A frenzy of old glory and noise—give the 2013 Capital of Culture a chanceby John Gimlette / December 12, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
The view from Notre Dame de la Garde, where people bring gifts to the Virgin to thank her for saving their lives (photo: Superstock)
When I told French friends I was going to Marseille to research a book, they were horrified. They said the only things the Marseillais have ever been famous for are football (at which they cheat), soap (which they never use) and the national anthem (which is actually Alsatian). These days, I was told, almost all of them are either on benefits or heroin, or some sort of jihad.
“Be careful,” said one Parisian. “Marseille is like a bomb.”
So, from the French perspective, it’s an odd choice as the European Capital of Culture for 2013. There’s never been much encouragement to go there. For years, the cheap airlines stayed away (and Eurostar still stops just short of the city). In guidebooks, it was a place to be endured, not enjoyed. Until recently, only one hotel had more than three stars and there were no proper museums, boutiques, Disneylands or intelligible works of art. This was strange, considering that Marseille is Europe’s third biggest port, and the oldest and most spacious city in France.
And now? Arriving in Marseille is like falling through several layers of history and ending up just short of the present. From a distance, the knobbly, desiccated mountains of the Côte d’Azur look much as they did to the Phocaeans, who founded “Massalia” in 600BC. Closer in, it looks more Roman: foothills covered in pantiles and villas. Millennia pass, and you’re soon in among the great 16th-century forts. The villas meanwhile have turned into tenements, and the harbou…