Another form of tourism in Marseille: Our Hood

The northern districts, the Quartiers nord, are considered problem zones Photo: Lionel Urman/Panoramic/imago

You can stroll somewhere else. In Marseille, members of a cooperative take tours showing the culture and nature of the city's rough neighborhoods.

Out of Marseille, 12.5.2022, 13:25


Marseille is not a city where you can stroll quietly; too mountainous, too much garbage, too windy, too crowded. But there is always a place to sit down for a coffee, a street that suddenly reveals a view of the sea or the mountains.

Marseille's inner workings are rough, the inner city has a dilapidated structure thanks to decades of mismanagement, vacancies and real estate speculation. Than more than three years ago three houses collapsed in the Noailles district, eight people died. That November 2018, the "Rage Marches" revived, people remembered a different form of moving through the city and an old form of protest that has a tradition in Marseille: marching.

In French preserves the word marcher on the one hand the rather militaristic marching of the soldier battalion that moved from Marseille to Paris in 1792 and the song of the revolution, La Marseillaise, carried through the country, today the national anthem. Marching also appears in the "La République en marche" movement, founded by President Emmanuel Macron, which purported to want to set something in motion. But it also means simply: running, walking, and with "Les Excursionistes", founded in 1897, Marseille has the oldest hiking club in France.

In 1983 it was them beurs the second generation of Maghreb immigrants who initiated the “March for Equality and Against Racism” in Marseille. Many came from the north of Marseille, where in the 1960s high-rise housing estates for workers from the former colonies had been built.

The quarters north

Today cités like La Castellane, Le Castellas or Les Aygalades are strongholds of the drug trade. The northern quarters have been left behind, devalued and punished by incorrect urban planning and a lack of transport connections. But if you think you can't set foot in the north of Marseille, you're wrong.

The cooperative was founded in 2011 Hotel du Nord. The idea behind this is to convey the cultural and historical heritage of the Quartiers Nord. Because in the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th arrondissement there are not only the cités with all their social and economic problems, but also sprinklings of old fishing villages, middle-class residential areas, artisan districts, housing estates, industrial ruins and derelict sites.

The cooperative is concerned with re-appropriating the territory, one's own history - and giving the people who live there a voice. The members organize thematic tours and sell local products such as soap and honey. “We are neither a hotel nor a museum,” Julie de Muer, one of the founders, tries to explain the character of the cooperative. But even those who are only looking for a place to stay will find what they are looking for on their website.

A cityscape of Marseille with large skyscraper blocks

Many high-rise blocks date from the 1960s Photo: Sylvain Grandadam/imago

On a March evening, Julie de Muer is sitting in her mother's kitchen in L'Estaque, a seaside suburb in northern Marseille dominated by Italian immigrants. The painter Paul Cézanne rented L'Estaque at the end of the 19th century when it was still a fishing village, brickworks were built here at the beginning of the 20th century and after the war a petrochemical plant affected the whole area. At Verduron, about a hundred meters up the hillside, excavations at the turn of the millennium uncovered the remains of a Gallic village built on a rocky outcrop.

participation and exchange

The Gauls were known to be clever: from here you have a great view of the port of Marseille, the cruise ships that have returned, the high-rise blocks of the Cités, the mountains rising above the sea in a veil of haze.

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In the year In 2013, Marseille became the European Capital of Culture. At that time, funds flowed into major cultural projects like the mucem, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations built into the old Fort Saint-Jean on the port; the Panier quarter was prettied up.

At that time, the GR 2013 was created, a long-distance hiking or circular route that leads through Marseille and numerous municipalities in Provence. It connects city and country, concrete and nature, sea, port and industrial ruins, streams, garbage dumps and gravel pits.

"Without the planning for the Capital of Culture, things would not have got off the ground so quickly," says Julie de Muer. "That gave us the opportunity to link our concept to tourism." The tours that Hôtel du Nord organizes are like that Bureau de Guides for the GR 2013 on the official Marseille tourism site, some are offered in English.

The cooperative wants to give people a voice and convey the historical heritage

Marching, walking, running, exploring one's own environment, re-appropriating history: that's what Hôtel du Nord is all about, but also the associated artist collectives, neighborhood groups who were tired of the fact that their city simply didn't belong to them. They reclaim it, explore it meter by meter, stone by stone. And those who are visiting from outside can join them – run, march. A tourism concept based on participation, on exchange and not on consumption or one-sidedness. And the nice thing is: you do it for yourself.

The “Artist Wanderers”

On a sunny Saturday morning at the end of March, around 25 people meet on the site of a former soap factory, which today offers studios and rehearsal sites for the independent scene. Projects with the kids from the nearby Cité Les Aygalades also take place here, a bus that has tilted on its side rises into the air as a monument.

Stéphane Brisset and Dalila Ladjal from the artist collective Safi belong to the "artistes-marcheurs", the "artist hikers" who helped to design the circular route of the GR 2013. They greet the group, which on this day includes more locals than foreigners. They add dimensions to the concept of running: taste, hear, smell, research. Everyone gets a booklet in which to collect blossoms and pollen during the excursion.

Pollen connect plant and animal life, and the excursion combines the beautiful with the useful: As part of the EU funded Life program The group will walk through a designated biosphere area, examining its soil conditions and plant diversity. Stéphane Brisset spreads out a card on the floor on which he can make notes. He carries his tools in a wooden case on his back.

A woman stands in front of a group of people

Julie de Muer shows nature in the city on tours Photo: Veronique Popinet/Lucas/imago

Today's tour takes you through rocky terrain past a waterfall of the Aygalades River to the Marseille Canal, which supplies the city with drinking water. When it was created in the 19th century, the river was left to industry with its waste and toxins. Only since industrial production has been discontinued or relocated has nature reclaimed its territory. "In Paris you don't feel the connection to nature," says Dalila Djabal as we walk. It's different in Marseille. Wind, water, mountains and wild plants are always present here.

What else can be discovered on the tour through the north: a summerhouse colony of former railway workers, a quarry, heathland, a public park opposite the Cité Les Aygalades, green at the end of March and not sun-bleached.

The Cité seems dead. Bridging the social distance won't be easy. Where schools are poorly equipped and where poverty, unemployment and crime determine everyday life, most people don't feel like going on excursions or going for walks. But when it comes to beautifying the surroundings, cleaning areas or corners, then residents of the cités also get involved.

Since she has been active at Hôtel du Nord, she has had a much more mixed social environment, says Julie de Muer, and she believes that she sees it as an advantage. “We used to think you had to go into the cités to make a difference. But it has been shown that it is much better if the residents can come out and escape the constraints of life in the Cité.” Often it is women and children.

Running is a cultural technique of the poor, writes the former city curator Christine Breton, who developed from it a sociology of the walk, the concept of hospitality and the "story factory", ideas that were incorporated into the Hôtel du Nord. Cultural heritage as living history, as interrelationship between the people who live there and those who come to visit.

Hotel du Nord has the Faro Convention of the Council of Europe signed, which grants everyone the right to participate in the cultural and natural heritage and to explore it in their own way. Then the only question is no longer: who owns the city? But: Who is running with you?

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