Eye on the Horizon.

If the mention of the word “Provence” only conjures up the scent of lavender and visions of sleepy medieval villages, Marseille can teach you a thing or two. The capital of the storied region is also its polar opposite in many ways: raw, avant-garde, and full of contrasts – as invigorating as the sea.

Cross a few more streets, and you get the impression you’ve already been all around the world.

The face of Marseille can change as quickly and profoundly as that of a great actress: on Rue Grignan, east of the Old Port, the decorated windows of the luxury shops are reminiscent of the glamorously made-up visage of an Oscar-winning diva on the red carpet. Then the street goes over a bridge, and after just a step or two more, a sign straddling a pair of adjoining buildings announces the “Quartier des Créateurs”, the designer’s quarter. That’s a wrap, thanks! From here onwards the city puts on a totally different face: walls ablaze with garish graffiti, designer boutiques with cool-sounding names; alternatively-minded health food stores and tiny, exotic restaurants lining the narrow lanes. Cross a few more streets, and you get the impression you’ve already been all around the world. Head back toward the port via the Marché de Noallies (market at Noallies) and the historic Canebière thoroughfare, and you’ll experience another abrupt cinematic cut – and suddenly swear you’re in the middle of Berlin’s Neukölln neighborhood. And it’s barely been two kilometers (1.2 miles) since you passed the Hermès shop.

Marseille is unique. It’s doesn’t have the classic beauty of Cannes or Nice or the instant charm of one of those places in the south of France that are constantly suffused with the odor of lavender.

A mesmerizing place, yet repulsive at the same time.

“Anyone who claims they love Marseille unconditionally doesn’t know the city that well. It’s a mesmerizing place, yet repulsive at the same time. The city is a rebel – full of energy and difficult to contain.” That’s how fashion designer Roselyne Gierlinger describes her adopted home. Born in Corsica, she moved here 20 years ago; she takes her last name from her Austrian husband. Above the entrance to her boutique it reads “Floh” (“flea” in German), her nickname, of which the 55-year-old says: “When I first met my husband, I could never sit still, I was always doing a bunch of things at once. Maybe that’s why this city suits me so well.”

A few months ago Gierlinger moved her shop from the melting pot of the Cours Julien district down to the more upscale area close to the opera and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, inaugurated in 2013 when Marseille was a European Capital of Culture. Says Gerlinger, “I liked the atmosphere where we were before, but here we get more foot traffic.”

Rich and poor.

The cruise ship passengers who used to disembark, only to leave right away for the picture-postcard town of Aix-en-Provence about 30 minutes away, are now happy to spend the day in Marseille. Biotech and web entrepreneurs are also gradually making the city their own. As a center for trade and an industrial port, Marseille was globalized long before the term came into general use. Traditional and modern, rich and poor – they all coexist cheek by jowl in France’s second-largest city. In the Old Port, for example, where every morning the fishermen hawk their daily catch in front of the yachts. Or just opposite there, in the kitchen of La Kahena restaurant, where Nouredine Miladi stands over huge tubs filled with chicken and lamb, making a couscous broth he’s been accustomed to ever since his childhood on Djerba, in Tunisia.

In the sloping alleys of the old town’s Le Panier district, housecoat-clad matrons gab back and forth. They hang their wet laundry outside their windows like an art installation as it dries above the entranceways to the new galleries and shops. Also available here is Marseille’s famous soap, made from vegetable oil boiled with other natural ingredients, favorite of no less a personage than Louis XIV. And nowadays the former Hôtel Dieu houses the five-star Intercontinental Hotel.

“This city is a melting pot of cultures and lifestyles. We feel we are primarily from Marseille – and only then possibly French,” says Corinne Vezzoni. Like so many other of the city’s 850,000 inhabitants, the 51-year-old city planner and architect is a transplant. Until graduating high school, she lived in Morocco with her parents.

An ideal destination.

In the 2015 elections, a right-wing radical came close to being elected president of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region. The capital’s cosmopolitan populace heaved a collective sigh of relief that it didn’t actually come to pass. “Marseille was founded by the Greeks 2,600 years ago,” says Vezzoni. “They came by sea, not overland through France.” The mountains at the city’s back provide another explanation as to why its residents constantly have their eye on the horizon – they’re more familiar with the ferries to Africa than the TGV to Paris, says Vezzoni.

