Life On Mars: A Postcard from France’s Most Vibrant City

French Translated Version

I felt both nervous and optimistic as the plane began its initial descent into Marseille during the autumn of 2018. At that point in my life, I was tired of the wet and cold of London and was ready to find sunshine in a cheaper city where I could skate through the upcoming winter.

I chose to move to France, with a one-way ticket, to teach English and improve my own understanding of the native language. Without having a concrete plan in mind, I wanted to stay for at least six months. I had visited Marseille for a week the previous summer. Other than a couple of acquaintances I had met during that holiday, I knew nobody else in the city. All I understood about my new home was that it was the oldest city in France—founded by the Greeks in 600 B.C.—and second largest in population after Paris.

One of the first skaters I met during my initial visit was Victor Campillo. He grew up in a small neighboring town, but really matured as a skater in the streets of Marseille. He introduced me to the majority of the locals, several of whom run a brand called Unemployed. Despite speaking broken French at a slow pace, everyone I met was welcoming and happy to recommend spots, restaurants, and bars. A couple Unemployed skaters invited me to join them in Cours Julien, the central hub of Marseille’s nightlife.

Ben Raitano, frontside flip.

Cours Julien, located in the La Plaine quarter, is a small neighborhood made up terraced cafés and bars, has street art on every corner, and houses the most eccentric of Marseille’s street urchins. I thought I had seen my share of characters on the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco; but, instead of drinking cans of Steel Reserve, Cours Julien locals drank bottles of the cheapest rosé. The majority of these folks are harmless and keep to their inner-ramblings. My favorite bar, What an Amazing World, or Waaw for short, is just down the street from the Notre Dame du Mont station and a good place to meet local skaters over a cheap pint.

Photo Credit: Brian Bunting
Cours Julien locals chilling with the skaters. Photo: Brian Bunting

Marseille is known as the commercial port of France; to this day the city center contains the original harbor—Vieux-Port. Centuries of trade brought an influx of immigrants from Italy, Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East, greatly diversifying the demographics of the city. Vieux-Port is the tourist hub of the city; because of this, pickpocketing can be very common here. I will say it is best to stay away from dimly-lit street corners and to keep your wits about you if you are drinking. As skaters, however, we are better than the average tourist at blending in with the locals and reading potentially sketchy situations.

Léo Loden, a local skater and professional fisherman, explains that the variety of nationalities in Marseille enriches the city’s culture. He notes that Marseille’s location on the Mediterranean Sea encourages a freer spirit than other cities in France: “We are open-minded, much like a city such as Barcelona. Personally, I think Marseille resembles Barcelona more than any other French city, especially Paris. Not because of spots, but because of similar mentalities on life.”

Marseille’s free spirit is most evident at the numerous beaches which hug the coastline. The best ones are found slightly south of the city center in an area known as Les Calanques. These large canyons, which lead down to the sea, can be accessed year-round but are most enjoyable in the summer. As is common in France, there are plenty of sunbathers who loath tan lines; to put it bluntly, there are many beautiful sights to behold. In the summer, many skate sessions get sidetracked for picnics and swimming in the warm, clean water.

Photo Credit: Brian Bunting
View of La Corniche Kennedy, a seaside road renamed after the U.S. president, which leads south towards Les Calanques.

Loden notes that the “melting-pot culture” of Marseille is further demonstrated by the fact that the wealthy and poor live side-by-side in the city center. He states, “everyone can live downtown. In Paris, this is impossible; the rent is super expensive.” Campillo shares a similar perspective to Loden when it comes to thinking about the city’s culture. Even in reference to bystanders, he feels that the Marseillais are more laid-back than their Parisian counterparts.

“I think the people are more open-minded, I see this when I’m skating. People are interested in what we are doing, even if they do not like skating. I’ve been told by random people, ‘It is cool what you do, but you are you are still destroying property.’ In Paris, people would just see you destroying something rather than the skating side. In Marseille, people are doing what they want—smoking hash in the streets for example. People light up in front of policemen, things like that. In Paris people are always looking over their shoulder when it comes to smoking. I think the police are worried about other things in Marseille, but also, they just do not care. They know that in Marseille it has always been like that; it is too late do really do anything about it.”

