Words Emma Howarth
Photos Rebecca Marshall
Marseille is Europe's new Capital of Culture for a reason. France's second largest city is one of its most culturally diverse, where you're as likely to find a North African stew as you are a plate of the local speciality, bouillabaisse, around the Old Port. And if you want to dig into Marseille's culture - from its street art to its waterfront and its oldest neighbourhood, Le Panier - going with a local is a good way to start.
Marseille has one of Europe's most active groups of Greeters - local volunteers who give free tours based around their areas of expertise. The concept began in New York City in 1992, but it's spread around the world. We meet four of Marseille's Greeters, and ask about their favourite parts of the city...
Radio DJ, street artist and enthusiastic Greeter, Pablo is just the man to take you on a tour of Cours Julien, Marseille's hippest neighbourhood and an international centre for street art. "It's a really special part of Marseille," says Pablo. "The streets are like one big canvas. There are murals, stencils and new works on every corner waiting to be discovered."
Pablo, who was born on the Pacific Island of New Caledonia, knows everyone in the scene, and his tours are like a local street art who's who. You'll see everything from stencils by C215 (some say the Parisian is 'France's answer to Banksy') to Italian street artist Alicé's intricate portraits and large-scale work by the Greetings Crew on the regularly changing graffiti wall on rue Crudère.
"There are so many great street artists working in Marseille," says Pablo. "I really like Joker's calligraphy and Difuz's work has great character."
One of Pablo's favourite stops on his tour is the tribute to famous Marseille rap group IAM by Joker, "Burn and Die". "I've loved the album L'École du micro d'argent since I was a kid. I love the calligraphy," he says. "I also really rate the graffiti wall at La Friche la Belle de Mai (www.lafriche.org)," he goes on. "But if I could take one piece of Marseille street art home with me, it would be the giant, colourful character painted by Gamor in my neighbourhood, Le Panier. There's plenty of street art to see in this old part of town, too, as long as you know where to look."
Pablo is happy to tailor tours to suit individual interests - it doesn't all need to be about the art - and he throws in plenty of other insider knowledge on Marseille to boot. His perfect Marseille day? "A Pastis, a freshly prepared Mediterranean salad, maybe a swim, lots of sea air, music and people-watching... Perfect!"
"In a way, I have always been a Greeter," says food fanatic Hélène. "When friends, or friends of friends, visit Marseille, I have always been the first to volunteer to take them out and show them the places I go."
For Hélène, who has lived in Marseille for 30 years, its heart is the diverse, working-class Noailles district, where she conducts her food- and heritage-inspired Marseille Greeters' tour. "The aspect of Marseille I find most fascinating is that, in many ways, it has more in common with Italy, Algeria or Lebanon than it does with the rest of France. This is a truly Mediterranean city and our food tells the story of the city's heritage better than any tour could."
Hélène's tours start with Noailles' exotic fruit and vegetable markets, where you can taste syrupy chaabiyé (Lebanese pastries) and take in the aromas and bustle of huge spice emporium Saladin Epices du Monde (www.saladin-epicesdumonde.fr). You can swing by shops such as the La Chapellerie (www.chapellerie.com) hat warehouse if you want, but the focus is firmly on the food.
"I adore the flavours of North African food and obviously this is a big influence in Marseille," she says. Most tours take visitors to Algerian neighbourhood restaurant La Menthe Sauvage for a bowl of chorba(traditional North African soup) or a plate of fresh sardines. "I love the meeting of traditional Algerian recipes and modern cooking at this restaurant. It's all very fresh and very healthy. And the colours, the presentation, the décor... it's just inspired," says Hélène.
She also offers tips for places to visit outside the city. "In summer, head to the village of L'Estaque for a swim and some chichi [fried doughnut-like pastries similar to Spanish churros]," she suggests.
As refreshing as a brief escape from the city might be, Hélène always looks forward to being back in the centre of it all. "Marseille is so open, sunny and colourful," she says. "I love that even when I return from an exciting trip abroad I never feel depressed because I can take a trip within my own city by going to Noailles - it's like stepping into another world."
Maritime history and the sea
There is little retired butcher Gerard doesn't know about the coasts, ports and history of his hometown. "I was born in Marseille and have lived here my whole life," he says. "I volunteered to be a Marseille Greeter because I want to show my city offand change old images and perceptions."
A tour with Gerard typically lasts between two and three hours and focuses on the city's waterfront, its status as France's largest port, and its centuries-long history of immigration. Gerard talks through the very first arrivals (Greeks from Phocaea who founded it as Massalia, a trading port, in 60 BC) right up to the present day, taking in sights such as the 17th-century Fort St-Jean and Fort St-Nicolas, both built by Louis XIV.
He throws in plenty of local knowledge, too, pointing out the fish market in the Vieux Port (Old Port) and the new chalk-style pavement signs which explain aspects of Marseille's history.
"One of the things I really like about Marseille Greeters is that it breaks down the traditional barrier between visitors and guides," says Gerard. "Greeters offer a new kind of tourism. We show people the real Marseille and talk about our experiences, and our way of life. Never before did I love my job, but now, as a Greeter, I really do."
Gerard's tours benefit from the personal touch. He often concludes his strolls around the city by inviting visitors to his home for a drink and a chat. "A Pastis or a glass of rosé, if I have some in the house," he says. "I'm French but of Armenian origin, and I love to talk about my family's history as much as I love to talk about the history of Marseille."
And if you fancy taking a break from history to bask in the sunshine and sea air, Gerard also offers tours of Les Calanques - the beautiful coastal coves, accessed by boat or on foot, located just outside the city.
History and culture
History graduate Norya has lived in Marseille for 12 years, and her tour weaves together tales of the past with contemporary culture, with a special focus on the immigrant culture at France's biggest port. She re-imagines new arrivals disembarking in the Vieux Port (Old Port), discusses the history of Marseille's oldest neighbourhood, Le Panier, and takes in the new architecture, events and festivities planned for Marseille's year as the European Capital of Culture.
"Marseille has such a rich history," says Norya. "I like to start my tours at the Vieux Port, as that is where it all began. Then we visit sights such as the remains of the windmills at La Place des Moulins and La Vieille Charité (www.vieille-charite-marseille.org), a former almshouse that's now a beautifully restored museum and cultural centre.
"One of the best things about a Marseille Greeters' tour is its flexibility. I can cover whatever the visitors like and make it as long or as short as they like, too," she says. Norya often finds herself getting on so well with people she accompanies around the city, they ask her to join them again the next day. "It's because of Marseille, though," she insists. "The light, the weather, the fact that the sky is always blue here."
France's second-largest city has much to anticipate in the coming months, with a host of new openings and events on the horizon. Norya is particularly excited about showing visitors MuCEM (Museum of Civilisations from Europe and the Mediterranean, www.mucem.org) when it opens in June. "I'm also really looking forward to the opening of the Villa Méditerranée (www.villa-mediterranee.org), designed by architect Stefano Boeri," she says. "This is going to be a great year for Marseille. The city has so much to offer and we can't wait to introduce it to new visitors."