Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Bright spots in Marseille -- Le Panier

Despite the difficulties of the apartment search, trying to finish dissertation revisions in the hotel room, and the frustrations of getting misinformation about our cartes de séjour from people who should have known better, there were bright spots. In fact, there were actually a lot of them because Marseille was just so great.

I spent a lot of time walking around the city while James was working on his revisions, so I got to see a lot of cool things. One area that's really great to walk around in, and where we had found a couple of promising apartments before we came to France, was Le Panier. It's just north of the Vieux Port, so depending on where you are, you might catch a glimpse of the water through a couple of cool arched stairways that go under buildings on Rue Casserie down toward the port.

Le Panier is where the Greeks settled in 600 BC, calling it Massalia, but there don't seem to be any remnants of the Greek settlement now. It is, however, very picturesque all the same. It's full of tiny, winding streets, some of which are barely wide enough for a person and a motorcycle and lots of little stairways leading to and from different squares. Really, it's a bit like a warren, which is probably why, as we would learn from Madame V., it provided cover for La Résistance in World War II and why part of it was subsequently blown up and many of its inhabitants of that time were sent to concentration camps.

There are several new buildings right on the water that were built after the war. One was built by a famous French architect, Fernand Pouillon, and is a registered historical building and the others are knock-offs. This picture really doesn't do it justice, but it's a very striking apartment building (and there are beautiful views from the inside, but that's for another post). That's the real sky by the way. No filters. Just a palm-sized Canon Powershot.

Le Panier sort of has a bad rep. Our guidebook said that it's the kind of place that locals will tell you to avoid living because for a while things got pretty seedy before the more recent renovations (which people seem to call "renewal" rather than "gentrification"). And the guidebook was pretty much right about that. Most of the locals we talked to said that it's kind of a marginal neighborhood to live in. A lot of the things that make it charming, like the quiet, almost deserted little streets make it less safe at night. This is too bad, because there are still some inexpensive housing options there.

There are also a lot of galleries and pottery shops and as a tourist, it's really fun to walk along the streets and look at the brightly painted houses and cool doorways, like these two on Rue des Cordelles. Note that at #17 the box for letters is not the slot in the middle of the door, but above the door and to the right upper right hand side.

One other really great thing about Le Panier is Pizzeria Étienne. This is just about the worst picture I could have of it, but it's closed on Sundays. We've eaten there twice and I think we will have trouble not eating there again the next time we're in Marseille, although I have no pictures to prove it. It's a real neighborhood institution. The walls are covered with photos of Étienne with his family and customers, including (in one shot) someone who looks a whole lot like 1970s Michael Caine. It seems like most of the customers are neighborhood regulars and the regulars get better service than the tourists, but everybody gets good food.

The menu is really limited -- pizza (anchovy or cheese), a grilled meat dish, eggplant gratin, soupions en persillade (little squids in garlic and parsley), and maybe two other things? That's it. The grilled meats smell really good and seeing the people next to you order a plate of the squid is enough to make you want to order some yourself, even though you've already eaten too much. Both times, we've had the pizza, which they'll do half-and-half anchovy and cheese (the anchovy has no cheese, just tomato sauce and a few whole dry-cured olives) and the eggplant gratin. The pizza has a really thin crust that's chewy at the edges. You could fold the slice in half, but everybody eats it with a fork and knife in the restaurant. And the eggplant gratin is tangy, garlicky, slightly charred and good enough to get rid of whatever ails you -- really. Mmmmm!

After you've eaten your fill, there are still some worthwhile historic things to see in Le Panier. For instance, there's the Maison Diamantée, named for the diamond-shaped bricks on its exterior (close-up on the right). It was built in the 16th century and now houses the Museum of Old Marseille.

You can also see the Hotel Dieu from the outside. According to a couple of 70-something Marseillaises that I met while I was walking around, a hospital has been there, in some form, since the 1600s. It's where they sent plague victims when the plague came to Marseille and then some 40 years ago, the sister of one of the women had surgery there. Sometime in the past several years it was closed down and is to be made into a 5-star hotel. At least that's what the ladies told me.

And there's also Notre Dame de la Major, the cathedral of Marseille. It's in the same Roman-Byzantine style as Notre Dame de la Garde and it's really striking. Again, that's the real sky in Marseille.

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