Marseille seems like a city that doesn’t care, certainly not in the much-romanticised laissez-faire way of the French – it genuinely feels like it doesn’t have a damn to give.
Cultures from all corners of the globe collide in France’s second city, a plethora of cuisines all jostling for the attention of tourists and locals alike. Food is a window to the diversity that Marseille plays host to – finding Libyan, Turkish and Ukrainian eateries pushed together was a pleasant surprise. Not bad for a country that is notoriously staunch about cuisine. Communities from a hodgepodge of ethnicities easily sit side by side with no apparent rhyme or reason.
Our route down to the vieux-port took us on a scenic route that saw halal butcher shops on the same row of shops as trendy tapas bars.
Marseille is the perfect place to explore with a lover, getting lost in the mostly empty, tiny backstreets of the Le Panier district feels like you’ve been thrown back to a different age. Classically small French bars make the perfect place to sit with a beer and talk about everything and nothing. Le Panier gave us the greatest gift, a miniscule restaurant that occupied a narrow street and served the most delectable fillet of steak. The city feels like it’s yours for the taking, whether you’re out at 10 am or 10 pm. Every arrondisement has it’s own identity – it’s own feel. Remarking on the fact it felt like we were in a different place every time we moved around the city became something of a running joke. ‘I feel like I’m in Cuba, even though I’ve never been’ may have been uttered a couple of times.
It doesn’t fling itself at tourists the same way that the rest of the south of France does but that’s by no means a bad thing. With a bit of ingenuity you can pretty much roam around Marseille like a local. The seeming lack of want for tourists certainly isn’t because there’s a lack of things to do. A couple of small beaches sit a short stroll from the old port, the MuCEM, with its imposing latticework shell, stands out proudly from its historic surroundings.
One thing that every French city I’ve ever been to has is graffiti, tons of the stuff, so much that it looks like every Tom, Jacques and Guillame has grabbed a spray can and tagged their name on any vaguely hard to reach surface. Marseille is no exception to the rule but it also has entire streets dedicated to graffiti and the effect is terrific. Brightly coloured art covers the walls and pavements of tiny streets, crammed between dour buildings, giving a glimpse into the attitude of the city. Murals are splashed across shutters and the ends of buildings and if nothing more give the opportunity for some arty ‘gram shots.
The city is not be the most beautiful of places but it’s not hard to find close by. The picturesque towns of Aix-en-Provence and Cassis are around 30 minutes away in different directions. Find yourself there and your day will consist of little more than walking around streets that look like they’ve been lifted the Instagram page of travel #influencer and consuming an unholy amount of food and drink.
Back in Marseille and boat trips from the harbour offer tours of the Calanques National Park. A boat tour is the key to discovering the idyllic inlets that lie along the coastline; tiny villages sit at the edge of turquoise water. Huge rocky walls, the calanques themselves, complete the escapist paradises that made us forget exactly in the world we were.
Youth is the buzzword of the moment but it’s the vibe that’s at the heart of Marseille. It feels gritty and exciting, there’s a palpable edge to the place. It’s decidedly French and yet the least French city I’ve ever been to, no doubt thanks to centuries of trade and immigration. A distinct lack of tourists made us feel like we were off the beaten track and made our visit all the more fun. A pervasive romanticism lies in being tossed into an unknown city with your partner, the two of you having no aims other than making indelible memories. Five days and five rolls of film later we knew we’d done just that, Marseille had well and truly charmed us.
Words by Kieran Parmar