Mediterranean MARSEILLE: Jly 2023

I feel at home on the streets of Marseille. Maybe because I’m an exile (by choice). “Marseille is, and always has been, the port of exiles .… whoever disembarks in the port is inevitably at home,” wrote Marseille author Jean-Claude Izzo. 

In July 2023, I made my fifth visit to Marseille. It’s a city  home to more people than Barcelona, and yet whose inhabitants are largely shunned by la France profonde… although not by the edgy, creative types looking for a lively city cheaper than Paris

For a couple of years running I’ve stayed on the southern edge of Marseille, mesmerised by the sea views and swimming in the calanque, the rocky coves that stretch from Marseille, along the Calanques national park, and on towards Cassis. 

Marseille has changed a lot since I first visited over ten years ago, and when I was advised not to stray too far from the Old Port. The 2016 Netflix series Marseille, which portrays the city as a place in the sun with a heady mix of corruption, gangs and cocaine-snorting, now seems far away, as long as you keep out of the northern suburbs, unless you’re looking for a more edgy experience. 

Even so, the woman at the calanque said in a harsh tone to me, as if she meant business: “This is not France. This is Marseille!” – another way of saying that you can’t meddle with the people here.  Luckily she was not referring to what I had done.

The Old Port of Marseille

I usually go to Marseille in the month of July, when the midday sun beats down with a vengeance, casting strong black shadows . My routine is to first head to the Vieux-Port, the Old Port – the heart of the city, and to see the blue water. Unlike Barcelona, Marseille has always looked out, across the Mediterranean, and not inland to the rest of France. 

The 19th century Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde watches over the territory, welcoming everyone  arriving by sea, whether from Corsica or Sardinia, Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia. Locally, the neo-Byzantine basilica is called la Bonne Mère, or the Good Mother.

The Vieux-Port is also the place to catch a boat for the popular excursion to the island of Château D’If, the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo

Where to eat in Marseille

Like any city or town, I would not recommend eating anywhere in Marseille. The city is full of people who’ve drifted there, attracted by its magnetism, but maybe in another life they would no have had a restaurant. These I can recommend: 

La Femme du Boucher – traditionally, Marseillaise cuisine is bouillabaisse, anchoïade, pistou soup and panisse (fried wedges made from chickpea flour). I had none of these when I went for lunch at La Femme du Boucher, one metro stop south of the Vieux-Port, in the 6th arrondissement. That evening, mentioning to a neighbour where I had eaten – as we took our dip in the sea – she exclaimed: “That’s the most in place in Marseille!” 

La Femme du Boucher might be fashionable, but the vibe is casual. The ‘wife of the butcher’ is the chef and les mecs (the guys) are on the restaurant floor.  The menu is not only about meat… my Gazpacho had a tasty tomato-strawberry combo (which I have only found in China). I followed this with Courgette stuffed with rice & a meat  (à la daube). I saved my coffee for Deep, just by the Marseille Opera House.

Ashourya – a 13-minute walk from le Vieux-Port, in the lively Cour Julien neighbourhood, is this amazing Syrian restaurant, often open when everything else is closed. I went for the mixed mezze dish. The freshest and the best Middle Eastern food that I’ve ever tasted. 

Cour Saint Louis 

Some of my favourite places are in or near the Cour Saint Louis, in the 1st arrondissement, some five minutes’ walk from the old port. These are:

Maison Empereur – named after its founder, François Empereur, rather than a French emperor. The store is an Aladdin’s cave for homeware, and especially good for cooks: a maze of rooms up creaky flights of wooden stairs, and wrapped around the higgledy-piggledy structure of a 19th century building. 

My purchases? A Maison Empereur linen cloth for drying glasses and a hand whisk for beating eggs. I also wanted to come away with some Plasticana gardening boots, made from hemp + recycled plastic, but none were left in my size.  You can even stay at the Maison Empereur chambres d’hôte at the back of the store.

