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Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Marseille reminded me of Barcelona six years ago when they started to clean up the Raval. It's a mixture of sleaze and old world charm, and it's obvious a lot is going to change in the next few years.

The whole center of the town was under construction, with every street lined with sleepy bulldozers, chain link fences, and sacks of debris. No street cars were running, and unless you took one of the two subways, you had to walk everywhere.

Where we stayed - off the Canebière, in what seemed like a medina - we witnessed a bag snatching from our balcony five minutes after checking into our hotel. Not only was it reminiscent of Barcelona's Chino, it was probably the most exciting thing we witnessed during our stay.

I have a feeling everybody left Marseille and went to the rave in Barcelona for the New Year's celebrations. Everything was closed and muy tranquilo; except for a little bit of excitement after midnight, things were a far cry from the revelry that usually accompanies the changing of the year in Barcelona.

Unfortunately, about half of the bars and restaurants were closed, even in the livelier looking neighborhoods. Looking for some life, about 12:30 on new year's eve we wandered into this bar in the Cours Julien area, thinking we'd hear some rock n roll.

Rawkin' shortly before midnight

None of that, unless you call Phil Collins and Fine Young Cannibals rock n roll.

While contemplating the depressingly empty dance floor, a Houellebecquian phrase came to me: "Il est évident. L'humanité est condamnée à la dépression total." (OK, it was funny at the time ... and excuse my bad French)

Before we were subjected to more 80s soft rock we got out of there.

Thankfully we found something, right before the strike of midnight: an Irish pub where the music was equally bizarre: a schizophrenic mixture of nineties euro-techno, U2, and the White Stripes. Being guiris we acted like guiris and had an oblivious good time. The champagne helped. We left a couple hours later and walked towards the center. Like Barcelona, just go downhill and eventually you'll get to the center. In Marseille this happens to be the port - pretty much the Ramblas of Marseille, as far as the kinds of people are concerned.

On the way we met these drunken buskers. They played us a song, which I know from the Kusterica movies, though I have no idea what it's called. They said they were Yugoslavian.

As expected, the port was filled with leather-backed lotharios trying to faire l'amour with tipsy tourists. In the freakiest bar we could find we met a French version of Torrente who told us he was working as an undercover cop. While he desperately tried to pick up my girlfriend I witnessed a very obvious drug deal ... a furtive handshake, and a guy looking into a cellophane wrapper, then making a beeline to the bathroom. I guess, if French Torrente was an undercover cop, he had other priorities. He seemed like he was wired on coke anyway.

Since the nightlife seemed to have moved to Barcelona, we didn't really get to experience the city, which was a shame. I'd been there before, six years ago, for carnival, and left the city dazed and very confused after four days of beer, pastis and poulet frites.

The city is one of contrast, with old Spanish-speaking locas that look like ex prostitutes amidst the bustle of the medina-like center; then there's the cleaner, tourist-friendly port area just a stones throw away, with its sweater-scarved yuppies. That, and the hipper neighborhoods further up the hill, and the obvious face-lift the city is receiving, and you have a feeling Marseille is going to be something distinctly different, very soon. It certainly is a far cry from the days of the French Connection.

On new year's day we walked up to the Notre Dame de la Garde, from where you can see the entire city. Everything looks a lot cleaner from there, and the sprawl of the city with its tiled rooftops stretching from the Vieux Port to the rolling hills is impressive. Marseille is definitely a place to get to know. I'll go back again in the summer when the construction will be over in time for the tourist season. When everything comes back to life.


On the train ride back their was heavy security at the borders. They delayed the train by about 40 minutes. My guess is they were looking for etarras.

At one point I wanted to open a bottle of Bordeaux and went to the bar at the back of the train for a corkscrew. In the wagon adjacent to the dining car, if you could call it that, there were two guys with two half empty bottles in front of them on their trays. Just behind them was a group of drunken Italians laughing and passing around their open bottles. I asked the two guys for their corkscrew and they lent it to me. From their accents I could tell they were American.

The wine was good. Almost as good as Spanish wine.