Eye on the Horizon

If the word “Provence” only conjures up the scent of lavender and visions of sleepy medieval villages, Marseille can teach you a thing or two. The capital of the storied region is its polar opposite in many ways: raw, avant-garde and full of contrasts – as invigorating as the sea.

The face of Marseille can change as quickly and profoundly as that of a great actress. On Rue Grignan, east of the Old Port, the decorated windows of the luxury shops are reminiscent of the glamorously made-up visage of an Oscar-winning diva on the red carpet. Then the street goes over a bridge, and after just a step or two more, a sign straddling a pair of adjoining buildings announces the Quartier des Créateurs, the designers’ district. That’s a wrap, thanks! From here onward the city puts on a totally different face: walls ablaze with garish graffiti; designer boutiques with cool-sounding names; alternatively minded health food stores and tiny, exotic restaurants lining the narrow lanes. Cross a few more streets and you get the impression you’ve already been all around the world. Head back toward the port via the Marché de Noailles and the historic Canebière thoroughfare, and you’ll experience another abrupt cinematic cut – and suddenly swear you’re in the middle of Berlin’s Neukölln neighbourhood. And it’s barely been two kilometres since you passed the Hermès shop.

A fisherman hawks his catch at the Old Port

A fisherman hawks his catch at the Old Port.

Marseille is unique. It doesn’t have the classic beauty of Cannes or Nice or the instant charm of one of those places in the south of France that are constantly suffused with the odour of lavender.

Marseille is a rebel. Full of energy and difficult to contain.” Roselyne Gierlinger, fashion designer

“Anyone who claims they love Marseille unconditionally doesn’t know the city that well. It’s a mesmerizing place, yet repulsive at the same time. The city is a rebel – full of energy and difficult to contain.” That’s how fashion designer Roselyne Gierlinger describes her adopted home. Born in Corsica, she moved here 20 years ago. Above the entrance to her boutique a sign reads “Floh” (“flea” in German), the nickname given to the 55-year-old by her Austrian husband. She explains: “When I first met him, I could never sit still, I was always doing a bunch of things at once. Maybe that’s why this city suits me so well.”

Neo-Romanesque La Major cathedral

Neo-Romanesque La Major cathedral reflected in the glass facade of the Villa Méditerranée.

A few months ago, Gierlinger moved her shop from the melting pot of the Cours Julien district down to the more upscale area close to the opera and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, inaugurated in 2013 when Marseille was a European Capital of Culture. Says Gierlinger, “I liked the atmosphere where we were before, but here we get more foot traffic.”

The cruise ship passengers who used to disembark, only to leave right away for the picture-postcard town of Aix-en-Provence about 30 minutes away, are now happy to spend the day in Marseille. Biotech and Web entrepreneurs are also gradually making the city their own. As a centre for trade and an industrial port, Marseille was globalized long before the term came into general use. Traditional and modern, rich and poor – they all coexist cheek by jowl in France’s second-largest city. In the Old Port, for example, where every morning the fishermen hawk their daily catch in front of the yachts. Or just opposite there, in the kitchen of La Kahena restaurant, where Nouredine Miladi stands over huge tubs filled with chicken and lamb, making a couscous broth he’s been accustomed to ever since his childhood in Djerba, Tunisia.

View from Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde toward the Frioul Islands

View from Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde toward the Frioul Islands.

In the sloping alleys of the old town’s Le Panier district, housecoat-clad matrons gab back and forth. They hang their wet laundry outside their windows like an art installation as it dries above the entranceways to the new galleries and shops. Also available here is Marseille’s famous soap, made from vegetable oil boiled with other natural ingredients, a favourite of no less a personage than Louis XIV. And nowadays the former Hôtel Dieu houses the five-star InterContinental Hotel.

This city is a melting pot of cultures. We feel we are primarily from Marseille – and only then possibly French.” Corinne Vezzoni, architect

“This city is a melting pot of cultures and lifestyles. We feel we are primarily from Marseille – and only then possibly French,” says Corinne Vezzoni. Like so many of the city’s 850,000 inhabitants, the 51-year-old city planner and architect is a transplant. Until graduating from high school, she lived in Morocco with her parents.

Architect Corinne Vezzoni

Architect Corinne Vezzoni enjoys the city’s multiculturalism.

In the 2015 elections, a right-wing radical came close to being elected president of the Provence–Alpes–Côte d’Azur region. The capital’s cosmopolitan populace heaved a collective sigh of relief that it didn’t actually come to pass. “Marseille was founded by the Greeks 2,600 years ago,” says Vezzoni. “They came by sea, not overland through France.” The mountains at the city’s back provide another explanation as to why its residents constantly have their eye on the horizon – they’re more familiar with the ferries to Africa than the TGV to Paris, says Vezzoni.

Old Port by Saint-Ferréol les Augustins church

Sailboats and motorized yachts in the Old Port by Saint-Ferréol les Augustins church.

Vezzoni works on the sixth floor of a concrete edifice that doesn’t look particularly attractive from the outside. Le Corbusier designed the building, which was inaugurated in the early 1950s. His style visibly influenced other apartment houses built against the backdrop of the Estaque mountain range. “You don’t necessarily have to find the architecture pretty. But here even people who can’t afford a villa on the beach still get to enjoy a sea view,” says Vezzoni, triumphantly pointing to the panorama outside her office window. From this elevated vantage point, it’s easy to see how the craggy foothills stretch from the outskirts all the way to the coastline. The narrow inlets of the Calanques are a piece of untamed nature within the city. Their vertical cliffs, with turquoise water sparkling in between, are an ideal destination for hikers, climbers, boaters and paddlers. The caves of the Calanques once gave refuge to pirates and smugglers, not to mention Second World War resistance fighters.

Guillaume Ferroni has come up with an equally clever hiding place for his own enterprise in Marseille. An access code arrives via email with the tantalizing subject line “secret instructions.” Just key in C25469, and the door to what appears to be a souvenir store pops open. Striding through a closet, you enter “Carry Nation,” an underground bar named after the God-fearing woman famous for attacking alcohol-serving establishments in the United States at the end of the 19th century.

Rum distiller Guillaume Ferroni

Rum distiller Guillaume Ferroni.

Ferroni distills rum. Legally, of course. But that’s unusual for Marseille. Even though enjoying one’s first pastis of the day right after breakfast is deemed socially acceptable, since the end of the colonial period with its sugar barons, rum has been somewhat atypical. The 47-year-old explains, “As recently as the 19th century, there were 25 brands of rum in Marseille, and countless liquor warehouses. But all that is gone.”

Ferroni plans to change that. He combs through archives, searching for progeny of the abandoned distilleries. In the meantime, he also operates three bars in the city. “At my places, you won’t find a cocktail in which fruit juices mask the alcohol,” he says. He’d much rather pour you a shot of Bellevue rum, 1998 vintage. Straight up. Sixty millilitres for 33 euros. Marseille is definitely not for the faint of heart.

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