A city worth visiting on your next trip to Europe.
By Lupita Peimbert.
Located in the South of France, Marseille reminds me of a mature woman whose beauty has been enhanced by struggle and victory. She has been seating in front of the Mediterranean for many centuries. This attractive city is like an interesting person to get to know and has plenty to offer to those who appreciate the beauty of life in all of its dimensions.
I was told, however, that Marseille was a city full of crime, not a good place to visit for a woman traveling alone, and an urban area full of “immigrants,” as if this classification of people makes them less than or unworthy.
-“Watch your purse, and your phone, it can be stolen in a second,” more than one person advised.
Extending her legs and arms to the white limestone rocks known as Calanques and to the surrounding valleys and mountains, Marseille is bathed day and night by the sea, her eyes looking to the horizon perhaps from Notre Dame de la Garde, a church that prominently stands above the city. Le Mistral, the powerful wind that often determines the weather in the region, gives this woman a certain flair.
-“The city is dirty, ugly, and full of crime. Not my favorite place to visit,” a serious
French man said.
Marseille was founded 600 B.C. by the Greeks. The city saw the Greeks come and go along with the Romans, Sicilians, French, and Franco-Ottomans, who used it as a port and trade center.
Occupied by German and Italian forces during the second war, in January 1943, Marseille witnessed the horrific detention of 4,000 Jews, later transported and murdered in Poland by the Nazi.
Marseille was bombed in 1944 during the war and rebuilt within a decade.
From the 50s to the present, Marseille has seen the arrival of millions of immigrants from Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, and other African and Arabic nations to France, some of whom have stayed and given the city a French-African, and French-Arabic cultural pot. Add to the mix that a third of the population is of Italian descent and Italian immigrants –whatever they were called at the time, have settled in the city for centuries.
On my way to Marseille, a very nice French woman asserted, eyes wide open: “I see it in the news that people get robbed or killed often over there.”
- “Have you been to Marseille lately?” I asked. “Maybe it is different these days.”
Knowing what I know about negative stereotyping, I fiercely reject the notion that a place is completely bad. Every medium or big city has good and bad areas. Undeniable, crime tends to happen more often in low socioeconomic neighborhoods than in so-called upper-areas. Interesting enough, those same neighborhoods often give birth to musicians, painters, artists, and revolutionaries, and many of their family and community costumes become the heart and the spirit of a region. Furthermore, you find dedicated parents, hard-working entrepreneurs, and loving families in those same neighborhoods often singled out for one or more killings or related crimes.
The impact of the media
While news organizations, especially local television news shows, tend to cover this issues as a matter of public safety, they miss the fact that acts of crime and acts of peace happen within the same streets, same day, same time. The “good news” barely gets coverage.
The reputation of cities like Marseille is negatively affected by this single-focused approach to news storytelling. Then, people tend to promote negative stereotyping by repeating what they heard, or by referring to their own experience –years ago.
Marseille was named European Capital of Culture 2013 and it offers a wide variety of events and exhibits for the highly cultured to the highly curious -even for the highly bored. It continues to be France’s second largest city, a port for commerce and tourism, and there are political and economic forces trying to revitalize it.
Nonetheless, while on the train to Marseille and after realizing I would arrive at 10 pm to St. Charles station, I admit that I was feeling a bit of fear. I was arriving late at night to a city I did not know well, a city I was told it was dangerous. I was alone, with two suitcases. Would I take a taxi? Would I take a bus?
-“Perhaps it is true and this was not a great idea after all,” I thought.
Arriving at St. Charles Station
Marseille – St. Charles is a large, modernized train station that can compete with train stations and airports in many cities -and may actually leave some behind. Well illuminated, clean, and functional, it has clear signs for everything and a tourist information office.
Still, influenced by the negative comments heard all along my way, I walked fast, watched my purse, and asked questions to figure how to get to the place I was going to stay. Worrying for a few seconds, I decided to take the nocturnal bus and while waiting, I started to feel safe and comfortable.
The #521 nocturnal bus from St. Charles to Luminy University drives you around like a tourist bus. We passed by The Vieux Port, La Castellane, Round-Point Du Prado, and The Obelisque. Late at night, the city was alive and the weather could not have been better: fresh, to say the least. Passengers getting on and off the bus were diverse in culture and in personalities, like in any melting pot city.
A happy realization came to me. I liked Marseille already. I arrived at my place past 11 pm feeling safe, comfortable, and excited!
From eating and drinking like the locals, going to the beach, visiting museums and exhibits, attending special cultural events, seen churches and buying fruits and vegetables at the open markets, conversing with new friends at the cafes and brasseries, walking along the streets in a couple of neighborhoods, hiking in the gorgeous Calanques, taking the bus like the locals, going more than once to see a monument or a statue, Marseille proved an interesting city.
Another point important to mention is that staying in Marseille for several weeks,
allowed me easy access to towns who gave birth to painters and that were close witnesses to history, such as Aix en Provence, Arles, St. Remy, Avignon, Aubagne, Cassis, and Toulon,
just to name a few. The locals are friendly. The category includes not only the “Marseilleses” but also the American and other expats that call Marseille home.
My favorite experiences were hiking the Calanques, walking along bohemian-posh Le Cours Julien, and hanging out in and around the Vieux-Port, full of stores, cafes, street art, and remodeled buildings such as the old hospital converted into the Intercontinental Hotel.
A city worth visiting now
Contrary to reputation,
Marseille is a wonderful city
worth visiting anytime.
Right now and for the rest of the year a long list of events is set to take place, from exhibits honoring the greatest painters to new age art and culture, street art, music, ballet, opera, theater, and many forms of creativity and innovation.
I am excited about Marseille, and I have a feeling that the mature, sultry, and beautiful woman I see is getting a second chance. The opportunity to flourish, to be enchanted by tourists, visitors, and immigrants willing to give and take.
At the very least, Marseille has earned every right to be respected, to be treated well, to be admired; and for locals and foreigners to see beyond stereotypes, to experience what this beautiful city in front of the sea has to offer. A beautiful, mature city connected to the ocean. [LP]
5 tips for safe traveling
- Avoid wearing expensive jewelry, or showing your laptops, and other high-tech devices excessively.
- Make sure your purse is fully closed.
- Try not to go or be out past 11 pm and if you do, watch what you drink, and have a taxi reserved to pick you up.
- Stay within the central and main neighborhoods.
- Smile. Conduct yourself respectfully, amicably, and unafraid. Predators can smell fear and are attracted to it.
Lupita Peimbert is a freelance writer who stayed in Marseille for several months in 2013 when Marseille was European Capital of Culture. Formerly a television news reporter, Lupita writes about travel, culture, and life.