A Stroll Through The Other Marseille
07 October, 2016
First, the bad news – Marseille is not Paris. Unlike its long-standing rival, France’s second largest city lacks top-drawer museums, stunning landmarks and hordes of Japanese tourists queueing up outside Louis Vuitton. The good news is that… Marseille is not Paris. Pampered by the Mediterranean, this city of radiant sunlight, with its multicultural population and suburbs in the very heart of the city, is so much of an oddity that it earned itself the nickname Planète Mars.
With one of the largest ports in the Mediterranean, a chaotic urban layout and an abiding reputation for being a decadent capital, Marseille is above all France’s enfant terrible, a noisy, dynamic city full of contrasts, where street hawkers take over the pavements, walls are smothered in graffiti, one’s clothes are impregnated with a brackish odour and the Olympique de Marseille is the mortar that binds it all together.
Apart from the usual tourist destinations, the tables have turned since it was voted European Capital of Culture in 2013. Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and Norman Foster all have their state-of-the-art buildings on the snazzy waterfront esplanade. The bohemian way of life, however, is to be found inland and that is where we are heading. With a map in our pockets, we embark on our alternative, urban bobo tour of the capital of Provence!
At La Friche la Belle de Mai
An erstwhile tobacco factory at the Gare Saint-Charles is Marseille’s liveliest cultural centre. We have come to La Friche! Exhibition areas, artists’ ateliers, theatre, skating ramps and even a nursery rub shoulders here. All in one hybrid amalgam and in constant flux, focused on contemporary creation in a precinct where the communal spirit matches the extensive programme.
The huge roof terrace, which affords spectacular city views, is filled to bursting in summer, as it hosts parties with guest DJs and open-air cinema on Sundays. For the rest of the year the music never stops, while the Cabaret Aléatoire features sessions ranging from rock to hip-hop.
If you need to refuel, head for La Salle des Machines, a café-bookshop where you can have a café au lait while you leaf through a catalogue of the latest shows. But, if you’re actually feeling peckish, Les Grandes Tables is the place to go. Here, the menu changes each day, but they always have the classic steak tartare and Caesar salad. Mondays usher in a market of local produce and, as you well know, French markets are peerless.
Outside, alongside the warehouses and level with passing TGVs, the walls of a city park are daubed in graffiti proclaiming “Skateboarding is not a crime”. Here, skaters spin their tricks, while others play basketball, scale the climbing wall, play in the children’s area or work the land in the community allotment. That’s Marseille – a heterogeneous magma where everyone and everything become fused.
A few metres to the west, among the maze-like streets of La Belle de Mai, stands Le Gyptis Cinéma. Their (original version!) listings are as eclectic as the city itself, featuring thematic film cycles, classics, titles you won’t find on the Internet and children’s movies. The facade is peopled with portraits of neighbourhood characters, the upshot of a communal street-art programme designed to put a face to the locals.
And, with that image fixed in our mind’s eye, we head for Cours Julien, the hardcore urban Marsellais scene.
Around Cours Julien – Street Art & Urban Vibe
Alternative, carefree and colourful, the Cours Ju, as locals call it, is the in district right now. Take the metro to Notre Dame du Mont, although the climb up from the harbour is a heart-stopper. A district of artists, musicians and designers and the bastion of the ultra-modern bobo community (bobo, in French, is a nickname for “bourgeois-bohemian”), the Cours Ju is an endless string of trendy cafés, restaurants of all kinds, vintage stores and streets covered in full-colour graffiti.
The fact is that no other spot in the “Hexagone” can boast such a tour de force of urban art of this calibre. Streets fronts along Rue Vian, Pastoret and Bussy l’Indien are overrun by countless pamphleteering murals of a social nature, with references to pop culture or signs announcing the cafés hidden inside. Street art is clearly part of Marseille’s urban DNA, both rebellious and multicultural, as evinced in their well-known hip-hop – see this fast-paced video set to a local rap rhythm to get the idea.
Against this backdrop, every square metre of what is Marseille’s Kreuzberg is inundated with alternative art galleries, terraces, cafés and stores selling anything from apparel to household goods. The best approach is to venture carefree into the chaotic maze of pedestrian streets and let yourself get carried away by the relaxed atmosphere.
In the Cours itself, the multi-faceted concept store Oogie sells apparel and books, but also serves food and houses a hairdressing salon which hosts DJ parties. Nearby, La Licorne makes soaps using traditional methods and, in the rue Trois Frères Barthélémy, the Brasserie de la Plaine micro-brewery sells craft beer and has a bistro where you can wolf down the market-cuisine formule du jour or menu of the day, which usually consists of a starter, main course and dessert for around €10.
The trendiest spot par excellence is WAAW, on the rue Pastoret. Halfway between a bistro and a cultural centre, WAAW’s activities range from presentations to silk-screen print shops. It is also the best place to make a technical stop, order the dish of the day or stock up for the evening on a pastis or rosé when it’s time for the popular “apéro” – a pre-dinner aperitif.
Night time ushers in drinks and music. Sited in the Place Jean Jaurès, L’Intermédiaire is one of the best venues for live and DJ-set alternative music. Next door is Au Petit Nice, which offers a huge selection of beers in an inner patio where you can while away the hours. And, in La Dame Noir, hipsters queue up to get into the most sought-after club in the area.
As if that weren’t enough, a local producers’ market sets up shop in the Cours Ju every Wednesday morning. Stamp traders get their turn on Sundays, while second-hand books are sold every second Saturday in the month. The Marché de La Plaine, in the Place Jean Jaurès, is a market selling fruit and vegetables, cheese, fish, takeaway food, cheap footwear and accessories of all kinds on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings, while the flower market is held on Wednesdays.
The Cours Ju has a special something which grows on you! Get going and discover cosmopolitan Marseille – book your Vueling here!
Text by Núria Gurina i Puig for Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS
07 October, 2016