France’s oldest city—and one of its toughest—is emerging as a capital of culture, music and cocktails
s the train speeds away from Paris and its grey, rainy sky, the soft plains and pine trees brighten up under the golden sun. In Marseille, the sky is a luminous, vivid blue. I arrive at Philippe Starck’s Mama Shelter hotel and head straight to the outdoor patio for lunch. The tiny space is bright and has citrus-colored walls and furniture. A giant chess set floats on the triangular water basin that’s nestled under hanging flowerpots and vintage photographs faded by the blinding sun. In a little corner alcove, washed-out plastic lanterns hang above the bar. I quench my thirst with an icy S. Pellegrino, and my server, Atif, flashes a wide smile. “Marseille,” he says, “is the Maghreb of Europe.”
The oldest city in France (it was established by the Greeks in 600 B.C. as a major Phoenician port), Marseille is also known for being rebellious—a distinction it achieved in the 16th century after citizens contested French royal authority. Its name brings to mind the crime-ridden streets immortalized in such classic films as The French Connection and Borsalino. Some compare the city, with its steep, rocky hills and cathedral of Notre-Dame de la Garde overlooking the infinite horizon, to Rio de Janeiro. Marseille is Paris’ messy, mad other—the New Orleans of France. It is the city of sailors and prostitutes, Marcel Pagnol and bouillabaisse. But it’s also a thriving hub of street and contemporary culture, both of which will be highlighted this year as the city celebrates its nomination as the European Capital of Culture for 2013. Museums and cultural centers are emerging across the city, new festivals are springing up, and an overwhelming lineup of cultural events takes place all year long. Laid-back and epicurean, Marseille has transformed its gritty underground culture into a vibrant arts scene.
“The cityscape is changing, and we must question this new reality,” says Elisabeth Martin, a project manager for Marseille-Provence 2013. “With the rise of new cultural institutions, we must question the meaning of public space and encourage collaborations between different communities.”
An important center of cross-disciplinary dialogue is La Friche Belle de Mai, a complex tucked into a working-class area north of the city. Composed of a concrete exhibition space and a shiny tower with a panoramic view designed by architect Matthieu Poitevin, it embraces the work of local artists: Its walls and skate park are splashed with colorful graffiti. La Friche’s outdoor performance space, called Cabaret Aléatoire, is the beating heart of the city’s music scene. From April through mid-June 2013, it will serve as the site for This Is Not Music, a world-renowned festival that brings together music and street art in a series of concerts, exhibitions and DJ sets.
hen cocktail time arrives—and it is always time for a drink in Marseille—Bob, a DJ/actor/producer who has organized a soul concert at Mama Shelter for later tonight, drives me to a secret location for a drink. We arrive at an unpromising yellow and blue souvenir shop touting pastis on kitschy yellow and blue posters. He enters a code, pushes the door and leads me through a wooden closet into an unassuming bar decorated with dim lights and vintage parlor furniture. Many consider this the best cocktail spot in Marseille, despite its hush-hush veneer. The menu offers such classics as the Sazerac and old-fashioned as well as inventive concoctions, such as the Marseille 1900, which includes vermouth and picon, a bitter orange–flavored liqueur. I order a Ramos Gin Fizz—light and airy as a cloud—and chat with the bar’s owner, Guillaume, a dark, handsome 20-something with an obsessive knowledge of spirits and cocktails. He has named his bar Carry Nation after the American activist Carrie Nation, a pre–Prohibition era defendant of the temperance movement. Guillaume has traveled around the world in his search for cocktail enlightenment, but he is, like every local I have met, crazy about his hometown.
“Marseille is at once open and closed—a city of paradox,” he says. “It smells of the sea, the wind. It’s the scent of the Mediterranean.” As I walk back to my hotel, intoxicated by the city’s sensual charm and exhausted by a day of exploring it, I read a quote by French author André Gide that’s spray-painted onto a grey wall: “All nature tosses between desire for rest and thirst for pleasure.” This, indeed, is the true spirit of Marseille.
WHERE TO GO IN MARSEILLE
Hotel: Mama Shelter
Neighborhood: Cours Julien
Interesting fact: Philippe Starck’s Mama Shelter hotel offers quaint, quiet rooms at bed-and-breakfast prices and a bustling scene at its restaurant bar.
Hotel: InterContinental Marseille–Hotel Dieu
Neighborhood: Le Panier, Marseille’s oldest district
Interesting fact: Housed in an 18th-century monument and overlooking the Old Port and horizon, this new InterContinental outpost offers all the luxuries of the brand in a historic coastal setting.
Neighborhood: Old Port
Interesting fact: This massive hangar was converted into a cultural space in 2013 and hosts exhibitions, concerts, three galleries and design studios.
Venue: Le Silo
Neighborhood: La Villette
Interesting fact: This former wheat silo, built in 1927, was a possible inspiration for Le Corbusier’s modernist housing development in Marseille, Cité Radieuse. It is now a performance space, hosting troupes such as the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre and the Batsheva Dance Company.
Venue: La Friche Belle de Mai
Neighborhood: Belle de Mai
Interesting fact: Home of the This Is Not Music festival and other eclectic events, concerts and performances, La Friche (which translates to the wasteland in English) is the hub of underground culture in Marseille.
Venue: Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain Provence-Alpes–Côte d’Azur (The Regional Contemporary Art Fund of Provence-Alpes–Côte d’Azur)
Interesting fact: Architect Kengo Kuma’s new building for this contemporary art center is transparent and opalescent, its pixelated glass panels shining in the sun. The center collects contemporary art, with an emphasis on supporting young, emerging artists.
Venue: Palais Longchamp
Neighborhood: Les Cinq Avenues
Interesting fact: Built in 1862 to celebrate the construction of the Canal de Marseille, this imposing monument houses the city’s beaux-arts and natural history museums.
Restaurant: La Cantinetta
Neighborhood: Notre Dame du Mont
Interesting fact: This charming trattoria, known for its freshly made pasta and selection of wines, draws an energetic, creative crowd.
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Restaurant: Le Ventre de l’Architecte
Interesting fact: Located on the third floor of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse development, Alexandre Mazzia’s conceptual kitchen—the name of which translates to the belly of the architect—highlights Provence’s abundant produce.
Restaurant: Chez Michel
Neighborhood: Old Port
Interesting fact: With an emphasis on fresh seafood—much of the daily catch arrives straight from the seaport—Chez Michel is where locals head for outstanding bouillabaisse and a traditional Provençal dining experience.
Arts and lifestyle writer SHIRINE SAAD has contributed to The New York Times, MTV, Nowness and Surface, among others. She has recently published Boho Beirut: A Guide to the Middle East’s Most Sophisticated City and is now working on a Brooklyn guidebook.