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M.F.K. Fisher's Feeding Ground
For this renowned gastronome, the French port of Marseille went with everything.

By Mary Lou Longworth
The Washington Post
Sunday, December 13, 1998; Page E01

Undefinable. Proud. Alive. Young. At ease. With these words, the writer M.F.K. Fisher described Marseille, and herself while in France's infamous port city. Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, widely regarded as the creator of the genre known today as food writing, first visited Marseille in 1929. She returned regularly, often for months at a time, for reasons unexplainable--or as she plainly admitted, "The place haunts me."

Fisher, who grew up in Whittier, Calif., and considered herself a "near-native Californian," first went to France in 1929 while her first husband, Al Fisher, was finishing his doctorate in Dijon. There she began her love affair with France and its food. Fisher was able, in her 26 books, to step beyond simply describing food. She acutely observed the people who prepared and ate that food, what that food meant to a place, and what that place meant to herself. She was honest in her writing, and revealed much about places, but also about herself.

Fisher died in Sonoma County in 1992, still learning--and writing--until the end. (She wrote about dying, "I wonder how to do it best, most neatly. I must now wait, to learn more.") She believed that food and love and the need for security were naturally entwined in all of us, and she saw that trio most clearly in the inhabitants of Marseille.

Her observations about Marseille, which appear in her 1964 memoir "A Considerable Town," are plentiful and rich. She frequently used the word insolite, which she translated as "undefinable," to illustrate her deep love for the city. Fisher was not writing a guidebook, but trying, as fast as her pen would allow her, to explain the city and how she felt in it. She wrote: "I am not meant to tell anyone where to go in Marseille, not even why I myself went where I did there, and saw and smelled and felt as I did. All I can do in this explanation about my being there is to write something about the town itself, through my own senses."

It is the traveler's senses that are awakened by Marseille and its Vieux Port (Old Port)--the smell of the sea, the sparkling bright white light, the salty food, the bone-dry rose wines. And the Marseillais themselves, today as varied and original as Fisher described them in "A Considerable Town." They stroll, or rather, strut, in colorful African fabrics, or navy blue woolen fishermen's sweaters; in haute couture purchased from the fantastic boutiques along the Rue Paradis; or in skateboard garb. Fisher claimed that her classic university-learned French deteriorated while in Marseille, for she spent many happy hours talking with its inhabitants--Italians, Tunisians, Greeks--who spoke anything but Parisian French.

When reading Fisher's books one gets the sense that she did a lot of cafe-sitting, and people-watching, and writing down those observations. Her chapter titles in "A Considerable Town" reveal her interest in people: "Some of the Women" (fisher-wives, barmaids, shopkeepers); "One of the Men" (her Marseillais doctor); "The Gamblers" (taxi drivers).

Fisher spent most of her time around the Vieux Port, where she could watch the city and the harbor's movement. In 600 B.C., the port, then called Lacydon, was a settlement of fishermen and salt makers. Lacydon was also the name of the ancient river that once flowed where Marseille's main street, La Canebiere, now lies. Nowadays, Lacydon is the name of hundreds of businesses in Marseille, and La Canebiere falls straight into the port, as the river once did.

The port is headed by the Quai des Belges at its top, where the buildings appear to be a little cramped as they jostle over one of the best views in the world: a Mediterranean port, rocky cliffs and a lighthouse looking out to the sea. At one end is an elegant white church with a tobacco shop built right into its side--yes, funny, undefinable Marseille. The daily fish market still does business on the Quai des Belges, with the day's catch sold by the people who caught it.

There's a range of "sad-to-fine" restaurants, as Fisher called them, but these days they're mainly sad. I once ate a terrible meal in one of them, with boxed pureed potatoes swimming in oil. But they are fine places to stop for an apero (there must always be an aperitif stop, in true M.F.K. style, and although her favorite was a vermouth, it seems sacrilegious not a have a pastis in Marseille).

The Quai du Port, to the west of the port, is lined with big blocky new buildings that were erected after the original buildings were destroyed in World War II. It's full of tiny, cheap-looking bars that all look alike--just as it was when Fisher wrote her book from 1964 to 1978. Its saving grace is the "toy-like" 17th-century town hall, which is more easily viewed across the port, on the more ancient-looking, bustling Quai de Rive Neuve.

The Rive Neuve remains as lively as when Fisher first visited it in 1929. She wrote that it had good and bad restaurants (still true), little fish-houses (fewer in number now) and heavy traffic (surely worse today). The Bar de la Marine, at No. 15, seemingly hasn't changed since the 1930s. The bar is anything but intimidating, with its green patinaed walls and yellowed ceiling, wooden chairs and tile floors, aging framed prints and original brass lighting fixtures. From inside, you can sit and look outside at the port and the constant string of people who shuffle past--American sailors (easily identified by their foul language), locals pushing babies in strollers, and tourists of all nationalities pausing to stop and look at restaurant menus.

