Thousands of years of cultural exchange, trade and migration have given the country’s second city a truly unique identity. It is an atmosphere you feel the moment you step out of its magnificent 19th-century railway station, and gaze down flights of stairs to a bustling and beautiful city, and across the old port to the famous Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica that looms high on a hill.
Marseille has a reputation for many things ― for its seafood, for its soap, for its football team and legends such as Zinedine Zidane, for its hip-hop and street art, and for its long history of multiculturalism. When Emmanuel Macron took on the far-right's Marine Le Pen in the 2017 French presidential election, he signalled his difference from her in a major rally in the city, saying: “When I look at Marseille, I see a French city shaped by 2,000 years of history, of immigration … I see Armenians, Italians, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Malians, Senegalese. But what do I see? I see the people of Marseille. I see the people of France.”
In the past, it has also had a reputation among outsiders for corruption and crime, for being insalubrious and unsafe. No doubt there is some racism and northern French snobbery there, mixed in with some fair reflection on decades of local political corruption, and the midcentury history of the heroin trade passing through Marseille ― the infamous “French connection”.
But it has little bearing on the city today, which is proud of its international reputation ― although perhaps locally, it always has been. In the Marseille History Museum, there is a tourism poster from 1960 with a globe hovering in front of the city’s old port. “The entire world passes by Marseille”, reads the slogan. The museum is packed with remarkable Roman and pre-Roman artefacts, showing how Marseille has faced outwards to the Mediterranean for thousands of years, bringing in ceramics, cereals and wine from as far afield as ancient Carthage (Tunis) and Byzantium (Istanbul).
These days, that diversity is evident in the residents of modern-day Marseille, as Macron observed, and it is also enticingly evident in the city’s cuisine. Indeed, barely five minutes from the train station, we pass a cafe called Le Carthage, offering mint tea, merguez, salad and french fries, alongside their sweet crepes.
The traditional French breakfast materials of spectacularly fresh croissants, pain au raisin and baguettes are available in superb boulangeries on every corner, and it would be foolish to pass them by ― but it would be equally foolish to visit Marseille and stick to the strict canon of brasserie classics ― moules frites, steak tartare et al.
Nowhere is the lure greater than in the souq-like Market du Capucins, in the heart of the city centre, where shops piled high with mounds of loose spices, seeds, teas, salts and dried flowers and fruit offer a riot of colour and aromas more associated with Marrakech or Istanbul than Paris. Soaps and harissa, rose and orange oils and water, and beautifully patterned pottery fill the shelves.
Outside, we pick up some magnificent, filling and cheap North African street food, joining a fast-moving queue for mahjouba, a thick and tasty savoury Algerian pancake stuffed with finely chopped chicken, almonds, egg and onion. Others are filled with feta, tomato and spinach, or tuna, egg and potato, and are equally fresh and carefully spiced. There are Egyptian flatbreads, pitta with falafel, and some amazingly piquant and tasty “beignets de pomme de terre” for the princely sum of €1 ($0.98). These deep-fried potato cakes leave the mouth happily tingling with chilli, coriander and cumin and are a world away from the sweet French doughnut that is usually given the name "beignet".
Across the sprawl of the city, the idea of a homogenous French cuisine and culture seems very far away. We pass Senegalese and Peruvian restaurants we can’t even fit into our schedule, and, at L’Escalie, have tapas of black arincini, spiced pumpkin puree and panisse, a kind of chick-pea chip, served with mustard. Another delightful and intimate dinner spot, La Lune de Bejaia, offers Kabyle specialities from northern Algeria. The sweetness of ifelfel, a cold salad of grilled red and green peppers, tomatoes, egg and spices, drizzled in olive oil, will stay with me for some time ― followed by merguez, and some of the best couscous and stewed vegetables I can remember.
Many parts of the world beyond Italy have their fair share of pizza restaurants, but Marseille is on another level. The roots of the city’s obsession go back more than a century, when migrants from Naples (the home of pizza) fled poverty en masse for their fellow port city on the French coast ― in the 1906 census, half the population of Marseille was Neopolitan.
The city quickly adopted pizza as its own, and today everything from traditional margheritas and street-based “by the slice” spots, to spiced, minced lamb pizzas similar to lahmacun are available. Our favourite was La Colisee, a friendly and highly creative little restaurant, where a wide range of classics and specialties were on offer; from baguette-shaped folded pizzas to Turkish pide-style to Georgian khachapuri. If it’s in the international pizza family, and fits in a wood oven, it’s on the menu.
Of course, when you’ve had a pizza weighed down with mozzarella and reblochon cheese for dinner, you wake up feeling a bit weighed down yourself ― but there was no better way to walk it off than taking in the dazzling Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean, which opened in 2013, a central part of a major dockside regeneration.
We spent hours there, engrossed in an exhibition contrasting life in some of the great cities of the Mediterranean, in the 21st century (Marseille, Casablanca, Cairo and Istanbul), and in the 16th (Seville, Genoa, Algiers, Venice and Lisbon), and learnt about the Mediterranean triad ― cereals, olive trees and vines ― that has acted as the foundation of local agriculture and diet since the Neolithic period. Like Marseille in general, the museum is located in France, but perched on a dramatic, windswept waterfront that looks firmly out to the world.