When I announced that I would be spending a month in the Southern French city of Marseille, it was met with some disbelief and bewilderment. “But Marseille is dangerous,” some said. “Marseille is dirty,” cried others. As my month here comes to an end, I can safely and confidently share that I made the right choice.
Why did I choose to come to Marseille when other more traditionally attractive options were nearby? I could have based myself in Nice or Cannes, living in luxury along the Mediterranean Sea; I could have chosen the cultural hub of Aix-en-Provence (which I will visit this week). Instead, I came here to France’s second largest city, known for its working-class grit and large immigrant communities.
Tourisme Marseille, who have been absolutely wonderful in welcoming me to their city and providing me with some of the experiences I desperately wanted to incorporate into my writing, have tried to advertise Marseille as “the gateway to Provence.” Doing so conjures images of small Provençal towns with blue shuttered windows and herb gardens abounding. It’s a wonderful image, but it’s not Marseille. While it is true that the beauty of Provence is just a short bus or train ride away – I have said from the start that Marseille makes the perfect “base” city to explore southern France – Marseille is so much more than just a gateway, and that description robs the city of its true appeal.
Marseille is gritty, but beautiful.
France is one of the most diverse countries in existence. Stemming from an empire that stretched around the globe, immigrant populations from former colonies have, during times of unrest at home, come here to Marseille, the port city that seems a gateway much in the way New York does. To spend my month in Nice or Aix would be to deny myself that true glimpse into “real” France. The Marseillais are a rainbow of colors and accents, dazzling in their diverse clothing, customs, and food. And this city – and my experience – is richer for it. Much richer.
The city combines the beauty of the Mediterranean coast and nearby mountains with the urban experience of narrow winding alleys lined with shops and homes and the bustle of a million people going about their lives. This is not a place that hides itself under monuments to its own glory. This is a place that shows you with every step what it truly is.
Urban alleys like this capture my imagination.
For, you see, Marseille is wonderful not in spite of its grit, but because of it. In much the same way that the working-class roots of Detroit and Cincinnati make them different and wonderful, Marseille also gives visitors the true French experience. Not all towns are resorts on the sea. Not all cities boast the glamor of Paris. Marseille captured the essence of what it means to be in France, in real France, to be in a place where normal working people mill around you in all of their diverse – for better and worse – glory.
Are there neighborhoods in Marseille where I wouldn’t feel safe walking alone at night? Of course, but I can say the same thing about every place I have ever lived or visited. Are many of the buildings in need of a good power washing and coat of paint? Yes, but it doesn’t substantively change my experience to see them as they are today. And, believe me, I would much rather live in a place like this than a whitewashed paradise.
I walk around the city daily – or almost daily – and I am fascinated by the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes. Traditional flower markets and fish markets sit just steps from North African spice bazaars. Fresh bread and succulent crepes are neighbors with kabobs, pizza, and pho. Each neighborhood brings new experiences: here a mosque, there a church or synagogue, a park, a fountain, a marketplace. And through it all, the common thread, the thought that yes, this is France in all of its wonder.
This is the real Marseille, complete with bird fountain for the pigeons.
I came to Marseille because diversity doesn’t scare me, and grit doesn’t make me nervous. I came here because those things are real, and integral parts of the human experience. To have denied myself Marseille would be denying myself France.