The long zinc-topped bar shows its age with various dents and scratches, and the bartender never stops polishing its surface. There's a lot of polishing going on in Marseille--waitresses polish restaurant windows during slow periods, store clerks busily tidy clothing racks and sweep outside. Proud.

Walk uphill along the Rive Neuve toward the sea, past boats and fishing-supply stores, restaurants and bars, to St. Victor's, a church Fisher visited frequently. From the church, built in 400 A.D. on the site of a Greek cemetery, is a lovely view of the sea and this never-boring city.

The 18th-century town houses beside the church, sharing this ancient site and the view over the city and the sea, are a bit grim, with shabby exteriors and peeling paint. In any other city, these once-graceful houses with their dominant hilltop position would be pristine, like Beacon Hill in Boston, or San Francisco's Nob Hill. But Fisher's word, insolite, reminds one of the tricks Marseille can play on the unsuspecting. Those crumbling exteriors may well have immaculately decorated interiors--it's all part of Marseille's game, which is why the city remains so mysterious.

St. Victor's massive, somewhat frightening exterior is fortress-like, complete with arrow slits, because it was a fortress--its walls are 10 feet thick. Inside, the church is dark and hushed, in sharp contrast to the bright, loud city. In its crypt, you are under the busy city; you no longer hear the sirens or speeding cars. Heavy, low arches form mini-chapels and altars. Carved capitals and fantastic stone sarcophagi lie about, and a black Madonna and Child sit protected in a small altar.

There are bits of remaining medieval frescoes and a lid from the coffin of Saint Ysarn, and between his elongated head and little feet is an ancient text describing, supposedly, his life and death. There are grapevine carvings and a large pink shell imbedded into the wall as a Holy Water font, just in case you forgot those two elements of life in Marseille--wine and the sea.

Much of Fisher's attraction to the city has to do with the sea, and the city's seafood. She described the food in Marseille with the same words she used to describe its inhabitants--"intense," "assertive." She was smitten with the "mysterious saltiness" found in the smell and taste of Marseille's food. Fisher was not a fan of bouillabaisse--one had to be careful then, as today, where one ate it--but the Miramar on the Quai du Port still makes a reputable, if expensive, version.

Some of Fisher's preferred dining haunts are gone, like the Two Sisters and the restaurant in the Hotel Beauvau. Other are still around but much faded, as is the case with L'Oursin, whose dark gloomy entrance now faces a parking garage ramp. But some are still going strong, in true Marseille tradition, like Michel's on the sea.

Restaurants in Marseille range from seafood houses to elegant Italian places and, oddly, an always-crowded Alsatian restaurant on the Rive Neuve. On a little square just off the Rive Neuve is L'Entracte, which serves a lotte (monkfish) stew that would have met with Fisher's approval, so intense and assertive it was. The black sauce served with the fish was as rich as a civet; but no, it was only the fish stock, reduced for days it would seem, with "a little cream added."

Fisher's favorite hotel in Marseille was the Beauvau, or the Good Old Beauvau, as she coined it. It's still there, with its small lobby and dark mahogany bar lined with rows of dusty wine bottles. The rooms overlook the port, and have been soundproofed. Its location on the port caused Fisher to recommend it only to friends who would not be frightened or bothered by the constant noise from the active port.

She once stayed there for one night with an elderly friend from Delaware, who was so shocked at being on the port that they had to catch the next train to Cannes. Fisher put it down to another learning experience: "It was a good lesson for me, in my study of People-and-Places." And in the study of herself, which she discovered much of in Marseille, and she so willingly shared with us.

Fisher once had to defend herself to a proud and angry Marseillais who challenged her attempts to explain a city like Marseille, a city one must take a lifetime, or more than a lifetime, to understand. She wisely replied, "I don't want to explain Marseille. I want to try to tell what it does about explaining myself."

That's what we do when we travel--discover bits and pieces about other towns and people. But we discover ourselves, too.

Mary Lou Longworth last wrote for Travel about Mount Ste.-Victoire in Provence.


M.F.K. Fisher's Marseille

GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from Washington to Marseille; fly into Paris and then take a connecting flight on Air France. The round-trip Paris-Marseille fare is about $119, with restrictions. High-speed TGV trains run daily from Paris to Marseille; round-trip fares start at $174.

