on julia child in marseille with her own words
Marseille’s hot noise was so different from Paris’s cool sophistication. To many of our northern-French friends it was terra incognita: they had never been here, and considered it a rough, rude, “southern” place. But it struck me as a rich broth of vigorous, emotional, uninhibited Life—a veritable “bouillabaisse of a city,” as Paul put it. —Julia Child, My Life in France
A few years ago I read Julia Child’s autobiography My Life in France. I was curious about it for three reasons: I cook from her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she had lived in Paris, and she had briefly lived in Marseille.
I spend a good amount of time in both cities, and I have a digital copy of her cookbook on my laptop. I consider those good enough reasons to remember her and to imagine her life in Marseille in 1953 and 1954.
I took some passages from My Life in France and put them in italics. I wanted her words to describe what she and Paul, her husband, saw and felt. Except for the hotel where they stayed when they first arrived in Marseille, she was specific about where they lived, the two apartments, even giving the addresses.
I decided to look for those apartment buildings and a 2018 version of their lives.
We arrived in Marseille with our minds open, hope in our hearts, and with our taste buds poised for new flavors. It was just turning 5:00 p.m. on March 2, 1953, when the heavily loaded Tulipe Noire rolled to a stop in front of our little hotel.
My natural inclination was to go out and explore while Paul was at work. But in order to get anything done, I forced myself to keep regular office hours at the hotel. There, my Royal portable typewriter was my steady companion. With no household or marketing work to distract me, I began to catch up on my correspondence and continued to research our cookbook.
APARTMENT #1—VEUX PORT
I paced around our little hotel room. It was cute, but we needed more space. To get rid of my restless energy, I decided to look at rental apartments. The first one I saw struck me as a fake Art Nouveau gnome’s-hut type of place. Then I saw a tasteless circa-1900 stinker. Then I saw a small apartment on the fifth floor of a building on the Vieux Port, overlooking the fishing fleet. It was owned by a Swedish diplomat who had gone home to recuperate from tuberculosis; the caveat was that once his health improved he could return to Marseille at any time. That didn’t appeal. But after a few more days of living out of a suitcase in that dim, cramped hotel room, we decided to take the tubercular Swede’s apartment while we looked for a more permanent roost.
Our new rental apartment was located at 28-A Quai de Rive Neuve, on the fifth floor of a pale-beige Art Deco building with distinctive wave-patterned metal railings. It was a small space, but charming, and it had marvelously expansive views over the Vieux Port and its fishing fleet. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
In the United States we count first the ground floor when determining how many floors are in a building. In France the first floor above the street level is called the first floor. The ground floor is called the rez-de-chaussée. When Julia Child writes that they moved into a fifth floor apartment, was she referring to a fifth floor French apartment or an American fifth floor apartment?
If Julia and Paul had stepped out of their apartment on the Vieux Port today and were looking across the Vieux Port from the entrance to their building, they would see many many boats, mostly for pleasure, few that are fishing craft. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
One evening in May, we heard a lot of excited shouting from the street below. The fishing fleet had gotten into a big run of tuna. Boats kept pulling up to the quay just outside, and until midnight there was continuous shouting and the wet Smack! Smack! Smack! of heavy fish being heaved off the boats onto the stones below, then reheaved into trucks packed with ice. While the run was on, the fishermen just kept going all day and night. It was a beautiful scene to look down on from our balcony at night—thousands of flashing silver tuna, all about the same size, slithering this way and that in blood-pinkened water under the arc lights, while big bow-legged guys in sou’wester pants and bare feet lifted and pushed with a sort of primal urgency.
I couldn’t resist, and bought a big slice of tuna, its flesh bright red. The market ladies said to soak it in vinegar and water, to avoid an overly fishy taste, which I did for five hours. The flesh turned almost white. Then I braised it with a purée de tomates, oignons étuvés à l’huile, champignons, vin blanc, and quelques herbes. Marvelous!
This research got me fussing around the fish markets—I especially loved the open-air market near the Rue de Rome, and the Criée aux Poissons, the wholesale market on the Vieux Port. There must have been ten million brilliantly colored little swimmers there, many of them native only to these waters. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
The fish market on the Vieux Port is not the same. It is much smaller and concentrated near the metro station. Tables with fish line the edge along a good part of the Quai. Shoppers with bags compete with tourists with cameras jostle for space along them. Some go to the Marché des Capucins and avoid the crowds.
