The Swiss-born French writer Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961) – a very well-travelled gentleman – called Marseille one of the most mysterious and difficult-to-fathom cities in the world.
This may no longer quite be the case, but it is certainly a very complex place with a long, fascinating history and many different cultural influences – thanks to its geographical position and splendid harbour.
A large, sophisticated city, second only to Paris, it is much more than Paris by the sea. It has its own vibrant culture but is also a hub for the arts internationally.
Unlike Paris, there aren’t lots of wonderful total histories of the city to choose from: those that are available tend to focus on a particular period or aspect of the city, though a number of the books below do contain historical elements.
But I thought it might be useful to give a very brief summary of the history of Marseille before we start – and also to mention the fact that there are two spellings of the city’s name: the French spell it ‘Marseille’ and, for some reason, the English version adds an ‘s’. On the whole I will stick with the French spelling (which seems the sensible thing to de) but where titles or quotations use the Anglicised version, I will stay true to the original.
Its first name was Massilia – a trading post founded sometime around 600 BCE by Greek sailors at what is now the location of the Vieux Port (Old Port). It was from here that a ‘local’ Greek mariner, Pytheas, set sail – the first literate Greek to explore northern Europe and report on what he found. With the expansion of the Roman Empire, many previously Greek territories came under the control of Rome and Massilia continued to be a vital route by which goods arrived in and left the western part of the empire.
The fortunes of the city fluctuated with various invasions and competing spheres of influence, but to a certain extent it always remained an important and fairly independent centre of trade and culture.
In the fourteenth century, outbreaks of the bubonic plague decimated the population – as it did even as late as 1720. (Marseille is reckoned to be possibly the first European victim of the plague – no doubt because of its port status.)
In the mediaeval period, France wasn’t a single kingdom and it wasn’t until the 1480s that Marseille became officially part of France. It has always held onto its regional identity, however, and been something of a rebel against centralised power.
Its citizens were staunch supporters of the French Revolution of 1789 and when, in 1792, volunteers were needed to help defend Paris against anti-Revolutionary factions, five hundred citizens of Marseille marched north. It is said that as they made their way to the capital they sang the stirring marching song we know as the Marseillaise (actually composed in Strasbourg – not in Marseille!) – now the French national anthem.
With the French colonisation of North Africa in the nineteenth century, Marseille became an increasingly flourishing port – helped further by the opening of the Suez Canal (1869). The great colonial exhibitions of 1906 and 1922 flaunted Marseille as the prime port of the French empire, and if you arrive in the city by train, you will encounter the station’s monumental staircase which dates from those ‘celebration of empire’ days.
Heavily bombed during the Second World War (by the Germans and Italians, and later by the Allies), it was also the place many desperate refugees headed for, hoping to escape first Vichy France then, when the Germans took direct control of the whole country, from the indiscriminate cruelties of Nazism.
Various refugee organisations were based in Marseille, trying to fine safe exits for the most vulnerable – including writers and artists who, known to be opponents of Fascism – or simply Jewish – were on the Nazis’ ‘wanted’ list. This period of the city’s history is well represented in both fiction and non-fiction. (Much of the city had to be rebuilt after the war.)
Capital of Culture
The post-war period has seen a flow of people in the opposite direction, people from former French colonies seeking a better life for themselves and their families in France. Recent years have also seen huge development projects in the city, and institutions like the new ‘Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean’ are making the city a magnet for visitors, for investment, and (best of all!) the arts. In 2013 Marseille was awarded the accolade of ‘Capital of Culture’.
I’m going to start simply with a little book I adored – by a native of Marseille, Jean-Claude Izzo (1945-2000). He is best known for his ‘Marseille trilogy’, three crime novels featuring Fabio Montale. These are for later.
First I want to talk about his short book of essays – just over a hundred pages – that made me want to read absolutely everything he’s written. It’s called Garlic, Mint, and Sweet Basil: essays on Marseilles, Mediterranean cuisine, and noir fiction (collected and translated 2013). Like many Marseille residents, Izzo was the child of immigrants – his father, a barman, was from Naples; his mother, a seamstress, was from Spain. Izzo’s famous creation, the Marseille policeman Fabio Montale, is, like his creator, the product of ‘inter-ethnic mixing’ and, also like Izzo, is profoundly opposed to everything that France’s extreme right-wing National Front party stands for.
A City of Light
In one short piece in Garlic, Mint, and Sweet Basil – called ‘Marseille is in my heart’ – Izzo tells us what he has learnt from the streets of his city: ‘all the things that stick to my skin: hospitality, tolerance, respect for others.‘ Perhaps we all need a little more of Izzo’s Marseille … – yes, Marseille, ‘where Verdi is as popular as Bob Marley‘; Marseille, ‘a city of light,’ a city whose essence is that it ‘always exaggerates‘; Marseille, with its bay ‘vast and beautiful. Probably the most beautiful in the world, after the Bay of Naples.’ And there are delicate little essays on the tastes of Marseille, the whole of this delightful little book is like a smile inviting the reader to visit the city.
Following up the ‘food’ connection with Izzo’s book, I’d like to mention Made in Marseille (2002) by Daniel Young. Although a cookery book – and we’re not generally dealing with those – I must say I really enjoyed the introduction which covers all sorts of aspects of Marseille. History, art, films, literature, architecture … all are touched on, though food, of course, is the main focus. Definitely worth a read, even if you’re not going to try any of the recipes that make up the main part of the book.
Young starts by narrating a visitor’s two contrasting experiences of riding in a taxi on arrival in the city, the drivers giving utterly opposite views of their city: ‘This place is nothing to write home about. It’s dirty. No-one knows how to drive. Everyone’s double-parked. There’s a construction site every block …’ and ‘This is a paradise. We’ve got the sun, the sea, the islands, beautiful brunettes from the four corners of the Mediterranean, the best seafood in the world. You won’t find a quality of life like this anywhere else.‘ The fact is, both views are true. Marseille is a complex and contradictory city – possibly no more so than any other great city, but in its own special way.
Another short, ‘initial’ read on Marseille is the somewhat out-of-date but still enjoyable A Considerable Town (1978) that forms the second section of Two Towns in Provence: Map of Another Town and A Considerable Town by an American lady famed more for her writing on food and wine M. F. K. Fisher (1908-1992) whom travel writer Jan Morris compares to ‘an endlessly entertaining and slightly mysterious aunt.’ The city is seen very much through her own personality and memories, but if you like wandering through a city with a loquacious friend from elsewhere but who’s known and loved the city over a long period, then you’ll enjoy this book.
Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series. She is the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published by Oxygen Books.