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“Wait for the next one!” shouts a man as he closes the doors of a jam-packed elevator. I’ve waited in line for exhibitions before, but this is the first time I’ve waited to get inside someone’s home. Cité Radieuse, a modern housing complex designed by Le Corbusier in the late 1940s, is what the bright young things of Marseille’s 8e arrondissement call home. But they aren’t the only ones. This giant, ocean-liner-like structure has recently become home to MAMO, a contemporary-art centre on the rooftop terrace, accessed by an elevator that’s shared with tenants who aren’t always happy about all the new visitors. I kill time by taking pictures of the lobby with my iPhone only to realize that a woman holding grocery bags is doing everything in her power to avoid being photographed. Having new roommates is never easy. 

Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la MéditerranéeTaking in the view from the rooftop of Marseille’s Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée.

Once upstairs, I visit the gym- turned-art centre before stepping out onto a huge terrace, where the view of the sunhine shimmering on the Mediterranean is rivalled by a forest of cranes. Just beyond the historic Old Port, an enormous construction boom is transforming the Joliette quarter into a starchitect showcase. “People from Marseille have always been proud to be from Marseille, but they weren’t proud of their city. These new buildings are changing everything,” explains Lionel Grangé, who works for the design firm behind MAMO. He mentions a soaring tower designed by Zaha Hadid as well as a rectangular prism surrounded by dark steel mesh called the MuCEM (a museum of civilization). Just beside it is the Villa Méditerranée, a new exhibi- tion space whose cantilevered over- hang projecting over the shore reminds me of the USS Enterprise. 

At a time when Marseille is trying to shed its reputation as a tough (some would say rough) town, megaprojects like these make the city even more exciting to visit. (My only brush with danger was when a boy on a scooter almost knocked me over as I was watching a man singing his heart out while shaving on a balcony.) France’s second city has always been seen as Paris’ dowdy little sister. And although it’s spiffed up its style, Marseille hasn’t lost its personality: On the Canebière, a main artery once compared to the Champs-Élysées, I was assaulted by car horns as I tried to help a Tunisian grocer pick up pears he’d dropped on the street. This is the Marseille you see in Luc Besson’s film Taxi: diverse, chaotic, teeming with life, a city full of people chatting and smoking in front of faded Haussmann buildings – the opposite of the new postmodern structures that pierce the city’s sky. 

“Would you like something cold, hot or sweet?” asks Mina Kouk, a tall, frizzy-haired woman in a pink and purple dress. At her eponymous restaurant, owner Kouk and her mother cook up reinvented Berber dishes, such as the chicken “dancer” tajine, served with olives, meatballs and lemon confit, which have won over locals and food critics. Kouk tells me about her menu the way my grandmother would tell a story. She reveals, for instance, that she uses thinner couscous than Algerian tradition would normally allow. “Big couscous is easier to roll. Other restaurants use it because they’re run by men,” she jokes. Kouk chose to open her little eatery in the Cours Julien neighbourhood, the Williamsburg of Marseille. This area is drawing people like me, who can’t resist places like Oogie Lifestore, a shop where I would happily buy a Sandqvist backpack or a pair of Feiyue sneakers – not to mention get my hair cut, if it weren’t for my baldness.

Finishing my tajine, I stare at the street life on Rue Fontange through the windows of Kouk’s restaurant. Marseille is polishing its image, but it was never dull to begin with. Strolling behind a couple in Ray-Bans and skinny jeans, a veiled woman carries bags from the Capucins Market, just a few streets over. Earlier this morning, I elbowed my way through its fabric shops where the sequins would have delighted a friend of mine in Montreal who goes by the name of Miss Butterfly. I met fruit and vegetable vendors and the owner of a spice shop who, after hearing my Quebec accent, offered me tea so he could tell me about his cousins who had recently moved to the province.

Mina KoukMina Kouk is reinventing Algerian cuisine.

I bid Kouk goodbye, carrying a motherlode of baklava (“in case you get hungry this afternoon”) and set off toward the horseshoe-shaped town square in the Old Port. The blazing sun, silky breeze and people idling outside cafés remind me that the Mediterranean is really what defines this city. Marseille has a reputation for its hard exterior, but it has a soft side too.

I seek cover under the Ombrière, an 1,800-square-metre rectangular roof supported by six-metre pillars. Designed by Norman Foster, the structure, whose reflective surface recalls Chicago’s Cloud Gate, was built last year as a refuge for pedestrians from the blistering Provençal sun. I meet up with my guide, Nathalie Federicci, who’s lived in Marseille almost all her life. As she leads me through the port’s streets, she explains why it would have been unthinkable to come here when she was young. “The traffic was hellish,” she says, “but it improved when the city made room for pedestrian-only lanes.” Just then, a group of kids playing soccer amid the quietly strolling crowds bumps into us. “Have you noticed how young this town is?” asks François Coquerel, the photographer travelling with me, as he pulls out his camera.

