Too often, people wander from A to B eager to seek the extraordinary and blind to their surroundings.
We walked along the front face of the building once again, seeking a way to enter. There should have been a door, or a set of stairs somewhere. I didn’t even know if it was actually the front, having entered the concrete courtyard through an unmarked, imposing black metal fence left agape and unattended. On the ground floor, glass windows stretched from floor to ceiling, revealing a meticulously clean and empty modern-style café. It could have been a high-end café, or maybe one that never even opened.
“Are you sure that your friend gave us the right address?” I asked, wondering why a popular rooftop bar would be in such a deserted area of the city.
She gazed at my phone, brow furrowed with confusion and a trickle of frustration. Fingers flicking across the screen, the map zoomed out then back in again. “I’m sure we’re at the right place. Look it says Rue Jobin.” She motioned to the street sign and found the corresponding spot on the map. “This should be the place.”
Wooden picnic benches lined in precise rows and so clean that they almost shone compared to the dreary grey of the concrete. The sides of the building were a light beige with a rough hatch pattern. Ornate stone arches surrounded each window, giving the whole building a uniform feel. Someone had spent considerable effort to beautify this old building.
We stepped outside the fence and immediately a vibrant orange sign caught my eye. La Friche Belle de Mai. I recognized a few words; part of the name referenced a beautiful May. A unique and charming phrase fit for one of the popular destinations in Marseilles.
If you aimed a camera upwards, catching the fringe of the metal fence and the top of the sign “La Friche”, you could place the picture on a postcard. The front of the building was clean, meticulously so, pleading for attention from the eyes of tourists scanning their favorite webpages for attractions. Maybe a brochure would show a picture of a couple sitting on one of the many oddly clean picnic benches outside the café, perhaps reading a book from the equally modern library next to it. That picture would be a great advertisement for Marseilles. The picture would also be a lie.
La Friche Belle de Mai is a microcosm for the city of Marseilles. The bottom half of the eye-catching orange sign “Belle de Mai” was plastered with graffiti, the most obvious one a scrawled red “La Friche”. Marseilles is a complex city; on the south side, the port and surrounding areas are a temporary home to all but the most foolhardy of travelers. When travelling towards the north side, signs of poverty and hardship have taken a toll on the buildings and streets.
Later, I would find out that La Friche actually means “The Wasteland”, a fitting name for a beautiful building in the midst of a dilapidated community. Spray paint had found the outer wall of the property where the orange sign was mounted and portions of the fence. If anything, the graffiti was consistent, so consistent that there was a lack of space for additional graffiti. Inside of the courtyard seemed unscathed, but if examined closely, there seemed to be new paint on portions of the building.
“Trev,” she pointed to a sign that indicated second entrance down the street, ready to explore further.
“I’m not sure about that,” I peered down the corridor that once may have been attractive. “It’s actually getting late and I really don’t like the look of this place.”
Plywood covered most of the windows; those that were not covered were broken or plastered with filth and graffiti. Behind us was a small tunnel running underneath the train tracks, equally affected by La Belle de Mai neighbourhood. The streets were oddly deserted at this hour, when I assumed it would be rush hour at a well-known spot.
“We could head back. I’m pretty hungry. How do you feel?”
“Yea, why don’t we get some food?” I answered with a satirical touch. “There was that amazing corner store that we passed earlier.”
I was referring to the corner we passed earlier in the day that blasted American music that amplified through narrow streets. At first we were surprised to hear recognizable words, but as soon as the intersection came into view, the familiarity quickly changed to uncertainty.
There were five or six men lounging around a small, worn-down corner store. In front were a few plastic chairs that I assumed used to be white, and a single table on which a vibrating boombox was placed. Being the only people other than these men on the street, I was full of trepidation.
I took a half-step close to her, finding an inkling of solace in her proximity and fully aware of the futility of my actions. It had been miles since we last saw anyone resembling a tourist. We quickly passed the intersection, feeling their glares and not understanding if French words were flung at us or each other. Even from a few blocks away, I could hear what I realized was rap, the kind filled with profanity and violence.
“Welcome to the French Bronx,” I uttered to her in a hushed tone, wide-eyed and painfully aware that we did not belong here.
I must pause here to mention that I had no idea that the north side of Marseilles was so impoverished and dangerous. Only after walking through this area, I did a little digging into the recent history of Marseilles. Months before embarking on this trip, I had read up on a few of the cities I had planned to visit. I didn’t pay too much attention to the conversations of how Marseilles was a crime-ridden city and when I arrived in Marseilles, the comments fell from my consciousness.
I have never been to New York or anywhere close to the Bronx, but living in North America, we are exposed to the prejudice that the Bronx is a rough and dangerous area. I believe that north Marseilles is similar to the Bronx in that sense. The two areas have similar crime and poverty rates. There are areas of Marseilles near the port that are essentially made for tourists. These areas experience their own troubles with crime, but the suburbs are an entirely different story.
The north side of Marseilles, including La Belle de Mai, is an area where travelers should be wary. I don’t recommend travelling through this area at night and one should use caution when straying away from the port side of Marseilles. The popular Palais Longchamps is in the north side and you can see the difference between the tourists and non-tourist areas. Three or four blocks away from Palais Longchamps, the streets are noticeably dirtier and the people shadier.
Known as the murder and drug capital of France, Marseilles is the home to the Milleu, or organized criminals. I have read on forums that the police do not patrol in certain areas of the north side due to the increased risk of confrontations or shootings. The French army was brought into the city in 2012 to quell gang warfare and drug trade. Link to article here.
Dangers in Marseilles: Link
Parts of Marseilles as a no-go zone: Link
Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of Belle de Mai, frankly being too scared to take out a camera. Here are two snaps taken from the nicer side of Marseilles.