Marseille is the melting pot of the French Riviera: it accepts anything, though it never melds it into a coherent whole. It’s composed of many different neighborhoods, each with their own appearance and identity, just as the city’s inhabitants all appear very different. What links them all is the wild atmosphere of the Mediterranean, as well as a sort of disordered plenitude. There can be no question of polite restraint.
On the hills, traffic fluctuates according to the usual anarchic rules of the road in Southern Europe. Red lights mean nothing. After two days in Marseille, I got used to the rules: if a car is coming, don’t walk, if there’s no car coming you can hurry across the road – but hurry! Motorcyclists habitually drive on sidewalks too, and it doesn’t seem to bother motorists that they have to fight with both other drivers and the odd courageous pedestrian to win priority.
The central district is only a small part of this sprawling city of two million, and when you cross the imaginary boundary separating the center from the rest, you’re confronted by a starkly urban environment: rows of ugly gray apartment blocks, shop fronts and lines of neon lights, with one or two solitary trees the only signs of nature. Exhaust fumes and expressionless faces.
No matter how charming the city’s central core is, the picture sketched above represents the reality of Marseille, where the big, anonymous city is the defining element. It’s also a dirty city, swimming in litter everywhere. It’s not only the red lights they ignore, but also the municipal waste bins.
Flip through the pages of a local fashion magazine… Marseille, as one of the major destinations on the Côte d'Azur, naturally features prominently, with its proximity to the sea, and the famous basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde shining on the hill overlooking the Old Port, a old Provencal chapel transformed into a grand edifice. There are hotels and villas with beautiful hillside panoramas, and wide shopping streets in the city center, with countless Porsche’s and Minis. The littering is also more restrained in this part of the city.”
"Marseille might be familiar with the Taxi movies, which were big favorites of mine. At first, I didn't really like the city, and I had a hard time orienting myself, even though I had a map from the hostel.
The first place I ended up in was a place that looked like an artist's quarter. I wandered around there a bit, ate a sandwich in the square, then sat down for a coffee that gave me a little boost. I turned onto some major road where I saw the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde at the top of the hill and finally had a direction to go. Up there! The basilica is stunning, both inside and out, and it was worth going there for the panorama. Inside, it was interesting that small ship mock-ups were hung from the ceiling, and I also really liked the white-red-gold colors decorating the church interior. And on the church's tower stands a giant golden statue of Mary, holding the baby Jesus. That's when my opinion of the city changed. Marseille isn't such a bad place after all!" (2014)
"Marseille is the melting pot of the French Riviera: it accommodates anything, though it does not knead it into a uniform mass. It is made up of different districts, just as the faces of the inhabitants are different. The things it brings together are Mediterranean madness, tangle, and abundance. There can be no question of restraint.
Traffic on the hills fluctuates according to standard Mediterranean rules: red lights, for example, don't matter. Within two days, I get used to the system: if a car is coming, stop. If there's no car, pedestrians can cross the street any time, so long as they hurry! The sidewalk is also used freely by motorcyclists. And drivers don't seem to mind that they mostly only have to battle the other cars and some brave pedestrians to get ahead.
Tucked away on either side of the Vieux Port is the old town center, which exudes an atmosphere like a fairytale small Provencal town. Narrow streets climb the hill, flanked by sand-colored houses with lavender-colored shutters. Even when the shutters are painted green, it seems that lavender color has still been mixed into the paint. The Provencal countryside colors are borne by the houses here, melting humbly into the landscape, the color of the rocky mountains, and the lavender fields.
Markets are held in many squares, the real outdoor type, which back home has more or less died out, or at least becomes as rare as white crows (well, let's be glad we still have indoor markets). Here you can find fruit, vegetables, spices, and clothes.
Around the market, the crowds mingle, stand, sit, have coffee, and play cards. Whether in a store or at a market, the vendors don't have poker faces – they tease you if you don't speak French (sometimes self-deprecatingly, sometimes mockingly, expressing their French elitism); it is small-town Provence, not a supermarket.
But the small-town milieu is only a small part of this city of two million, and crossing the imaginary frontier unfolds before us a new metropolitan scene: the rows of ugly, colorless two-story houses, shop windows and neon lights, and an occasional tree which is the only a herald of nature.
The smell of car fumes and glum faces. And no matter how enchanting the small-town core is, the reality of big-city Marseille is still genuinely reflected in this picture – with the emphasis on a big city, not Marseille. Marseille is also dirty and swimming in the trash, everywhere. The observance of red lights and the use of public trash cans are strictly voluntary.
And the city still has another aspect. Marseille is the European side of Africa, Esther says, and she's right – this style also fits Marseille, no wonder, as Marseille is just a step away from the North African coasts, making it one of the easiest ways to get into Europe. North and Sub-Saharan Africans live in the city just like the indigenous French and with the same rights (at least those who have been granted permanent status). They set up a stand at the market, the bazaar, or whatever they find for themselves. Some have opened African-style design shops. They reinvent themselves, I think, one way or another. The cultures are mixed, and the skin tones draw a pattern on the cityscape."