LOOKING FOR CHEZ GUIDO
And I had discovered two nice little restaurants that specialized in fish. One of them, Chez Guido, was the very good restaurant on Rue de la Paix of the eponymous and charming Chef Guido. He had been dans le métier since he was ten years old. He was a real gentleman, an absolute perfectionist, and he deserved at least two stars from the Guide Miche, though he hadn’t been open long enough to earn any at all.
Chez Guido is gone. Rue de la Paix is still there near her apartment, but it is now called Rue de la Paix Marcel Paul. Let’s take a short walk along it and look for possible locations for Chez Guido.
At the corners of Rue de la Paix, now Rue de la Paix Marcel Paul, where it intersects with the Quai de Rive Neuve on the Vieux Port, are the modern restaurants O’Malley’s Irish Pub, which has a Happy Hour between 17:00 and 21:00 each evening, and Oscar’s Bagels & Sandwiches. Further along the street heading south away from the Vieux Port, one passes Little Temple Bar, La Mamma, Le Moyen-Orient with a specialty in Syrian and Lebanese foods, and Le Kashmir Lounge with a specialty in Indian and Pakistani foods, to name a few.
Then one comes to the the Place aux Huiles where there are many many restaurants. Needless to say most of them, if not all of them, did not exist 65 years ago when Julia and Paul Child moved to Marseille. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
Further along and straight ahead are some stairs ascending to rue Sainte where Rue de la Paix Marcel Paul continues. It does not look promising. Close to rue Sainte are some fronts that could have been a restaurant once upon a time. If I were making a bet, I would place Chez Guido somewhere between Place aux Huiles and Quai de Rive Neuve.
The weather in Marseille was extraordinary. At first, we’d had day upon day of California-bright skies and cool air. But one afternoon the sun was hidden behind thick, dark clouds, which made me feel gloomy and restless. With no sun, there was no point in riding a boat out to visit the famous Château d’If, or in exploring the villages-perchés (hill towns) in the arrière-pays (back country) we’d heard so much about.
Julia Child does not say in My Life in France whether she and Paul took a boat ride out the Château d’If. She does write about other tourist adventures they had. They drove, for example, along the coast toward Cannes, and along the way stopped at La Ciotat for a picnic.
Taking a boat out to the Château d’If is popular today. The boat ride extends to the other islands in the ￼Frioul archipelago.
I’d heard about a bigger apartment for rent up on the hill, and decided to take a look. It was on the seventh floor of a newish building on the leafy Boulevard de la Corderie. It had a wide-spreading view over all the old city, a slummy area, the port, the sea, and the Vauban fortress. There were little balconies on the north and south sides, and sunlight flooded into the back all afternoon. It had six rooms, red-tiled floors, a big kitchen, enough room in the cellar for a wine cave; everything was bright, clean, workable, tasteful. But the rent was at the very top of our government allowance. We took it anyway.
On our first day at 113 Boulevard de la Corderie, we sat on the sunny back balcony with our shirts off and ate lunch. It was such a nice feeling that we planned to do it every chance we got. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
The apartment building on Boulevard de la Corderie where the Childs used to live no longer exists. Today it is a construction site with large trucks coming and going. Whether it will be apartments, businesses, or both is not clear.
Their building has been torn down, and that has encouraged me to speculate what it might have looked like in 1953. I looked along Boulevard de la Corderie and a short distance away at buildings along Avenue de la Corse. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
Julia writes that it was “a newish building,” which would eliminate the older building close by and on the same side of Boulevard de la Corderie. Across the street at 112 Boulevard de la Corderie is an Art Deco building similar in style to the one on Vieux Port. Nearby on Avenue de la Corse are several similar buildings which could stand in for their apartment building.
One day I joined Paul for a business trip to Cannes, which was about four hours east of Marseille by car. We took six hours, in order to explore the windy side roads. What a beautiful countryside. The hills rising from the coast were all golden with flowering mimosa. In a little beach town called La Ciotat, where Charlie and Paul had visited in the 1920s, we stopped for a picnic lunch on the edge of the sea. We sat in the hot sun on flat rocks in a strong breeze.
La Ciotat is a lovely, charming town. Cassis is better known. I prefer La Ciotat. (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.)
On a recent visit, I discovered that Napoleon, as a captain of the artillery, had stayed in a house in La Ciotat the 4th and 5th of September, 1793 while preparing the siege of Toulon.
Taking the #69 bus to La Ciotat from Marseille is simple enough if you can locate the Halte routière Sud stop near Place Castellane. It is at the convergence of Avenue Jules Cantini and rue de Rouet. At the end of the route is the bus station, which is next to the tourist office and is a good place to get off.