The coming of independence dealt a blow to Marseille's economy. Previously, the city had flourished on trade with its African and Asian colonies, mainly in raw materials such as sugar, but there was relatively little manufacturing. "Marseille profited from trade with the colonies," says Viard, "but received no knowledge." Since the mid-1980s, the city has been reinventing itself as a center for higher education, technological innovation and tourism—the "California" model, as one economist described it. Along the waterfront, 19th-century warehouses, gutted and refitted, today provide luxury office and living space. A silo, once used to store sugar offloaded from ships, has been transformed into a concert hall. The old Saint-Charles train station has just been completely renovated, to the tune of $280 million.
While Marseille may lack the jewel box perfection of Nice, a two-hour drive away, it boasts a spectacular setting—some 20 beaches; picturesque islands; and the famous calanques, or fiords, where rugged coves and scuba-diving waters are just minutes away. And for anyone willing to explore the city on foot, it yields unexpected treasures. From the top of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, the 19th-century basilica, views of the city's whitewashed neighborhoods, islands and the Estaque coast stretch to the west.
Back in the city center, Le Panier (panier means basket, perhaps connected to the fact that the ancient Greeks' marketplace thrived here) has preserved a quiet charm, with little traffic and coffeehouses where one can snack on a bar of dark chocolate, a local specialty. In the heart of the district, a complex of recently restored 17th-century buildings, La Vieille Charité, houses world-class collections of Egyptian and African artifacts. The extensive holdings, from 21st dynasty sarcophagi to 20th-century central African masks, contain treasures brought back over the centuries from the outposts of the empire.
The port is rightly celebrated, too, for its traditional dishes, particularly bouillabaisse, the elaborate fish soup incorporating, among other elements, whitefish, mussels, eel, saffron, thyme, tomato and white wine. Back in the 1950s, a young Julia Child researched part of her best-selling 1961 cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in fish markets along the Vieux Port. She compiled her recipes in a tiny apartment overlooking the inner harbor. The plain-spoken Child may have called the dish "a fish chowder," but the surging popularity of bouillabaisse today means that in one of Marseille's upscale waterfront restaurants, a serving for two with wine may set one back $250.
On any given evening, in clubs that fringe La Plaine, a district of bars and nightclubs about a 15-minute walk up the hill from the Vieux Port, global musical styles, from reggae to rap to jazz to West African rap-fusion, pound into the night. As I strolled along darkened cobblestone streets not long ago, I passed a salsa club and a Congolese band playing in a Jamaican style known as rub-a-dub. On the outside wall of a bar, a mural showed a golden-domed cathedral set against a fantastical skyline of mosques—an idealized vision of a multicultural city on a cobalt blue sea that bears a striking resemblance to Marseille itself.
Not long before I left the city, I met with Manu Theron, a percussionist and vocalist who leads a band called Cor de La Plana. Although he was born in the city, Theron spent part of his childhood in Algeria; there, in the 1990s, he played in Arab cabarets, clubs he likens to saloons in the Wild West, complete with whiskey, pianos and prostitutes. Also around that time, he began singing in Occitan, the centuries-old language related to French and Catalan, once spoken widely in the region. As a youngster in Marseille, he had sometimes heard Occitan. "Singing this language," he says, "is very important to remind people of where they come from." Nor does it bother him that audiences don't understand his lyrics. As a friend puts it, "We don't know what he is singing about, but we like it anyway." The same might be said of Marseille: in all its diversity, the city may be difficult to comprehend—but somehow, it works.
Writer Andrew Purvis, the bureau chief for Time in Berlin, has reported extensively on European and African immigration issues. Photographer Kate Brooks is based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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My Town: Ford p. 96 none, per AM
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A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World by Gregory Clark, Princeton University Press, 2007