“It is well understood that we only know how to label the USSR in terms of heaven or hell.”

Chris Marker’s line from Letter from Siberia can be used to describe Marseille. Avoiding clichés and expectations when discussing this port city and holiday destination is quite the challenge. How is a reputation created? Why do we say such and such about a city? How can we make sure we don’t blindly accept these statements or embellish them? While Marseille is everything we expect it to be and all our perceptions are right, the fact remains that Marseille is alive and undergoing a huge transformation. We find nuances in its promenades, complexity in its interpretation, and debate in discussions with its inhabitants. That’s why Marseille is very much a city where you should fully immerse yourself.

The mountain ranges of Nerthe, Etoile, Garlaban, Saint-Cyr-Carpiagne and Marseilleveyre form a wide basin where Marseille meets the Mediterranean. Wherever you are, you always get the sense of being in a circle between the mountains and sea. And that’s not all, as there are also hills in the city itself: Panier, Notre-Dame de la Garde, Roucas blanc, it’s a city that undulates. Nothing beats walking or cycling to cross from one side to the other.

Another must-do is getting lost in the Noailles district’s crowded streets, which are a bit livelier in the mornings with the local market; taking a trip to the city’s Vieux-Port quarter to marvel at the fresh fish and have a giggle underneath Norman Foster’s L’Ombrière; going up and down the streets of Panier; and getting lost in the graffitied streets of Cours Saint Julien, staying there for dinner or drinking in its music bars until dawn.
To get a better understanding of the coastline and the richness this city has to offer, taking the cycle path from Prado beach to Vieux-Port at sunset is an absolute must. Wow effect guaranteed.

Living. Cité Radieuse
From afar, squares and rectangles piled on top of each other look like a children’s game; two squares for a horizontal or vertical rectangle, long bay windows to add rhythm, vertical lines to break up the symmetry. Not a single curved line other than on the rooftop terrace, where two chimney stacks are crowned with a kind of eight, a sign of infinity.

Then there’s a park, some beautiful tall trees, lawns and bushes. A photo from the 50s depicts the Unité d’habitation, a sculpture-like housing development called Cité Radieuse which was built on an island in the centre of a pine forest.This location played a key role in the consultation on Le Corbusier’s architectural and residential project, which was subsequently approved and unveiled in 1952.

As soon as you approach, the colours come into view, a wall of colour on the balcony of each unit splashed in primary colours in a nod to Mondrian. When you get there, it looks like a gigantic spaceship about to land on earth, with its base raised up on stilts to ensure that the entire vessel is stable. The entrance to the building bears several men’s names (including Le Corbusier’s ‘Modulor Man’), engraved into the cement. The lift takes you up to the third floor, which has a hotel, restaurant and shopping centre. There’s a long access corridor and no discernible sound, only a glossy black floor with reflections of the brightly coloured doors. The restaurant looks out onto the horizon of sea and white cliffs, the pure Mediterranean idyll. Next comes the shopping centre, with only a bakery, a bookshop and some design boutiques still remaining. Le Corbusier’s project starts to permeate your very being. At the end of the dark corridor, a space opens out over two levels; each one is 2.26 metres high. This duplex is the only section bathed in light, with Le Corbusier having decluttered this indoor ‘shopping street’: it runs along the ground floor and is occupied by a bookshop, some design boutiques and a level with office space. The light of the bays submerges you and suddenly you’re on a ship sailing across the sky.

At the end, a staircase leads to the fourth floor. A cleaner is busy working, the front door of one of the rooms is open. With its functional furniture and large windows overlooking the sea, it’s as basic as a monk’s cell in a monastery. Perhaps that’s where you develop an understanding of the project’s spiritual nature. This is about living, but what is living? On all the levels of the building, austerity is a basic principle: austerity and hospitality hand-in-hand, akin to a self-contained community. Le Corbusier envisioned a city tower block where residents – with jobs elsewhere in the city – could, once they got home from work, go shopping, pick up their children from nursery and have a drink on the rooftop terrace. It was aspirational, a life dedicated to people’s well-being; not about overconsumption (something little known about at the time the housing was created) but about recalibrating life around the bare necessities and the essential, rather than commodities. Everything here is considered; every single detail has a function and it’s something that is very reassuring. You can lounge around in either your apartment or one of the common areas.

