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

A bouillabaisse of European and North African immigrants, Marseille, France, has evolved into a town that is young and cosmopolitan while keeping its 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.

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