A Glossy Guide To Marseille, France

TIM MAGEE is strictly impressed with Marseille’s DANCING AND DINING SCENE

Foxtrot, tango, bravo to all the dancers, the Romeos and Juliets shimmying in spangled uniforms across the city square. Bravo to the toe steppers, the waltzing daddy dancers, to the 20 and 80-somethings. To the five foot zip woman in stripper heels waving a bloke around like a hanky – a giant novice who moves from macho man to limp lion kill the moment she grips his palm for the tango. There are pros dotted across this stony dance floor, there are dancers in their Sunday best and dancers in soccer jerseys. A few are tourists but most are local, and all seem colour blind.

The scene could be an ad for Buenos Aires but this is Tuesday night in Marseille and the last thing you’d expect to see. There’s plenty you do expect to see, like the beaches, history, architecture and culture, but you can’t really show locals or diversity in brochures.

Nothing is less diverse than a national anthem. The Marseillaise, France’s invigorating and giddy theme tune and the world’s best national anthem, gets its moniker from volunteers from Marseille singing in Paris after the revolution. But unless they are from Marseille don’t ask a French person about the city – they won’t know.

A Marseillais is a Marseillais first. Then maybe he is Algerian, Moroccan, Armenian, Comoran, Tunisian, Malian, Senegalese, Arab or Berber. One in three can climb their family tree back to Italy, and the ancient cove is home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. Being French probably comes third on the list, or very last.

This finds Marseille perpetually guilty of that most unforgivable of notional French things, not integrating. France’s second city feels like a colonial protectorate, even an island, part of the Frioul archipelago that it overlooks, guarded by the 17th-century sentinels that flank it – St Jean, St Nicolas, Cathedrale de la Major, Île d’If and its famous fortress, the Château d’If, Dumas’ setting for The Count of Monte Cristo.

Cosmopolitan has become an epithet with some for being elitist, but its real meaning is the exact opposite – being at ease with different countries and cultures. When a cosmopolitan city lives by the sea under a hot sun then alchemistic electricity can happen – cities like Lisbon and Athens are proof of this. A pulsing invisible power grid, fuelled by heat, sex and often an obsession with food. The kind of heady mix that makes you fall hard for a city.

The street dancing took place in a new space – Cours Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves. A giant multi-storey car park was demolished and replaced with an enormous public square. It’s an indicator of what’s happening throughout Marseille. The derelict waterfront has been transformed with world-class museums and cultural centres where once there was decay.

Marseille has its problems. Everywhere does. Marseille is much older than France, some call it Planet Mars. But the old port isn’t gritty or gutsy now or any of the patronising names that are given to real places where real people live, people that make them magnetic until too many tourists arrive and you long for the time before. It is still that time now. But with a food and wine pick ‘n’ mix we can only dream of, sparkling new museums and galleries, better hotels and restaurants, and solid infrastructure, this city is going forward, quickly.

Europe’s Babel by the Sea is a big boiling cosmopolitan pot of the exotic and often overlooked treasures that, when put together properly, become their own unique and spectacular thing. Like soup. Not just any soup, but the edible symbol of Marseille. Bouillabaisse is French for soup with rules, and the first rule is fish. Rascasse, big-mouthed aliens that look like they came from a metal scrap  yard. They are delicious and without them the soup is not bouillabaisse, which comes in two acts. First a broth with all of the tastes you will ever need to know in this lifetime. Then the fish cooked in the soup, no fewer than four kinds. You might need to take evening classes in how to handle the crispy toasts and the extras: aïoli and rouille.

Le Petit Nice Passédat

There are three places that make the best bouillabaisse in Marseille, Provence, France, the world. You can roll downhill from one to the other, if you’re greedy enough to eat in all three in two days. I was.

The first, off the Corniche President John F Kennedy, is the hotel Le Petit Nice Passédat, where I stayed. Set above the rocky coast overlooking the archipelago and the old port, there is a constellation of stars with chef Gérald Passédat (the hotel restaurant also bears his name), bringing the three stars, and this jewel of a hotel providing the five. When I arrived, I dived straight into the Med and later, poolside, over a pastis, listening to the snap of the sailcloth awnings over the terrace and the sea below, I planned my soup odyssey.

Chez Michel is where Fernando Rey from The French Connection would dine, the closest to the Vieux Port. Old school, frayed white suits, polished pewter, nothing deconstructed. At the door you are greeted by the trophy fish that will play the extras in the soup.

L’Épuisette is a one-star stunner five minutes up the hill, sitting under the cliffs of Vallon des Auffes and the Monument aux Morts de l’Armée d’Orient et des Terres Lointaines. 

When you are at maximum bouillabaisse you could walk it off around Panier, or up the steep streets to Notre-Dame-du-Mont, or exploring the regenerated waterfront, accelerated by Norman Foster and hip-hop. Or you could join the Planet Mars inhabitants, dancing in the big new heart of this ancient city.

Tim Magee @manandasuitcase

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