Julia Rolina, frontside tailslide at La Mairie
As Victor says, hash plays an intricate role in Marseille’s vibe. Here is some of Morocco’s finest.

On the topic of hash, Campillo also has a few things to say about Olympique de Marseille, the local football team. L’OM plays an intricate part of the city’s culture and the experience of a live game is definitely recommended. Even for those not interested in sports, for twenty euros it is definitely a good night out. The Marseillais are some of the proudest supporters in the country. Because the sale of alcohol is banned within the stadium, hours before the match the surrounding bars and streets are filled with people partying in preparation for the game ahead. Campillo states, “Many people come from other cities to witness the ambiance. I think the team is the most important thing in Marseille. If you ask someone on the street, ‘What is the most important thing for you in Marseille?’ The answer will be, ‘L’OM, or hash.’”

Here we have some L’OM supporters enjoying a house party, one wearing the home colors of white and light blue.

Another benefit to Marseille’s diversity is the variety of amazing food that can be found for cheap. Sur Le Pouce is a Tunisian restaurant that serves huge portions of couscous and the best fresh-mint tea I have ever had. When down near Vieux-Port, Pizza Capri offers amazing slices and if you feel like falafel, Au Falafel has the best in the city. The cheapest option is to grab a fresh baguette from a boulangerie and get creative with the many varieties of the finest cheeses and charcuterie in Europe.

Twenty-five years ago, the local government, the State, and European Union took measures to boost the city by launching the urban renewal project known as Euroméditerranée. By redeveloping vast sections of the city, the goal was to rebrand Marseille as a safer destination for tourists, university students, and young working professionals.

Before the renewal project, the city had few street spots. Loden explains that his generation of skaters skated the same small plaza, everyday, for years. The skaters that would visit from other parts of Europe or the United States were mostly focused on the bowl, located several miles south of the city center. The Bowl du Prado, built in 1991, was featured in Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2 and was made more famous by the Quiksilver Bowlriders contests in the early-to-mid-2000s. Built after the bowl, La Friche skatepark is more street-oriented and is a five-minute skate from St. Charles Station. Adjacent to the skatepark is Bud Skateshop, which has supported the local scene for years.

Thanks to the renewal project there has been a steady increase in new skate spots throughout the city over the last ten years. Two of the more popular spots are La Mairie, the mayor’s office, and Cathédrale La Major. La Major has a huge plaza with smooth ground and a granite ledge almost one hundred yards long. It also overlooks the new harbor, which has picturesque sunsets every clear evening. With a market up the street to grab refreshments, it is possible to spend hours skating here because it is not a bust whatsoever.

Jake Johnson at La Mairie.

La Mairie is the best spot the city has to offer and is about a five minute skate from La Major. The spot features granite ledges, successive sets of five stairs, and a huge bank. Because the plaza is located behind a government building—the mayor’s office—this spot is difficult to skate on weekdays. However, on the weekends it is definitely possible to get a good period of time there. Potentially the police will stop by on their rounds; usually they just give a verbal warning but will be more upset if they catch you again on the same day.

Campillo points out that in terms of the spot being a bust, city officials seemed more worried about noise than scuffing up the granite ledges.

“They do not care that we are destroying shit, it is more about noise. It is the the same at some of the other old buildings in the city. If they cared, they would probably redo the ledges, but they do not care about it. It has been a long time that the ledge is black from wax, and it is a pretty important building. If you do graffiti, they will erase it, but they do not care about damaging a ledge.”

La Mairie, along with other government buildings, were skated more frequently during the yellow-vest protests that occurred in 2018 and 2019. By law, all French motorists are required to have a high-visibility vest in their vehicle which should be worn in the event of an accident to prevent roadside injury. When the French government announced a rise in fuel prices, the citizens took to the streets, wearing the vests as a form of protest. After several weeks of public demonstrations, the working-class’ disapproval of the fuel tax developed into an overall distaste of President Macron and the French elite. Each Saturday, thousands of people marched throughout the major cities, which created a great diversion for skaters all over the country. With all the police regulating the demonstrations, many spots became bust-free. Even though Macron has made promises to improve living standards for the working-class, there has yet to be many concrete changes. At the time I am writing this, many French workers are still unhappy with the current state of affairs.