Herboristerie dy Père Blaize – what Maison Empereur is for homeware, Père Blaize is for herbs, tinctures, creams and natural medicines. The cluster of shoppers waiting to be served was enough to whip me into a frenzy to spend. And shop I did. This store is special: 200 years of experience and 5,000 plant-based products to inspire. 

Pétrin Cochinette – I often buy bread for my hosts, and here is a favourite … as well as a quick sandwich lunch or a coffee and croissant, taken on the terrace. It’s run by the restaurant next door, La Mercerieon my list for my next visit to Marseille for a set-lunch menu at €35, and where the chef is an Englishman.

The neighbourhood of Le Panier 

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy (see below for more) is largely set in the old district of Le Panier, on the inclined narrow streets above the northern side of the Vieux-Port. Among the little shops and bars, you can also find the chai (pronounced ‘shay’ – a wine storeroom) Microcosmos, the urban winery of Marseille. 

The winery was not open the day I was in Marseille (I ended up buying the wine for the evening meal from La Femme du Boucher instead), but the shutter was slightly raised.  I had first discover the wines of Microcosmos at Carters of Moseley, on the outskirts of Birmingham, and at Frenchie Covent Garden in London. I had then kept up on social media with Fabienne Völlmy. who founded the winery together with her husband Lukas, seen in posts working in the vineyards, with his tractor and his dog.

When I’m next in Le Panier, I want to catch the Glacier Vanille Noire. They are closed in winter, when instead I would go to Métropole Glacier in the Vieux-Port.

A Mediterranean museum

From Le Panier, it’s an easy walk, despite the dog days of summer, to the MuCEM, a museum dedicated to the art and culture of the Mediterranean region.

The museum was inaugurated in 2013, when Marseille was the European capital of culture.  Architect Rudy Ricciotti, whose practice is in nearby Bandol, famous for its heady Provençal reds, designed the new filigree-clad waterfront building, which he described as a ’vertical casbah’.

A city of 111 neighbourhoods 

Marseille is sprawling. In the 7th arrondissement of Marseille, in the southern foothills of Notre-Dame de la Garde, I was introduced to Bricoleurs de Douceur, run by pastry chef Clément Higgins. “He’s French,” I was told, when I asked about the origins of his surname. 

The names of the cakes were almost as attirants as the cakes themselves. To pick a few: the Michael Choumacher (choux pastry, raspberry, vanilla, orange flowers, yellow & green lemons); the Pablo Escobar, (coconut, mango, passion fruit); C’est Marseille Bébé (brioche, peach, vanilla ganache). Excellent for a morning pick-me-up. 

Other places further south… quite a bit south of the city are:

Tuba Club – a restaurant and place to stay, where I want to go,

La Grotte – in the Calanque de Callelongue, where I went and really enjoyed, eating out on the terrace under the bougainvillea.

More quotes from Jean-Claude Izzo

As one of my favourite authors, I’d like to finish with a few more words about Jean-Claude Izzo. He was born in 1945 (died 2000), the son of a barman from Naples and a seamstress from Spain. He is best known for his neo-noir Marseille trilogy (Total Chaos, Chourmo, Solea) where the central character is ex-cop Fabio Montale

Izzo’s filmic novels do sensuality-tinged, edgy crime. They are peppered with the smells of food, wine and pastis, which provide a light relief from the tensions of Marseille’s underworld that he writes about. 

His series of essays in Garlic, Mint & Sweet Basil provide a window on Marseille and Mediterranean cuisine:

  • The cuisine of Marseilles has always rested on the art of using fish and vegetables disdained by the local ship-owning upper classes.”  

And with regard to the lure of the local market: 

  • Wherever I go, in any city in the world, the first thing I do is go to the market. To feel the city… Shopping in a market is nothing but the reinvention of the art of living simply, and together.” 

Despite finding happiness in food and wine, Izzo was a pessimist. He wrote, and this was 20 years ago: 

  • The future is desperate. But I’m not the one who is desperate, it’s the world.

Marseille is an hour’s train journey from Arles – see my post on Arles.

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