Vezzoni works on the sixth floor of a concrete edifice that doesn’t look particularly attractive from the outside. Le Corbusier designed the building, which was inaugurated in the early 1950s. His style visibly influenced other apartment houses built against the backdrop of the Estaque mountain range. “You don’t necessarily have to find the architecture pretty. But here even people who can’t afford a villa on the beach still get to enjoy a sea view,” says Vezzoni, triumphantly pointing to the panorama outside her office window. From this elevated vantage point it’s easy to see how the craggy foothills stretch from the outskirts all the way to the coastline. The narrow inlets of the Calanques are a piece of untamed nature within the city. Their vertical cliffs, with turquoise-colored water sparkling in between, are an ideal destination for hikers, climbers, boaters, and paddlers. The caves of the Calanques once gave refuge to pirates and smugglers, not to mention Second World War resistance fighters.

Marseille is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Guillaume Ferroni has come up with an equally clever hiding place for his own enterprise in Marseille. An access code arrives via e-mail with the tantalizing re line “secret instructions”. Just key in C25469, and the door to what appears to be a souvenir store pops open. Striding through a closet, you enter “Carry Nation”, an underground bar named after the God-fearing woman famous for attacking alcohol-serving establishments in the U.S. at the end of the 19th century.

Ferroni distills rum. Legally, of course. But that’s unusual for Marseille. Even though enjoying one’s first pastis of the day right after breakfast is deemed socially acceptable, since the end of the colonial period with its sugar barons, rum has been somewhat atypical. The 47-year-old explains, “As recently as the 19th century, there were 25 brands of rum in Marseille, and countless liquor warehouses. But all that is gone.”

The 47-year-old explains, “As recently as the 19th century, there were 25 brands of rum in Marseille, and countless liquor warehouses. But all that is gone.”

Ferroni plans to change that. He combs through archives, searching for progeny of the abandoned distilleries. In the meantime, he also operates three bars in the city. “At my places, you won’t find a cocktail in which fruit juices mask the alcohol,” he says. He’d much rather pour you a shot of Bellevue rum, 1998 vintage. Straight up. Six centiliters (just over two oz) for 33 euros. Marseille is definitely not for the faint of heart.

Fine Cuisine in an Architectural Icon.

Mediterranean-maghrebi is how Jérôme Caprin describes his cuisine at La Ventre de l’Architecte restaurant. Not surprising, considering that the head chef’s grandma hails from Tunisia; as a result Caprin himself is not only steeped in French culinary culture, but also in that of the Mediterranean’s southern coast. The 34-year-old’s favorite dish is rabbit molokhia – with a green sauce like his grandma used to prepare, made from the powder of a leafy green vegetable called “jute mallow” in English. The dishes on Le Ventre de l’Architecte’s lunch menu change on a weekly basis, while Caprin overhauls the dinner menu every month. But as its name suggests, a visit to La Ventre de l’Architecte isn’t just a culinary highlight; the restaurant is located on the third floor of the “Cité radieuse” (radiant city) building, with at least a partial view of the Mediterranean. Famed architect Le Corbusier designed the concrete monolith, which opened in the early 1950s. Located in Marseille’s eighth arrondissement, the building was conceived as a sort of all-inclusive ocean liner incorporating apartments, offices, businesses, restaurants, and kindergartens. Le Corbusier’s idea of a vertical city equipped to fulfil as many of the daily needs of its residents as possible quickly spread around the globe. Some of the original furnishings of his Marseille are still in use. Those wishing to extend their stay beyond the duration of a visit to the restaurant can book a room at the Hotel Le Corbusier right next door.

hotellecorbusier.com/restaurant/

The Couscous Master.

