Marseille is having a makeover, though there’s still lots of gritty charm

Marseille may look like the average ancient port town in France, but Robert V. Camuto of the Washington Post discovers that there’s a lot going on in this traditional and yet offbeat place.

It was about 10:30 on a Saturday night. My wife and I were driving back to our hotel in the picturesque old port of Marseille after a relaxing dinner at an Italian restaurant at the far edge of town.

Limestone cliffs border the harbor at Sormiou, one of Marseille's calanques, or sea inlets. Photo by Philippe Conti.

It so happened that on this evening, Marseille’s soccer team was playing for its first league championship in 17 years, and the bars across town were packed with hordes of pastis-fueled young fans watching the match. About halfway down the port, I saw that gendarmes were blocking the road and turning away cars. Behind the roadblock, hundreds of national riot police were suiting up in body armor, helmets and shields.

The old port is the heart of Marseille, and that night, thousands were expected to gather there to demonstrate either joy or anger at the game’s outcome.

I protested to the officer who waved us away, explaining in French that our hotel was at the opposite end of the port.

“Look,” he shot back, “there are 300 people down there smashing every car on the street. Do you really want to go there?”

I turned the car around and parked in a public garage. Then we walked briskly across the port, with its acres of pleasure boats swaying in the breeze and the riot cops lining up for a long night. As we reached the inland edge of the port, a human tide dressed in Marseille’s colors of light blue and white broke out of the bars and onto the streets and public squares. Marseille had won.

Fireworks exploded, and young men on scooters sped through pedestrian plazas and over sidewalks while others ran through the streets chanting songs from Marseille’s soccer libretto. We hastened to the hotel and locked the door.

Contrary to what the gendarme had told us, there was no violence that night. We awoke the next morning to an azure sky and the angelic singing of a Palm Sunday procession coming from the small white baroque Saint-Ferreol church. The procession wound through the port, past the daily morning fish market, the worshipers carrying olive branches in the Provencal tradition.

Riot cops to olive branches in an ancient Mediterranean port with a modern reputation as a center of organized crime: Marseille is about as authentically paradoxical a place as you’ll find in Western Europe.

Marseille is having a makeover, though there’s still lots of gritty charm