It took the TGV train no time to thrust its way out of Paris and into a realm of swelling wheat fields peppered by quaint farmhouses – the quintessential northern French terrain I had neglected since my semester on the Erasmus study abroad programme almost 20 years ago. Although I had visited in the interim, my years have been largely lost in Asia, penning guidebooks 9,600km east of the Champs Élysées.
But nostalgia haunted me through the French Concession in Shanghai, down Hanoi’s café-lined boulevards and even while queuing for croissants in the artisan bakeries of Hong Kong. I hankered to pick up where I’d left off, so when a French friend I’d known in Guangzhou, China, invited me to visit, the excuse to explore France’s “second-city” belatedly fell in my lap.
“Come to Marseille. It’s not like other bourgeois French cities. It’s cool and the weather is hot,” Pierre Picard said on the phone, referencing both its hip urban character and the 300 days of sunshine that bless the city each year.
As the train from Paris chased the southern horizon, I thought about Marseille, which, despite giving its name to the rebel-rousing national anthem La Marseillaise, has a reputation of being distinct from the rest of the country. It’s a metropolis on the margins both geographically and culturally, its denizens composed of waves of migrants who arrived over two-and-half-millennia of recorded history, making it not just France’s oldest city but its most multicultural one as well.
The story begins with the Greeks who, sailing from Asia Minor, recognised the strategic deep-water port and settled in what is now Le Panier overlooking the Vieux Port. The Greeks traded with the Gauls, introducing grapes and olives to the region, unwittingly laying the foundation for Provençal cuisine.