Let’s go to the rooftop terrace. We’re dazzled, dazzled by the light and the lines. Le Corbusier pictured a space where you could live with the sun and the stars, in the same way as modern-day housing projects see roof spaces transformed into gardens or play areas. A highly spiritual place where your mind can sail 360° around the sublime landscape of the Marseille conch, with its white cliffs and mountains – not forgetting the majestic Mediterranean of course.
_ Cité Radieuse: 280 boulevard Michelet, 8th arrondissement / citeradieuse-marseille.com

Dizzy heights. A visit to the MuCEM (Museum of Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean)
The success of an architectural work should be measured on the number of loved-up young couples kissing and taking selfies, families having picnics and going for walks around the site, elderly couples sunbathing, and young people reading their books among the Mediterranean shrubs. The MuCEM is a triumph, a success, a sense of hope finally being fulfilled.

Perhaps you remember once arriving in Marseille after being swallowed up by a crazy amount of traffic on a road with four lanes across a dark set of docks, before eventually being spat out in front of the magnificent Vieux-Port? The resurgence of the city, European Capital of Culture for 2013, led to an ambitious urban planning project to reconfigure the areas between the commercial port and the old port, with the creation of this multifaceted museum the main driving force. Today it all comes together: the connections between the port, the Panier and the Vieux-Port districts; the unobstructed views, the well-managed traffic flows and even La Major Cathedral, which has regained a lustre that had long ago disappeared.

The MuCEM is perfect for soaking up the city on foot and with your eyes. It was a bold move to put such an unexpected shape beside the calm force of Fort Saint Jean, but ultimately a risk that paid off for the city. This building has an obvious design, illuminated not only in its construction but also in its function and as an artistic project. It offers a new and innovative layout, connecting Fort Saint Jean to its surrounding areas with a vertiginous footbridge. Every detail has been carefully redesigned.

For the people of Marseille, the MuCEM is a symbol of the city; for visitors from other regions, it is here that the Mediterranean, this land of sea and shores, really takes shape. Six or seven exhibitions await your visit to the museum, as well as a library, bookshop, auditorium and, of course, the bars and restaurants in the spaces overlooking the port and old port which are still open. Everything here is geared towards walking. Not only do you develop a different connection with the history of Marseille here, but you also feel completely at ease with its culture: the stroll that takes you from a view of Fort Vauban to one of the exhibition halls in Fort Saint Jean; the desire to be suspended between sea and sky on the footbridge that leads you to the MuCEM rooms.

A day in this part of the city involves a thought-provoking visit to the section on Mediterranean anthropology (over three levels, it takes you through the ethnographic, historic, economic and artistic issues related to the Mediterranean basin); a pit-stop on one of the sun-soaked terraces; a stroll to the (very good) bookshop, and a meal in one of the restaurants.
And don’t forget that the building is surrounded by the sea – you won’t get many chances to see it from this many angles again. To finish off your visit, allow yourself to meander along the metal footbridge, which gradually descends all the way around the building, so that you can peer through the cement machribaya for dozens of different vantage points. Dizzy heights and sheer joy.
_MucEM: 7 Promenade Robert Laffont (Esplanade du J4), 2nd arrondissement / mucem.org


The list of the best places to go in Marseille is endless, here’s just a selection…

> Maison Empereur (4 rue des Récolettes, 1st arrondissement)
Happiness means… mooching between the shop’s various shelves, floors, corridors, corners, museum and café – with all those smells transporting you back to your childhood. This shop stocks everything hardware and toiletry-related (including the famous soap), plus all the things you’re not looking for but decide you need to buy anyway. Option to stay in the ‘back room’ (150€ including evening meal and breakfast)

> Herboristerie du Père Blaize (4 – 6 rue Méolan et du Père Blaize, 1st arrondissement)
Part pharmacy, part herb shop. It’s a paradise for plant-based cures, or treat yourself to some tasty tinctures thanks to their many herbal tea varieties: Préau des Accoules, Notre-Dame de la Garde, Maison Blaize, Baille, Saint-Ferréol, Verte campagne, etc. Option to drink in.

> Pain Pan (29 rue Des 3 Frères Barthélémy, 6th arrondissement)
Slowly fermented bread, richly topped focaccia, amazing caramel cake brioche and pralines.

Marseille wouldn’t exist without the spice trade. You’ll be eager to visit some of the wonderful shops where you can stock up on salts and peppers from exotic places, condiments, olives, dried and candied fruits – and also learn how to tell the difference between your olivade and your tapenade.
> Exosud (26 rue Saint Michel, 6th arrondissement)
> Saladin(10 rue Longue Des Capucins, 1st arrondissement)

Text & photos : Jérôme Descamps