by Stuart Haggas
I first visited Marseille a decade ago, stopping for one night en route to somewhere else. Cyril Denoix, general manager of super-hip hotel Mama Shelter Marseille, acknowledges that this was fairly common. It seems that this Mediterranean port city was a place where a ship might briefly drop anchor but would soon set sail again.
Much has changed in recent years. Since holding the title of European Capital of Culture 2013, the grit of Marseille has transformed into a pearl, enabling the city to evolve into a destination and not a mere point in a journey.
This was emphasized on May 1, 2015 when Channel Tunnel train operator Eurostar introduced a new direct service from London’s St Pancras station, bringing train-loads of visitors from Britain and beyond to the heart of Marseille in six hours and 27 minutes.
The city’s Vieux-Port (old port) area has witnessed the greatest transformation. Renowned Architect Norman Foster oversaw its redevelopment in 2013, turning the down-at-heels waterfront into an open and inviting pedestrian-friendly area. It’s now a place to enjoy a stroll, or to sip Champagne while dining on plateau de fruits de mer (raw and cooked shellfish platter) or moules frites (steamed mussels and French fries) at any one of the numerous pavement cafés and bistros. Luxury hotels including Sofitel and Radisson Blu occupy prime waterfront positions.
As part of their endeavours, Foster + Partners added a sleek yet simple new structure to the old port. L’Ombrière is a sunshade and events pavilion made of highly reflective stainless steel. Its mirror- polished surface reflects the surrounding port as well as those who stand beneath it, so it’s perfect for taking quirky selfies.
Some traditions, however, remain unchanged. Fishermen still sell their daily catch on the quayside each morning, and local chefs arrive early to select red mullet, rockfish, spider crab, and other ingredients for bouillabaisse (the iconic Marseillaise fish stew).
Of course, there are those who may favor the pre-gentrification image of the port of Marseille. It was portrayed as a place teeming with rowdy sailors and male prostitutes in Le Livre Blanc (The White Book), an erotic illustrated tale published anonymously in 1928 by French writer, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Marseille was then France’s most cosmopolitan city, with migrants from the Maghreb and Indochina as well as swarms of sailors. The possibility of discreet same-sex encounters in the Turkish baths and opium dens that surrounded the port enhanced its exotic allure. Marseille certainly sup- plied much inspiration to Jean Cocteau: the city also provided the hero for Cocteau’s Le Fantôme de Marseille, a monologue he wrote in 1933 for Edith Piaf about an irresistible Marseillaise youth.
Jean Cocteau may have laid some groundwork, but gay travel guides tantalized with the prospect of finding hunky, bare-chested sailors mending their fishing nets in Marseille’s Vieux-Port—sadly, a prospect I suspect lapsed some time ago.
Too narrow and shallow to accommodate modern commercial ships, the old port has become a 3,500-berth marina where hundreds of luxury yachts drop anchor next to the occasional pointu (traditional Marseillaise fishing boats). So instead of bare-chested sailors of uncertain sexuality, you’re now more likely to encounter rich and handsome yachtsmen in Lacoste boat shoes and crew-neck Breton sweaters.
You don’t need to own a yacht (or seduce a yachtsman) to enjoy a sail through the picturesque harbor. Those without such privileges at their disposal may take boat shuttles from here to destinations including the Château d’If.
Marseille’s answer to Alcatraz, this desolate island fortress has been a prison to revolutionaries, Huguenots (French Protestants), and anti-royalists since the 16th century, although its most famous inmate was a work of fiction and never really existed.