Recently JF and I had a lovely long weekend away in Marseille. We met my parents there who were trying out the direct Eurostar service from London to Marseille, something you can do during the summer months now, and we left the children at home. What a treat it was to have an adult weekend, not that I don’t love travelling with my kids, of course I do, it’s just that this was different. My parents didn’t sulk once, nor spend their time finding wifi hotspots and snapchatting their friends; they didn’t need to be bribed with ice-creams or cajoled with “just 5 more minutes here and we’ll go to a playpark…” and there were no meltdowns at all! They were excellent travelling companions and as I’ve said before I hope I’m still travelling the world like them when I’m in my 70s.
I’ve been to Marseille a few times before, mainly for day trips and once overnight, and JF goes often for work, but this was the first time we’ve actually really spent time exploring France’s second city and we loved it. It’s a big place and surrounded by some magnificent scenery so let’s face it, even though we explored a lot, we really only scratched the surface but living only 2 hours away we’ll definitely go back soon. One area we loved, so very different from Nice and other places near home thanks to all its street art, was le Panier.
Le Panier is a vibrant multicultural district of Marseille with a long history. It is the area where the Greeks originally founded the city of Massilia around 600 BC and has welcomed immigrants from all over the world ever since, notably Neapolitans in the 19th century, Corsicans after the First World War and more recently North Africans. Just steps away from the Vieux Port, tucked in behind the Hotel de Ville and la Joliette, this inner-city neighbourhood prospered thanks to rich seafaring traders, but in the17th century the middle classes started moving out to newer areas of the city leaving the Panier to become a distinctly working class district. Many buildings were destroyed in the Second World War however the resilient locals rebuilt their homes and continued to welcome immigrants. The thriving multicultural community also attracted artists who set up studios and workshops in the myriad of narrow lanes.
Marseille was the European Capital of Culture in 2013 and with this came enormous investment and regeneration. For the visitor this can only be seen as a positive thing; the areas around the Old Port, Cathedral and St Jean Fort are now all stunningly beautiful places to visit and spend time in. However some feel the Panier, so close to the central tourist area, has lost a part of its soul owing to so much renovation, with traditional shops and trades being pushed out to make way for souvenirs and other commerce catering to tourists. There is talk of “gentrification”: I don’t know what the Panier was like before 2013 but it didn’t feel gentrified to me. There’s evidence of renovation going on but it still retains a faded, well-lived in feeling. It oozes charm and feels like a separate village within a city. Locals sit and chat in shady streets, men drink pastis in cafés, laundry hangs out to dry across the streets and kids play in the many squares. It’s buzzing with ordinary life and despite the only vehicle allowed within the labyrinth of otherwise pedestrian alleyways being the “mini train” the place isn’t over run with tourists (or not in May at any rate).
There are some souvenir shops but the ones I saw were not full of run-of-the-mill tacky t-shirts and keyrings, rather soaps and paintings, and there are still plenty of picturesque boutiques and artists’ studios to peer into. But one of the most striking things about the Panier is all the street art, found in every alley, nook and cranny. This is not the legally sanctioned elegant murals that you find in Cannes but raw, gritty and often grungy street art with plenty of graffiti too.
I can’t admit to being an expert in street art, in fact I knew very little about it but I do know that I like a lot of it and find the areas in cities full of it to be dynamic and alive. It is not without controversy though and tends to divide opinion as to whether it is truly “art” or just plain vandalism. Many cities spend a fortune getting rid of it while others allow it to a certain extent. There’s no doubt there’s a huge difference between a creative mural and a gang signature but what I like is the vibrancy of it, the fact that it carries a social message, creates debate and makes you think. I read that street artists are like dogs leaving their scent, where one leaves his/her mark another comes along and adds to it or draws/writes over it. It is forever changing and the murals, stencils, tags and perhaps to a lesser extent the mosaics that I saw recently might not be there next time I go.
“I didn’t wait for Facebook to write on walls”!
If you go to Marseille I recommend putting time aside to explore the steep, winding lanes of le Panier, just wander around, soak up the atmosphere and admire the views. I’ll leave you with more photos of some of the street art I saw.
work by 2 Brazilian artists KajaMan on the left and Nhobi on the right
Finally a familiar sight that even I recognise, a giant Space Invader.
What do you think? Is it art, or is it vandalism? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Related post: Discovering Street Art on the Glasgow Mural Trail
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