“À Marseille, on ne se tracasse pas” – Part I

That’s what the security guard at the entrance of the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée told me with a big smile as I was fretting over my backpack’s zippers (you can never find the buggers when you need them, don’t you?). No need to rush, no need to sweat it out: we’re in Marseille and “on est trés contents de laisser que les parisiens se comportent comme ça”.

The old port entrance as seen from MUCEM.

The old port entrance as seen from MUCEM.

I started the day in the dead of the night in Stansted airport, waiting for my first Ryanair flight in four years. My penniless backpacking days might be over, but sometimes it’s hard not to choose for the Irish lowcost when the flight is timed to perfection and costs half as much as one from Heathrow.

The downside, though, is Stansted. Getting there is a pain – night bus to Victoria, then National Express through the endless Northern suburbs – but Stansted itself is, to borrow Prince Philip’s one-word description of Stoke-on-Trent, ghastly. It’s always been, but tonight it’s even more.

The owner is busy “redeveloping” the airport in order to offer “an enhanced customer experience” which, translated from Corporate English, means getting read of as many nice corners as possible (and there aren’t many in STN) and fill them with shops selling garments made by indented labourers in Bangladesh or especially shitty coffee joints. In the meanwhile all it’s left is a construction site made of ramshackle huts, cordoned-off areas, narrow (and possibly unsafe) bottlenecks and a bare concrete, uneven floor.

The flight, however, is uneventful. Much press has been given to the new, customer-friendly, Ryanair corporate image but the only difference between what I used to see is that the announcements’ volume has been turned down a little bit. It’s an otherwise quite enjoyable flight, half-empty and quiet.

Early morning over LHR and London

Early morning over LHR and London

Marseille, for me, starts with a rainy bus ride from the airport (yes, the Beeb had predicted only overcast skies) to the beautiful Saint-Charles station, immaculately kept and whose main gallery reminds me of Budapest’s Keleti pályaudvar.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASaint-Charles is, methinks, the only station I’ve seen that happens to be dominating the city it serves from a handsome balcony that you’d see used by a grand hotel, or a casino. Below the city beckons, awash in the rain pouring so hard that even the soldiers on duty resort to patrol from below the archways.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA At the end of a staircase worth of Piazza di Spagna starts a daedalus of roads, mixing Haussmanian grandeur and provençal traditions. Boulevard d’Athènes is one of those that belong to Paris, plastered manors and trees and nice cafés with elegant eaves under which linger groups of quarrelsome gipsies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf I had to choose a word to describe my early impressions of Marseille, that word would be “contrast”. Derelict Habitations à Loyer Modéré, the peripheral neighbourhoods where racial minorities are often de facto ghettoized, shoulder-to-shoulder with neat family cottages. Shiny, recently-renovated historic buildings and crumbling hovels. Louis Vuitton handbags and Carrefour carrier bags closed with gaffer tape.

Take for example rue Dominicaines. It crosses Boulevard d’Athènes, but it could be another country. Arab kebab joints, épiceries, a mouth-watering perfume of tajine lingering in the air. Posters sticked to the walls either propose a return to a Gaullic past outside the single currency and NATO or, after a few feet, the virtues of modern Communism. Shopkeepers greet clients “Merhaba” but, unlike Finsbury Park, it feels natural,the way it’s always been and will continue to be.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen, moments later, it’s all finished. Rue Colbert, rue d’Aïx, rue de la République seem to have just escaped from the Parisian VII arrondissement, the buildings acquiring a golden hue during the journey.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI lunch at a boulangerie on a stretch of road glorified by the slightly gangsta name of Grand’ Rue, using my rudimentary French without being mocked for it, unlike in Paris. What ensues is a conversation involving me, the bakery’s staff and some of the customers around me and my visit to the city. Having won brownie points for having chosen Marseille over Nice, one of the ladies apologises for the rain on behalf of the city. Didn’t know that the Marsilleises had mastered weather control.

Grand’ Rue, despite its rather bombastic name, is quite short. For it ends in another mouthful of a place, this time a square, place Villeneuve Bargemon, gently declining towards the old port.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACornered by beautiful ochre-coloured buildings and dominated by the Hotel-Dieu (now turned in an Intercontinental Hotel that I’m scared even to approach), the square is hosting what appears to be the open day of the local Fire Department. Engines, mobile stairs and other equipment is on display and anyone wishing to have a go can don a silver helmet and fireproof apron and tackle a blaze.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Old Port is dear to every Dumas fan worth of wearing their badge for this is where the Pharaon arrives, bringing relief to monsieur Morrel’s worries and introducing Edmond Dantès, the soon-to-be Count of Montecristo, to the reader. I loitered about in the harbour, glancing at the Fort Saint-Nicolas which, with its counterpart Saint-Jean, guards the entrance. Above us hovered Notre Dame de la Garde.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI leave the port shortly thereafter, my attention now locked on the maze of streets and buildings rising on the west side of the harbour. The old Panier neighbourhood awaited but this, I’m afraid, will have to wait for part 2.

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