The Orient Unexpress: Marseille
Updated: Apr 15, 2021
The idea of a having a rough concept behind a holiday isn’t particularly unusual, but isn’t something I’ve necessarily thought of in the past. My ideas for the summer had centred on using Lake Victoria as an axis, or heading to Zanzibar – in both cases, the prices of flights during the summer months had put me off.
Then, over the spring, I had dipped in and out of the book Night Trains by Andrew Martin. Although it is a bit of a rivet-counter’s dream, the book excellently tells the history behind some of Europe’s greatest sleeper trains and explores what remains of them today.
That was it. The idea. I’d follow the route of the Orient Express from London to Paris and onward to Istanbul, passing through Venice on the way. Some of the route still had sleeper trains and the rest could be done quite easily via a combination of long-distance international trains.
Then came the problem: a landslide meant the Thello sleeper train between Paris and Venice was being replaced by an overnight bus, and after an experience with an overnight bus from Marrakech to Fez I swore never to repeat the experience.
But then came the solution: my old colleague John, now living in Marseille, sent a message asking, “When are you coming over to visit, mate?” That was it. I would fly to Marseille and start my journey eastwards from there instead.
The transit bus delivered me to the steps of Marseille central station. On the steps, a group of West African men sat around in football shirts and around the fountains in the Plaza, groups of North African men, women and children sat eating communally.
John, was nowhere to be seen. I sat and waited with my green mountain warehouse backpack on the floor in front of me, looking decidedly out of place, but trying my hardest to feign indifference with 5% battery left on my phone.
Around 15 minutes later, John appeared, a beer in his hand, and told me that I’d been waiting by the wrong entrance all along.
Our walk into the 1er arrondissement seemed particularly labyrinthine in the 9pm darkness. On some street corners, people were finishing post-work drinks. On another street corner, a spice zombie stood bent double, seemingly unaware of any encumbrance caused to the few pedestrians in the area.
The backstreets of the 1er arrondissement we passed along were all but deserted. The tall buildings seemed lifeless and devoid of light, standing in gothic gloom like ghosts of a grandeur past, guarded by rows of parked cars.
Eventually, we got back to John’s flat at the corner of two side streets, having resolved to have a reasonably early night after some food.
The following morning, I was awake quite early on my now half-deflated airbed and decided to take a look at what people had to say about Marseille. I had heard a number of stories about districts of the city being no-go areas and a Ross Kemp documentary had told tales of some districts operating as small countries within a country, fuelled by criminality.
The Guardian, in 2017, had stated that the area to the north of where I was sleeping was “the poorest in the country, where over 50% live beneath the poverty line (€989 a month)”. Indeed the same article goes on to detail the complexity of the social fabric of the city: the established wealthy; the returning colonial French after the withdrawal from North Africa; and more recent waves of immigration. All these factors have played their part in in creating “France’s outsider city” that is “brimming with human potential”, but “looks both backwards and forwards on behalf of its country.”
I was wondering what on earth had drawn John here and whether, having wandered around the city a little more, the sense of imminent threat and danger that some travellers had spoken about was misplaced or exaggerated.
Passing the Canebière tram stop and heading up Boulevard Longchamp in the clear light of day, a completely different aspect was lent to my surroundings. Gone was the urban gothic of the previous evening and in its place was what I see as a typical French tree-lined city street, which, with near-perfect symmetry, led up towards the Palais Longchamp that sits with a sense of majesty looking back toward the sea.
Before taking a walk up the hill, we stopped for breakfast at the Comptoir Longchamp – a decent café opposite the palace gardens, ideal for people-watching and with a reasonably-priced prix fixe breakfast.
The Palais Longchamp is a perfectly balanced structure that wraps around a large and ornate fountain called the château d'eau, or ‘water castle’. I’m not a great fan of formal gardens and fountains, but the design is magnificent. Standing behind one of the monumental bulls at the top of the fountain, your eye is drawn down the boulevard towards the Vieux Port (lit: ‘old port’), with the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica to one side and Le Panier (lit: ‘the basket’) district on the other.
With John having to head off to do a few hours work, we came up with a rough plan to meet in a few hours. After helping me to purchase an SD card for my camera – mine had broken when I had tried to take it out a bit too violently – I wandered towards Le Panier, via a long detour to the south of the Vieux Port.
From the direction I was approaching, Le Panier is accessed via a large stone staircase. Quite innocuous from the street level below at Place Sadi-Carnot, you climb a good 20 metres to reach Rue Fontaine Neuve and this oasis amongst the busyness of Marseille.
