Marseille Mon Amour
A Mediterranean climate and laid-back urban flair on the Côte d’Azur: Marseille certainly has more to offer than its reputation would reveal.
The lively international port city, with its 300 days of sun per year and a particular passion for bouillabaisse and pastis, was long considered the French Naples, ruled by criminal gangs and the violence of its ‘French Connection’ mafia. Much has changed since then.
In 2013, Marseille was named the European Capital of Culture, and pocketed significant subsidies that were invested in polishing up its appearance. France’s second-largest city now attracts growing numbers of creative minds and artists. Hot on their heels are the galleries, hip boutiques, and cafés. For the younger French generation especially, Marseilles is becoming a real alternative to the exorbitantly priced Paris due to its affordable standard of living — with a view of the sea included.
‘Today, Marseille is no more dangerous than any other major city. But we keep it under wraps, as we’d otherwise be swamped with tourists,’ says Margaux Keller with a laugh. Born in Geneva, the interior and product designer has spent almost her whole life in Marseille, student days in Paris aside. The city is more than just home to the young mother and her family — it is also a source of inspiration for her work. A touch of its sunny, radiant charm always finds its way into the businesses, bistros, or homes that she designs with her trademark love for bright colours and a dash of humour. The same goes for the furniture and interior accessories that she creates for customers like Made.com, Roche Bobois, or Habitat, staying faithful to her motto of blending form and function with emotion. She introduced COMPANION to her beloved Marseille on a tour of her favourite places in the city.
‘The districts of Marseille are just like little villages. Everybody knows everyone else, and they all have their own customs,’ says Margaux when she welcomes us into her ‘village’, the historical neighbourhood of Vauban at the foot of the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde. Known colloquially as ‘La Bonne Mère’, the pilgrimage church of St Mary is one of the main attractions in the port city, and Marseille’s pride and joy. Maison Vauban is situated just round the corner from both Margaux’s apartment and studio, in a small side street winding up the hill: this is the designer’s favourite spot for her ritual morning coffee. The proprietor, Victor Parodi, is already awaiting her arrival and greets her warmly with a kiss on both cheeks. With its green-tiled bar, vintage-look furniture, and exposed-brick walls, the bistro is also a cosy spot to linger at lunchtime, weekends, or even for dinner — not least because of the delicious Mediterranean cuisine that it serves.
The first item on our agenda is Jogging — thankfully, we’re talking about a shop! Tucked away in rue Paradis, the small but delightful concept store operated by Margaux’s acquaintances Olivier Amsellem and Charlotte Brunet is indeed a divine spot for fashion and design aficionados. Set up in a former butcher’s shop, the walls are now bedazzled with sunglasses and designer dresses by the trendiest labels, like Jacquemus, JW Anderson, Alyx, and Maryam Nassir Zadeh. ‘A shop like this in Marseille would have upped and died just a few years ago. But now the city is attracting lots of young creative professionals from Paris. The scene for hip design is growing,’ says Margaux. Jogging opens out on to an overgrown garden in the rear courtyard, where lunch is served on weekdays and brunch at the weekend. The octopus salad that’s currently being prepared definitely looks mouthwatering.
It’s just as well that we are on our way to the next stop: the restaurant Sepia, Margaux’s favourite haunt for lunch. Surrounded by a small park, Sepia is perched on the slope of La Garde hill and can only be reached by crossing a bridge. ‘There’s a stunning view of Marseille from here,’ the designer gushes. ‘It’s also a wonderful place to bring children. They can play to their hearts’ content in front of the restaurant, leaving their parents to eat in peace,’ the mother of two says with a wink. Traditionally speaking, Marseille’s cuisine is best known for its bouillabaisse and pastis. But we prefer to consult the menu of the day in this Italian fine-dining eatery: pasta with mussels and salmon on avocado tartare. The obligatory wine can’t be left out in France, despite the early hour. Natives of Marseille have a particular penchant for a chilled rosé, which we sample, enraptured, on the shady terrace.
From Sepia, it’s a 25-minute amble through the alleyways of Marseille to reach La Corniche — a serpentine road hugging the precipitous coastline — but the hilly city and the scorching heat dampen our ardour, so we hop into Margaux’s car instead. Shortly afterwards, we find ourselves at the start of the five-kilometre rocky road, which the citizens of Marseille proudly assert is home to the world’s longest bench. Whether or not that’s true, we enjoy the break with a view of the great blue sea — and the pleasantly stiff breeze that’s blowing here. The small harbour bay of Vallon des Auffes is located directly below, where a gaggle of bathers lie stretched out on the rocks and hop occasionally into the waters. ‘We have perfect bathing weather here until November,’ says a visibly enthusiastic Margaux. A smattering of bistros and restaurants in the picturesque harbour look inviting, and the atmosphere exudes an air of calm that would be virtually impossible to find on the crowded beaches at the other end of La Corniche.
But the harbour town has more to offer than just a refreshing dip and tasty food. We’re here to enjoy the culture, of course. Leaving aside Le Corbusier’s architectural monument — the social housing complex Cité Radieuse that was built from 1947 onwards — the Mucem embodies the new Marseille. Viewed from La Corniche, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations is directly opposite, on the other side of the Old Port. It opened in 2013 to mark Marseille’s appointment as the European Capital of Culture. Quite apart from the permanent and temporary exhibitions, the contemporary building itself, with its glazed façade and concrete honeycomb superstructure, is a genuine attraction in its own right and avidly photographed by visitors on the roof terrace. A concrete bridge also connects the modern block with the historical Fort Saint-Jean as a beautiful symbiosis of the old and the new.
Pascal Lancien’s salon is situated not far from the Mucem, in the chic mall Les Terrasses du Port, along the port arcades. Simply named Le Coiffeur, its interior was designed by Margaux. From the moment we step inside, we immediately sense her love of colour and light-coloured wood. The walls are resplendent in radiant turquoise, while the playful yet minimalist sofa is graced by yellow and grey cushions. A real eye-catcher — besides the semi-circular mirrors perched on stilts — is a small hut that’s been set up inside the shop. It’s home to wash basins and recliners, where a couple of women are currently having their hair shampooed in a semi-private, intimate atmosphere — despite the salon bustling with activity. It’s hardly surprising — pretty much everyone in Marseilles entrusts their hair to Pascal’s skilful hands.
Freshly coiffured, we’re all set for the evening, which we spend in our hotel, Mama Shelter Marseilles, just round the corner from the trendy artists’ quarter of Cours Julien. Mama Shelter belongs to a small but delightful group of French design hotels that have now spread to eight different cities as far afield as Paris, Los Angeles, and even Rio de Janeiro. There’s always a cool vibe in this urban oasis of the port city, with its modern concrete-style rooms. And the in-house Restaurant Mama is a fantastic spot to dine accompanied by a live DJ set. The Marseille menu features international delicacies like tuna and sesame tataki, and a hip Hawaiian poke bowl, alongside shakshuka, hummus, and burrata. Hotel guests are joined by locals who drop by for some food, a few drinks, or a game of table football. So by the end of the day, we’d even made a couple of new friends.