From the airport to downtown Marseille, follow the well-marked signs on the toll-free highway to the "Vieux Port" (Old Port). Or take an airport shuttle bus to the SNCF train to Marseille's central train station, the Gare St. Charles. The fare is about $10 one-way.

GETTING AROUND: Marseille is organized into 16 arrondissements that fan out from the Vieux Port. The port faces the sea to the west, not to the south. The Vieux Port is lined by the Quai du Port to the north; behind that is the city's oldest quarter, Le Panier. To the east is the Quai des Belges, to the south the Quai Rive Neuve.

La Canebiere is the central east-west axis of the city. Looking toward the sea from the west of the Vieux Port is the Corniche President Kennedy, which heads south past the city's most expensive neighborhoods and very clean beaches (the pride of the city).

WHERE TO STAY: The Beauvau (4 Rue Beauvau, telephone 011-33-4-91-54-91-00), Fisher's favorite hotel in Marseille, is now part of the upper-end chain Hotel Mercure. Soundproofed rooms face the Vieux Port. Rates start at about $130 double for a port view.

The Concord Palm Beach (2 Promenade de la Plage, telephone 011-33-4-91-16-19-00, fax 011-33-4-91-16-19-39) has a great location on the beach. Rates start at $150 double.

The Petit Nice (Corniche Kennedy, telephone 011-33-4-91-59-25-92, fax 011-33-4-91-59-28-08) also has ocean views, and a convenient location in the same restored villa of one of the city's best restaurants (see Where to Eat). Rates start at $200 double.

Le Corbusier (280 Blvd. Michelet, Cite Radieuse, telephone 011-33-4-91-77-18-15, fax 011-33-4-91-16-78-28) has simple rooms but great views, a must for architecture fans. Rates start at $50.

WHERE TO EAT: Marcel Pagnol shot some of his films in La Bar de la Marine (15 Quai Rive Neuve), and the interior hasn't changed since then. Although it serves a limited menu, people come here for a pastis and port views. Closed Sundays.

The bouillabaisse war is on. Two restaurants have the best, and most authentic: Chez Michel (6 Rue des Catalans), also called the Brasserie de Catalans, and Le Miramar (12 Quai du Port) on the Vieux Port. Fisher once wrote of Michel's: "People take the main course seriously at Michel's, and poke and finger the fish they will choose to be cooked, but there is certainly no hush there, and everyone talks and laughs a lot."

One of the city's newest, and most imaginative chefs, is at L'Entracte (23 Place Thiars). The three-course menu is a reasonable $30 per person.

Restaurant Passedat, Le Petit Nice, in a Belle Epoque villa on the Corniche Kennedy, has fabulous ocean views. The inventive menu, though expensive, is rooted in Provence tradition,.

Les Arcenaulx (25 Cours d'Estienne-d'Orves) is a superb, reasonably priced restaurant with a cozy interior in a restored shipmaking building.

Dar Djerba (15 Cours Julien) has good Tunisian food.

WHAT TO DO: Abbey St. Victor, just inland from the Fort St. Nicholas, is an easy 10-minute walk uphill. Pay the $2 fee for a fascinating visit to the crypts.

The Hospice de la Vielle Charite (Rue de la Charite), a favorite place of Fisher's, was once a hospital for the homeless. It's now an exhibition center; the site houses two museums, the Musee d'Archeologie Mediterraneene and the Musee des Arts Africans, Oceaniens et Amerindiens. Entrance fee for both museums is $5.

For those who would like to get out on the sea, ride the ferry to the nearby island prison of Chateau d'If, the setting of "The Count of Monte Cristo." Boats ($9) leave from the Quai des Belges at the top of the Vieux Port; admission to the chateau is $5. There is also a shuttle ferry that takes you from one side of the port to the other--great, cheap fun for kids, $1 each way.

Dance fans should try to attend a performance of Marseille's renowned dance company, the Ballet National de Marseille (011-33-4-91-71-03-03). Performances are given in the 1920s art deco Opera House, just off the Vieux Port.

RECOMMENDED READING: Fisher wrote about her time in Marseille in "A Considerable Town" (Knopf, 1978); the book also is reprinted as part of "Two Towns in Provence" (Vintage Books, 1983). For a fascinating introduction to Fisher, check the photo-biography edited by Dominique Gioia, "A Welcoming Life: The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook" (Counterpoint Books, 1997).

INFORMATION: The Marseille Tourist Office (4 La Canebiere, telephone 011-33-4-91-54-91-11) offers various tours; one of the more unusual is a tour of the docks. For general information, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 202-659-7779,

--Mary Lou Longworth

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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