In Marseille YOU CAN easily eat your way through the cuisine of every continent on the planet. The city is home to around 40 different nationalities, with most of the immigrants hailing from neighboring European countries and North Africa – like Nouredine Miladi. His big family calls him simply “tonton” (little uncle). But in Marseille, Miladi is something of an institution. At 20, he arrived in France from the island of Djerba, Tunisia, and started off as a kitchen helper. Today he owns La Kahena Restaurant in the Old Port. Not many people can prepare couscous as well as he can. His secret? Simmering the broth made with lamb and chicken meat over a low flame for hours on end. To do so, Miladi has to be in the kitchen at the crack of dawn.

la-kahena-.zenchef.com

Supercharged Soup.

Vallon des Auffes is the name of a species of grass from which fisherman used to fashion their nets. These days, there’s an inlet with the same name situated approximately ten minutes’ walk from the Old Port. That’s where you’ll find the Chez Fonfon restaurant and some of the best bouillabaisse in the country. Head chef Clément Renault (l.) splits the soup and the fish into two separate courses. Bouillabaisse was originally a poor person’s dish, a stew prepared everywhere in Provence using scraps and unsold bycatch. Renault, however, uses only the best ingredients – both for the soup and for the course that follows it: a platter piled high with freshly-caught, top-quality seafood (far left). chez-fonfon.com

Bed Experiment.

Hotelier and patron of the arts Georges Antoun regularly invites young creatives to his New Hotel of Marseille, where the artists get to stay in his lodgings for a few months – and beautify them at the same time. That’s how Room “2113” came into being, for instance: furniture designer Marine Peyre created a multifunction bed in which guests can do a lot more than just take a nap. Eating, reading, listening to music, chatting with friends: all of this can theoretically be done here without getting out of bed. Street artist $kunk Dog, who generally prefers to immortalize himself on the walls of Marseille’s buildings, provided suitable wall decor.

www.new-hotel.com

Bed Experiment.

Hotelier and patron of the arts Georges Antoun regularly invites young creatives to his New Hotel of Marseille, where the artists get to stay in his lodgings for a few months – and beautify them at the same time. That’s how Room “2113” came into being, for instance: furniture designer Marine Peyre created a multifunction bed in which guests can do a lot more than just take a nap. Eating, reading, listening to music, chatting with friends: all of this can theoretically be done here without getting out of bed. Street artist $kunk Dog, who generally prefers to immortalize himself on the walls of Marseille’s buildings, provided suitable wall decor.

www.new-hotel.com

Central Circuit.

This 11-kilometer (6.8-mile) course gives joggers and walkers a great chance to see Marseille. Start off  at the Old Port, on the northern shoreline, where a plaque remembers the Greek seafarers who  founded the city. Proceeding eastward along the harbor basin, head up into the Le Panier district of  the old city. Need a break? Don’t miss the cultural center and its collection of archaeological artifacts  in the Vieille Charité, formerly a poorhouse. From there continue via the Terrasses du Port shopping center to La Major cathedral and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. Follow the seaside via Fort St. Jean, the Palais du Pharo, and the Abbey of St. Victor to the Plage des Catalans – where the Mediterranean offers a welcome chance for a cooldown before returning to the Old Port.

Good to know.

Fresh from the oven.

“Four des Navettes” is the name of the city’s oldest bakery, located near the Abbey of St. Victor. The famed boat-shaped, orange-flavored cookies for which it is named have been baked here since 1781. Aficionados enjoy dunking them in coffee before gobbling them up. fourdesnavettes.com

High-speed transfer.

The TGV races from Paris to Marseille in just over three hours. Air France has long since abandoned scheduled flights.

All cleaned up.

For years, Marseille’s refuse collectors were allowed to call it quits as soon as they had emptied all the garbage cans in their district and brought the garbage to the dump. This literally led to garbage truck races – at the expense of thoroughness. Things have since changed for the better – marooned garbage bags are no longer a regular sight on the city streets.

Plenty to shout about.

“Be still, Marseille, you’re too loud. I can no longer hear the sails in the harbor,” sang Colette Renaud in a famous 1950s chanson. Complaints about the raucous conversational tone that the natives tend to employ continue to be valid today.

Let it be.

Only 25% of the metropolitan Marseille region is actually developed. There are beaches in the middle of the city. Some people even use the basin at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations as an impromptu beach. Technically that’s against the rules, but doesn’t that just bolster the city’s rebellious image?

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