Ahh finally, France. With bated breath and a head full of expectations, I stepped off the plane ready to be blown away by a country known for food, romance, and history. I was met by a city that had a rich history but was forced to change with the world around it. Marseilles has been a bustling port for over two thousand years due to its prime geographical location and its position between mountains and the ocean.
Tourists swarm the port and old town, basking in the history and glory of breath-taking churches, museums and souvenir shops. Restaurants line up side-by-side along the marina, offering an idyllic view of the water, mountains and the two forts that guard the port. Walls build into the water extend across the mouth of the port, funneling boats through a singular entrance, meant to ease the defense of the city. I felt comfortable, and more importantly, safe walking the streets of Marseilles.
Streets that snaked down to the water were swept, clean and well-maintained. Vieux Ville, the old city was just a few blocks uphill of the port and housed local artists, many who closed their shops early in the afternoon to give way to families wandering the street and children using open spaces to play their imaginary games. I remember wandering these streets with an awed expression. This was what I imagined France to be.
However, the duality of my experience was disappointing because I adored the genuine feeling of history and tradition from the city’s historical sites, but felt the huge impact from my feelings of unease when exploring other parts of the city. Similar to other cities I have visited, travelling on foot was my main mode of transport.
The feeling of unease started when we were making our way towards Palais Longchamps, a masterpiece of architecture completed by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and other famous artists, fronted by an elegant fountain. The intensity of the sun had faltered and the shadows started to lengthen as we haphazardly chose paths through winding alleys up a hill towards the attraction. The stroll was only a few kilometers, but we started to notice that the buildings were a little dilapidated and the restaurants were a little dirtier. We gave no notice to the hints that we were entering a rougher part of the city. The areas within two blocks of the palace looked very similar to our experience that day in Marseilles.
The signs of the rougher areas of Marseilles was more apparent as we headed towards a rooftop bar in an area called Belle de Mai, or Beautiful May. It’s ironic that our path would lead to the opposite of what the name suggests. Our journey started through an area mainly inhabited by Middle Eastern people, with an overwhelming population of men. The thirty minutes were eventful, passing questionable street performances, dumpy-looking pizza shops (3 pizzas for 10 euro!), and crowds of rude men lounging on the streets.
Months ago, comfortably in front of my computer, I read that Marseilles had a high crime rate and crimes towards tourists were common. I don’t know the accuracy of those claims and I paid it little attention at the time. However, after walking into Belle de Mai, I suddenly recalled my research. As tourists, toting an obviously Canadian backpack, we stuck out. Down each street, the walls were scarred with French graffiti, gates were closed, and windows were boarded shut. Stepping foot into this world immediately put me on guard. Having never been to the Bronx in New York, I thought that this would be the closest comparison. We visited one supermarket, which shortly after entering, a wailing alarm sounded, gates were slammed closed, and nobody in the store heeded the sounds.
Although nothing dangerous actually happened, the catcalls, shady glares, and general unfriendliness put me on guard for the rest of my time spent in the city. After this little journey, I did more research into Marseilles. Recently, Marseilles has developed into the drug and crime capital of France. The north side of the city, where Belle de Mai is situated, holds a 44% unemployment rate. Several years ago, the army was brought into Marseilles to quell the drug trade. The police do not actively patrol this area and I would not advise exploring Marseilles in the dark.