Benjamin Frayce, ollie at La Mairie with the InternContinental Hotel in the background

Loden explains that tourist skaters in Marseille tend to have a positive impact on the scene. They bring a new perspective to street skating, which serves as a motivation to the locals. Perhaps it is simply their famous Mediterranean hospitality, but the locals welcome tourists and hope to show them a good time.

“The new heads change everything; the tourists help create a movement. Skating is not a sport, it is a passion that you share with others. This passion should be shared with visitors because it boosts the scene.”

Campillo also notes that American skaters who have visited have definitely helped the scene grow. He explains how for the past several years, some US Converse riders have visited to film with Ryan Gershell. Perhaps enticed by the many different hill spots that surround the city, these Americans have brought an approach to skating that the Marseillais had not considered.

“It is a different way of skating, of living too. They are really into skating, and will do anything for skating, such as fixing spots. For some locals here, they would never think about that,” Campillo said.

A closer image of Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Even when it comes to walking around the city seeking out spots in different neighborhoods, most local skaters do not see that as common practice. The laid-back mentality that a lot of the skaters have means that sessions are rarely forced. It is an activity that happens at its own pace. This is why skate tourism really sparks the local scene, because visitors see spots in a different way. Campillo states, “I think it’s important to show [visiting teams] the best parts of the city. We are starting to see more and more people coming to skate, which is always refreshing.”

After living there, I could see Marseille’s potential to grow as a destination to skate. The city is small enough to skate from spot to spot, but big enough to provide a variety of terrain. I like to think of the city as an early 2000s-era Barcelona. There is an abundance of things to skate that have not yet been completely blown out by visiting skaters. In this way, I feel like it is a hidden gem of the Mediterranean. Since living there, I have begun to see more and more video clips that feature the city; I feel like this will be a growing trend.

When I discussed this with Loden, he agreed that skating in Marseille, to use the French word, is experiencing a “renaissance.” He adds, “Skating in Barcelona is a bit more touristic. There are so many people at the spots and everything has been over-skated, everything has been done. Barcelona is a place to ‘come up’ as a skater and a place to show off. In Marseille, everyone skates together, no matter your skill level or age.”

Benoit “Beuz” Arroyo, drop in to ride-on 5-0. Beuz is a full-time doctor, a pulmonologist, and is super driven to skate every weekend.

Loden is optimistic for the future of skating in his hometown. He feels that the city, like most cities these days, consists of two distinct groups of skaters. Because of the era he grew up skating, Loden has never understood the appeal of Street League, not to mention skateboarding becoming an Olympic sport. He sees the skatepark skaters, who take a more athletic approach by training to master their best trick and lines, as being very dry. Luckily, there are plenty of younger skaters in Marseille who have no interest in that style of skating.

“As long as there are skaters that are interested in the streets and the architecture, that is good. I was worried because of Street League and the Olympics influencing the young skaters here, but it was not exactly the case. The way I see it, skateparks are OK to skate and have fun at, but street skating is the best way to experience Marseille. Personally, I’m not worried about the future of skating for Marseille. We have always had a good ambiance for skating here, since the beginning.”

In the end, I ended up living in Marseille for eight months, two more than I had originally planned. Having grown up in Los Angeles, it was mind-blowing to live in a cheap city where I didn’t have to rely on a car to go skate, people partied in the streets, and I was able to learn a new language. In June 2019, as I was leaving the city to return to the United States, I knew that I would miss this incredibly unique place. I am now writing this from my hometown, with the plan of returning to Marseille later this year. Despite the crazy idea to completely uproot and start afresh in a new city, I am beyond satisfied that I took the plunge.

Antoine Riviere, ollie in the narrow streets that lead up to Cours Julien. I am indebted to Antoine for helping me get on my feet in Marseille—cheers mate.
Sunset on the Mediterranean.

Elliott Wright has been a friend of Transworld for many years, you can follow him on IG @leftwrightcenter


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