The streets of Le Panier have retained a lot of their original character. The whole area is a criss-cross of narrow streets and meandering staircases and lanes, radiating out from the square opposite Le Vieille Charité, which forms something of a focal point for the area.
Wandering as I did along Rue des Belles Ecuelles and onto Rue du Panier, your eye is caught by countless small artisan shops and cafés. Although there is a doubtless hipster vibe akin to some of the shops you can find around London’s East End, there is still a quintessentially French feel. The wooden-shuttered windows, the light colour of the stonemasonry and the subtly-chipped paintwork, done either by accident or design, feels like you have stepped into an elegant artwork from the last century.
I crossed the small plaza on Rue du Panier and into La Vieille Charité. It was once a large almshouse providing accommodation for the poor, but it is now a gallery. Earlier that day, whilst walking around the Vieux Port, I’d seen an exhibition advertised. The artwork on the poster was arresting enough to have captured my imagination and had been an incentive to visit Le Panier.
It had been a while since I’d actually paid to see an art exhibition, but what Sahara Mondes Connectés (‘Sahara: Connected Worlds’) was went beyond a simple exhibition. The project, the guides said, was the product of a meeting between Casablanca-born, French Artist Titouan Lamazou and historian Charles Grémont. The exhibition was designed (I think) to look at the relationship between desert communities and their environment, focussing especially on movement within what seems like an inhospitable landscape.
What they had curated was a combination of artefacts from a number of older ethnographic collections, along with newer photography, audio-visual installations, stunning paintings and an installation that featured the rear of a heavily laden car, seemingly driving through the wall.
Perhaps the most striking piece was a painting called ‘Assietou’ depicting a real woman living in a Mauritanian refugee camp with perhaps the saddest eyes I’d ever seen in a work of art.
Aside from La Vieille Charité being a stunning piece of architecture in its own right, the exhibition and the chosen subject matter, was one of the starkest reminders of Marseille’s close relationship with North Africa, and the countries that occupy the Sahara and beyond.
That evening, we headed from Vieux Port metro station – perhaps the only underground station I’ve ever used with its own built-in fish tank – to Louis Armand station. At a nearby house, a friend of John’s was having a leaving party and her boss was throwing a barbecue. Under the auspices of being a visiting language professor – or was it an educational consultant? – I’d managed to wangle an invite too.
The roads we walked were silent and lent the area the feel of a much more rural setting, despite being very much in the suburbs. Many of the houses were noticeably larger too and more organic in their constructing, reminding me of the small village of Chichée in the Burgundy region of France that I’d spent many childhood holidays.
The hosts were particularly generous and could make sense of my broken French. Sat on their terrace, with a strange melange of French, Colombian, English and German guests, it felt a far cry from ether the 1er arrondissement where I’d seen a Brothers Grimm-eqsue stream of rats running for the storm drain, or Le Panier with its slightly ‘bougie’ faded glamour.
In reality, despite the Ross Kemp documentary, or The Guardian article I’d read that morning, it was clear that Marseille probably has exactly the same mixture of people and social problems as any large European city, albeit situated next to the beauty of the Mediterranean. I don’t know why I would have expected anything different, and if anything it was much more of a comfort than a curse.
Drawing myself out of my inane musings, and after eating and drinking the hosts out of house of home, we left them and headed down to the Vieux Port to dance the night away. Here, next to the immaculately kept marina with its range of smart-looking bars and clubs, was where all the tourists seemed to be and so the touristic price tags had apparently followed.
As we wandered home in the early hours, I commended John on the fact that he had a lot of bottle. He’d left a perfectly fine teaching job in London to pursue a more interesting way of life. My audacity is much more limited in scope – limited really just to travelling solo – and I spend enough time worrying about whether I’m actually good enough to do anything other than teach. John just got on with it.
Yes, the dream is to make his living solely from his music, and yes, at the moment he’s having to side-line in a bit of English teaching, but the main thing is he took the first massive step. He left London for Marseille, synthesisers in his arms and now he’s putting in the hard yards. I’m sure it’s going to pay off further down the line.
Don’t believe all of the negative hype about Marseille – it is a city like many other cities, but there are so many positives to this place.
Take time to see areas away from the main shopping precinct in Marseille because this too is like every other city.
If your friend says to meet him by the main entrance station, actually wait by the main entrance.