Soccer in MarseilleSoccer to the people of Marseille is like hockey to Canadians.

We sidestep the crush of people and weave through Place Villeneuve-Bargemon, all the way to the stairway that sits in front of the InterContinental Marseille – Hotel Dieu, an 18th-century former hospital that now looks like an imperial palace. (It’s enough to make you want to be sick.) Most people walking through its massive wrought-iron gates are, in fact, going to lie down – in the rooms of the five-star hotel that opened here last year. We climb the stairs that lead to the huge hotel terrace overlooking the Old Port, giving us a perfect view of the dome of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica. (The people of Marseille affectionately call it la Bonne Mère – the good mother. This city definitely has a matriarchal side I find appealing.) “This is typical of Marseille: a luxury hotel built right next to social housing,” says Federicci, pointing out the contrast between the hotel and the neighbouring buildings. They’re so close that as I sit down on the terrace to sip a Pac à l’Eau, a lemon cordial that is deliciously refreshing on such a sunny day, I can almost reach out and touch the pants drying on the clotheslines next door.

Norman Foster’s OmbrièreNorman Foster’s Ombrière offers shelter from the sun.

Guillaume Ferroni knows that there’s nothing new about the speakeasy concept. But the cocktails he serves at Carry Nation – his little watering hole concealed behind a false window of a shop in the Palais de Justice neighbourhood – are pretty revolutionary. “Aside from hotel bars, Marseille didn’t have a place where you could get a real drink before we opened,” he tells me when I stop by the following night.

In his Prohibition-themed tavern, with its padded banquettes and faux-cracked walls, Ferroni explains that Marseille was awash in alcohol in the 19th century. The barkeep goes to great lengths to explore the boozy history of his city, as demonstrated by the cocktail he serves me – a Marseille 1900, inspired by a recipe that was popular in these parts at the turn of the last century: rosé, sparkling water, Picon (bitters that used to be produced here), Noilly Prat and lemon zest. It’s like a splash of sunlight on a rocky Mediterranean cove. I almost feel like I’m clinking glasses with Jules and Joseph in La gloire de mon père, the Marcel Pagnol novel that helped me discover Provence when I was still too young to drink anything stronger than milk. At the next table, a couple of hipsters in their early 30s – not at all like the Provençal characters of my childhood – are sipping stiff new concoctions. It’s cocktail improv night and the barmen are inventing drinks on the spot.

Saint-Jean fortThe Saint-Jean fort keeps watch over walkers.

I leave the bar feeling a bit foggy and, in search of a nightcap, head toward the Old Port with the intention of trying out my Marseille accent at least once by ordering a drink. In the distance, the thudding bass from some house music reminds me that I haven’t gone dancing once on this trip. I wind up in front of the Café des Épices, a stone’s throw from the Hôtel-Dieu, where I stumble upon an impromptu DJ session on the street. It’s Sunday night, the air is crisp, the sound is good and everybody is moving to the music; even the cook is waving his arms so wildly in the window that he drops his spatula into a customer’s glass. I order a beer and join the hundred or so revellers, who look like they just walked off an Isabel Marant runway. Jumping up and down to the music, I realize that Marseille is still the rebel it always was – and not without a cause.

Travel Essentials

01 A table in the inner courtyard at La Cantinetta, in the Cours Julien district, is the spot to enjoy chef Pierre-Antoine Denis’ Italian creations; we almost ordered seconds of his cannelloni. (33-4-91-48-10-48)

02 After you’ve devoured a chicken pastilla with prunes, apricots and almonds, ask Mina Kouk to come by with her enormous dessert tray and help you choose between baklava and reinvented chocolate makrouts. 

03 Log on to Carry Nation’s website to reserve a place and get the bar’s secret address. The mint julep with Madeira and nutmeg is the best we’ve ever tasted. 

04 The multidisciplinary exhibits devoted to Mediterranean culture are impressive enough, but it’s also worth exploring the corridors of the outer structure of the MuCEM and the footbridge that links it to the Saint-Jean fort. 

05 Check out the photography and architecture works at the MAMO bookstore; then kick back on the rooftop terrace of Cité Radieuse, the only place in town with unobstructed 360-degree views of the sea and the surrounding mountains.

06 Wake up early to snag a table on the tiny terrace of the first-floor breakfast room at the hotel La Résidence du Vieux-Port. You’ll be rewarded with a view of the ships and the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde basilica.



Getting There

With three new weekly flights running seasonally from May through October, Air Canada rouge offers the most non-stop frequencies between Montreal and Nice. Marseille is two hours by car or two hours and 35 minutes by train from Nice.

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