Marseille is having a makeover, though there's still lots of gritty charm

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 17, 2010; 11:43 AM

It was about 10:30 on a Saturday night. My wife and I were driving back to our hotel in the picturesque old port of Marseille after a relaxing dinner at an Italian restaurant at the far edge of town.

It so happened that on this evening, Marseille's soccer team was playing for its first league championship in 17 years, and the bars across town were packed with hordes of pastis-fueled young fans watching the match. About halfway down the port, I saw that gendarmes were blocking the road and turning away cars. Behind the roadblock, hundreds of national riot police were suiting up in body armor, helmets and shields.

The old port is the heart of Marseille, and that night, thousands were expected to gather there to demonstrate either joy or anger at the game's outcome.

I protested to the officer who waved us away, explaining in French that our hotel was at the opposite end of the port.

"Look," he shot back, "there are 300 people down there smashing every car on the street. Do you really want to go there?"

I turned the car around and parked in a public garage. Then we walked briskly across the port, with its acres of pleasure boats swaying in the breeze and the riot cops lining up for a long night. As we reached the inland edge of the port, a human tide dressed in Marseille's colors of light blue and white broke out of the bars and onto the streets and public squares. Marseille had won.

Fireworks exploded, and young men on scooters sped through pedestrian plazas and over sidewalks while others ran through the streets chanting songs from Marseille's soccer libretto. We hastened to the hotel and locked the door.

Contrary to what the gendarme had told us, there was no violence that night. We awoke the next morning to an azure sky and the angelic singing of a Palm Sunday procession coming from the small white baroque Saint-Ferreol church. The procession wound through the port, past the daily morning fish market, the worshipers carrying olive branches in the Provencal tradition.

Riot cops to olive branches in an ancient Mediterranean port with a modern reputation as a center of organized crime: Marseille is about as authentically paradoxical a place as you'll find in Western Europe.

In the past decade, France's second-largest city has undergone a dramatic makeover, accelerated by a high-speed train that now connects it to Paris in just over three hours. A bouillabaisse of European and North African immigrants, Marseille has evolved into a town that is young and cosmopolitan while keeping its gritty charm. It may also be the closest thing France has to a melting pot: The media have noted that it was one of the few French cities to avoid the widespread rioting that followed the accidental deaths in 2005 of two teenagers from immigrant families who were fleeing police in a Paris suburb.

New hotels and luxury apartments are sprouting along its waterfront; boutiques, restaurants and artists' studios have revived once seedy neighborhoods. You can sense the change in the millions of dollars of public works projects underway in preparation for 2013, when Marseille takes its turn as Europe's Capital of Culture. And you can see it in the construction cranes at the Hotel-Dieu, the sprawling 18th-century landmark hospital being converted into a luxury hotel.

Yet despite the changes, Marseille's odd vibe remains. The local culture - which elevates soccer to a religion, drinking pastis (an anise-flavored liqueur) to a ritual, local food specialties such as bouillabaisse to an art form and the local French-mangling dialect to a language of its own - isn't showing any signs of waning.

A collection of villages

I returned to Marseille some weeks later to spend a day with a native, Rhone winemaker Jean-Marc Espinasse of Domaine Rouge-Bleu. We began under the shade of plane trees at a cafe in Le Panier, the city's oldest neighborhood, on a small hill north of the old port.

"Marseille is not so much a city as it is a collection of villages, each one very different," Espinasse reflected. "Twenty years ago, Le Panier was not an area you would walk around in. It was like the Bronx."

Le Panier is a labyrinth of narrow, winding streets that, with its ochre facades and peeling wood shutters, could easily be found in coastal Italy. In recent years, artists have moved into the neighborhood, which is also home to the city's cathedral and the Vieille Charite, a 17th-century shelter for the poor that has been converted into a series of museums.

We left the cafe and headed deeper into the neighborhood. As we turned a corner, a server from the cafe ran up behind us, carrying the briefcase Espinasse had forgotten. She handed it to him with a smile and ran back. Espinasse opened the weathered leather case and showed me what was inside among his papers: an envelope containing a 200-euro bill (about $270).

He shook his head at the irony of a forthright act of honesty in Marseille, a town that was once the home of the real-life "French Connection" heroin trade. "The problem with Marseille is always the image," Espinasse said. "If there is a bank robbery or a scandal, it is always magnified when it is in Marseille. If it's in another city, nobody cares."

Down one deserted street, on the ground floor of a building whose upper-story windows long ago lost their glass panes, we passed the brick-and-yellow Pizzaria Etienne, a Marseille landmark that the Cassaro family has run since 1943.

A good shove opened the wooden door, and we entered a world that seemed to be from another time in Provence. From the yellow walls hung family photos; a wood fire was heating the oven for that afternoon's pizzas; and kitchen pots were simmering with meaty, spicy odors. There was no telephone or credit card machine, and when a gust of mistral blew outside, it seemed to shake the framed pictures on the walls.

"This is a place that will never have a Michelin star," said Espinasse. "But it is a monument in Marseille."

(I couldn't resist returning that evening for a delicious dinner of fresh fried squid. What the place lacked in sophistication it made up for in friendliness and color: About half of the 50 customers seemed to know one another and greeted the staff with cheek-brushing kisses. Everyone seemed to depart only after downing the shot of pear brandy that came with the check.)

In the afternoon, Espinasse and I headed south, past the old port and through the more chic neighborhoods that climb up a hillside toward Notre-Dame de la Garde, the richly decorated basilica with a 360-degree panorama that looms over the city, the Med and the four small, rocky, wild Frioul islands off the coast.

After taking in the views and the golden mosaics inside the domed church, we continued southward, passing through several worlds. The first was the refined world along the cliffside drive known as Corniche President Kennedy. We ate bouillabaisse at the sleek restaurant Le Peron as the sea pounded the rocks below.

True bouillabaisse is neither easy to prepare nor cheap. The combination of several varieties of fish fillet served with a brownish soup that tastes of the sea, along with large croutons and a rich rouille (a rust-colored sauce of olive oil, garlic and chili pepper with the consistency of mayonnaise), takes time in the preparation - and the eating. And though there are debates about the best and most authentic way to serve it (e.g., should the fillets be served on the side in traditional family style, or in the individual soup bowl as in Le Peron's refined, subtly spiced version?), there is agreement that the real thing costs about $50, or more, in a restaurant.

After lunch, we continued away from town along the coast, past the strip of modern beaches and the bays full of windsurfers. Here we entered the calanques, the dramatic sea inlets framed by limestone cliffs, where there often is no electricity or municipal water. The area, a coastal preserve with a few restaurants and cafes and rustic hiking refuges, can be hard to get to, especially in summer when the roads that lead there are often closed because of the danger of wildfires.

Standing above the small beach and the turquoise waters of the calanque known as Sormiou, I felt as though I were in a remote, pristine corner of Corsica - though we were, remarkably, in Marseille's ninth arrondissement.

Camuto is a freelance writer based in France and the author of "Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company