Explorations: Marseille

Even today, even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art lacks in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence… but now, the reflected image has become separable, transportable. And to where is it transported? Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Walter Benjamin (1936)

Marseille starts at the pier. The Greeks, when they founded the port city Messalia, were content to confine it to the harbor – a lighthouse, some stone hovels, and cords to moor traders. Three millennia later, the lighthouse still demarcates a border for residents. Not a border in space. Never mind the change brought by technology; the sun is plenty bright by the pier, I can tell you that. It’s a border in time. Parents bring their children to show them their old new city, to induct them and instill in them a love for the sea which has steadied residents through antipapacy, siege, and economic recession. For Marseille, each day starts anew at the pier. The catch, which restaurants up and down the cobblestone will transmute into their own bouillabaisse, arrives. Tourists, whether first time or – like me – returning, disembark. The wind sweeps in.

There’s a funny thing about that famed Mediterranean hospitality. The more you return to a place the more you’re seen as family and, so, the less care and attention are paid to you. On my second journey, I noticed that the eyes didn’t gaze quite as intensely. Maybe I had picked up some habit on my last visit, even though it was only for two days… a tilt of the head at the market or a way of inhaling the brine, which made me more familiar. Or maybe their eyes reflected mine, which welcomed, which didn’t scrutinize so intensely, which remembered…

Of course there’s a practical benefit to the return visit. You know which pastiche-murals and checkerboard streets actually draw colorful people – and dogs – to meet. You’ve had time to reflect on the best way to capture that cathedral – Cathédrale de la Major, for the record – so that it blows up on Instagram, and you can come prepared with eyewear which distills those reflections and generates new ones. You have even, if you dare to daydream, attenuated your body to the rhythm of La Marseille so that every beat of your foot, every wave of your hand as you march through the city is wholly, authentically French.


So, do I have any actual advice to import? Cours Julien, a neighborhood of side streets and three euro beer, houses rooftop bars, an eclectic and cosmopolitan mixture of thirtysomethings, and the aforementioned mural. If you’re going to shop and you want that refined, artisanal, rustic chic for which the south of France has come to be known, stick to the center of the city. If you want the unrefined, pop-up bric-a-brac from which that chic evolved, try Les Docks. If, like Dhruv, you are a Count of Monte-Cristo aficionado book a ferry ticket from Old Port to the Frioul Archipelago and Château d’If. If all you want to do is feast and sleep, you’ll be right at home wherever you go.

You know, the first time I went to Marseille I had the flu. Vomiting, waking up at three a.m. so congested – and the salty, humid air didn’t help – that I was sure I had been suffocating. I missed out. I felt cheated. I harbored a desire to return. My second trip cured me of my restless obsession, and replaced it with a double-spark of realization.

  1. Marseille maintains the lighthouse not because it does a good job guiding ships but because it does a good job guiding people, drawing them in to the fold of the city.
  2. No matter where I go or how often, I will never get sick of being transported.