail with Nicholas Woodsworth's words in the excerpts above. "Still gritty and more than a bit mysterious..." she writes. "Chaotic streets, foreign tongues and a grittiness I hadn't experienced during our outings to all those picture-postcard Provencal villages."

Here she is at the eastern end of Marseille for an evening of Corsican ballads and warm mussels at Le Caribou restaurant: clickety-click here. And another example of her great eye with a camera.

This week Tuula has been kind enough to ask me for a short interview on My Provence: my own travel memories and personal recommendations, which you can read here.


Yvonne Osborne said...

Thanks for the recommendations and pictures. We are debating the South of France or Italy for out next trip. I'd love to see Provence.

Julie Farrar said...

I still haven't made it that far south (although we'll get closer this summer). I had heard that Marseille is a unique city to France, like New Orleans in the US. It goes its own way and is not torn by the immigration issues like Paris because so many nationalities have always settled there.

I hope to see it one day.

Sara Louise said...

Both Tuula and her blog are fantastic! It was lovely to see her featured here today :)

Muriel said...

I was born in Marseille. I am actually amazed that you like it. I have never really warmed up to Marseille. Too dirty, smelly, noisy...
Something must be wrong with me!

Libby said...

I do agree that Tuula and her blog and all the info and pics are wonderful! Great that you mentioned her...

Vanessa said...

Thanks for the pictures and info. I've never actually been to Marseille and its reputation isn't exactly appealing. But we must 'do' Provence sometime - finding the time is the issue!

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