A Beginner’s Guide to Planète Mars

Old and new meet at Marseille’s Vieux Port, with the stately old Fort St-Jean shadowing the shiny new Mucem in the distance.

It’s been over a month now since I made the great leap across the Atlantic to live life à la Française. And what a month it’s been: a new place, a new job, new friends, new food… the list goes on. Now that I’ve oriented myself a bit in Marseille, here’s a rundown on the most diverse city in France.

2013 has been a record year in popularity for Marseille, in great part thanks to being chosen as a 2013 European Capital of Culture (every year, the European Commission names two cities as Capitals, highlighting places the average tourist might not think of). With this fuel in the jet, Marseille has taken off, launching numerous projects since its “opening weekend” kickoff in January. There have been several major cultural investments, such as the J1 and Mucem and the Villa Mediterranée and the Pavillion M – all exposition venues and museums. There have been weekly concerts and theater performances. There have been tours and art projects.

But before Marseille enjoyed its newfound fame, it was, for the most part, under-appreciated and misunderstood. Although it’s the oldest city in France (having been founded by Greek settlers of Phocaea), rose to power as a port and trading capital under Roman rule, and was the first capital of the French Resistance (yes, it’s that Marseille from the French national anthem!), it declined after several bouts of the plague broke out and as power shifted north to Paris. It’s been downhill since then – until very recently, it’s had an uphill struggle to defend its reputation.

In the 70s and 80s, Marseille was known for poverty, drug gangs and corruption (no thanks to films like The French Connection). The French press is, in general, harsh on this city (a recent newspaper article headline translates to: “Marseille, the French capital of crime or misery?”). Marseille’s nickname, “Planète Mars”, was coined presumably because of how different Marseille is from the rest of France – it might as well be its own planet. Even today, there are heartbreaking, blood-chilling reports of drug wars that would scare anyone away. It is a sad truth that this city continues to have serious violence issues.

Dissenting voices unite on a building wall downtown.
Dissenting voices unite on a building wall downtown.

But living in the city center, in an artsy neighborhood downtown, I haven’t felt those threats. For tourists and those who stay close to the historic center, you’ll see more of what makes Planète Mars quirky, in a good way: outdoor street art put on for MP2013. Trendy boutiques and street art. Ethnic shops and all kinds of cuisines. Engaging museum exhibitions. The ever-popular “apéro” (after-work cocktail hour… or two or three) at open-air bars and street terrasses around the city. The Mediterranean Sea and the view at sunset. Scooters zipping by, left and right. Obsessive support for l’OM, the city’s soccer club. Politically charged posters around town.

And for all the negative attention Marseille gets, there has been a big push to advertise Marseille by American news sources – most notably, a New York Times feature in early 2013, and a travel article again last month. Whatever the future holds for Planète Mars, I am excited to be a part of it. For a little while, anyway.

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