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A Provencal Melting Pot in Marseille

Immigrants' influence flavors port city's dining, shopping and historic sites.

April 21, 2002|JEFF KOEHLER

MARSEILLE, France --The smell of fish was surprisingly powerful inside the central metro station of the Vieux Port, or Old Port. Once I was at street level and among the crowd, I understood why: The morning fish market was in progress.

Running along the end of the oblong port were makeshift trays stacked with squid, eel, purple sea urchins, even red and orange starfish. At one table an ugly monkfish was being weighed; at another, a squirming octopus was held up for a customer's inspection. Boats that had brought in the catch were being swabbed out nearby.

The daily market is not a prettified folk tradition carried out for tourists' sake. Crowds gather not to gawk but to buy. Few things here are done with outsiders in mind, as I found out during a week I spent visiting friends in Marseille this winter. Perhaps that is why most travelers seeking an idyllic Provencal experience--flowering fields of lavender and medieval villages perched on green, rolling hills--steer clear of this city, fearing a dirty industrial eyesore.

But behind its urban grittiness and working-class demeanor, Marseille proved to be a fascinating city lush with ancient history, bustling with activity and peopled with diverse and passionate residents. There was much to do--and even more to experience. Marseille is a rich mix of immigrants from Greece, Italy, Spain, Armenia, West Africa, Indochina and, making up a quarter of the city's 800,000 residents by some estimates, North Africa. It's France's second-largest city, home to the biggest port in the Mediterranean and the second biggest in Europe behind Rotterdam (in the Netherlands).

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Marseille port name--A photo caption on a Travel section story Sunday about Marseille, France, incorrectly implied that the city's main harbor was pictured. The harbor shown is a different Marseille port, Vallon des Auffes.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 28, 2002 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 5 Travel Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Marseille port name-A photo caption on an April 21 feature on France ('A Provencal Melting Pot in Marseille') wrongly implied that the city's main harbor was pictured. The port shown was one of Marseille's smaller ones, Vallon des Auffes.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 28, 2002 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 5 Travel Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Marseille port name-A photo caption on an April 21 feature on France ('A Provencal Melting Pot in Marseille') wrongly implied that the city's main harbor was pictured. The port shown was one of Marseille's smaller ones, Vallon des Auffes.

The city is sprawled across 16 arrondissements, but its heart remains the Vieux Port, where a fat finger of water pokes into the undulating landscape. Along wide quays, fishermen mend nets and seamen lounge on benches reading newspapers in Greek and Arabic, while busy channel traffic moves between rows and rows of moored boats.

I began each morning here browsing through the fish market on the way to cafes lining the north side of the port. I tried half a dozen of them, most with deep terraces arrayed with plenty of tables to receive the first rays of sunlight.

Once fortified with breakfast, I was ready to wander through Marseille's long and convoluted historical landscape. The Vieux Port was merely a creek when Greek sailors from the city of Phocaea (in present-day Turkey) landed here in 600 BC, as legend has it, just in time for the wedding of the Ligurian king's daughter. The bride, Gyptis, was to choose her groom from among the guests by handing him a ceremonial cup of wine. She gave it to Protis, leader of the Greek party. The couple was given the hill on the north side of the creek, at what became the settlement of Massalia.

Massalia flourished from the shipping trade and became a rival of Carthage and ally to Rome. But when it backed the Roman general Pompey instead of Caesar during the civil wars after the conquest of Gaul (roughly France and Belgium today), Caesar took the city in 49 BC, confiscating the fleet and destroying trade. Massalia withered and soon was surpassed in importance by other Provencal towns.

In the 1940s, remnants of the original Roman docks were uncovered, as well as warehouses for dolia, the storage jars for grain, oil and wine. Some are displayed at the Musee des Docks Romains, built on the original site.

Even more fascinating is the 3rd century Roman merchant boat in the Musee d'Histoire de Marseille. The wooden boat, discovered in 1974, has been preserved through freeze-drying. Among the museum's other relics are Greek ramparts and vestiges of Roman buildings found during the construction of Centre Bourse, the shopping center where the museum is housed. A fairly new exhibition details recent excavations that include a necropolis, a medieval potters' quarter and Greek wrecks abandoned in the mud near the docks.

Marseille has always spun on cycles of prosperity and destruction, regaining its stature as an important Mediterranean port in the 11th century only to be pillaged by the Aragonese in 1423. By the 19th century the city was thriving again as France's gateway to North African and Asian colonies. New docks, Avant-Port de la Joliette, were built north of the existing port in time for the opening of the Suez Canal. Today La Joliette is an impressive array of cargo ships, cranes and containers. I was in awe of the magnitude and complexity of the operation.

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