The first city in a country – often the capital or a port or perhaps simply the biggest – almost always seems to get the most attention, and while tourists flock there in droves, it takes a traveller with a slightly different outlook to skip them and their iconic sites and head to the second cities instead. Armchair travellers can make a vicarious exploration of Marseille with Nicholas Hewitt's entertaining book. Perhaps an actual visit may be inspired upon completion of reading.

What we should know of Marseille is that it is the largest French city on the Mediterranean coast and historically has been the country's most significant shipping port. Its current population of some 860,000 is dwarfed by the 2.2 million people of Paris, but it has a history that stretches back centuries before Paris conceivably existed (with cave paintings in the region dating back to 27,000-19,000 BC, compared to 9000-7500 BC for the oldest ruins found in Paris). Today Marseille's 4 million or so visitors a year stands against the capital's almost 18 million.

Hewitt takes us deep into the city. As we learn, Marseille "is a thoroughly ambiguous place. As France's second city and its major port, its impact on the national imagination is unparalleled. Yet it is also a frontier city, arguably capital of the Mediterranean, and with a traditionally suspect allegiance to the French nation. This apartness, and the city's long and rich history as home to migrants, workers and organised criminals, has cemented its association in the popular imagination with exoticism and illicit activity".

The city is introduced as one of Europe's greatest and most spectacular deep-water ports, rivalling the panorama of the Bay of Naples. It was the undisputed gateway to France's empire: from North Africa, geographically as close as Paris, to Senegal and the African colonies and, through the Suez Canal (constructed by Marseille's adopted son Fernand de Lessops) to Annam, Tonkin and Cochin-China.

Not only is Marseille the oldest city in the country, founded by Phocean traders from Asia Minor in 600 BC – "although the highly sophisticated Gaulish population already there to greet them might have disputed this," Hewitt remarks – it has, over the intervening centuries, acquired a reputation as France's most cosmopolitan city through the assimilation of waves of migrants.

These included rural French from the north, Catalans and Spaniards, Piedmontese and Neapolitans, refugees from the southern and eastern Mediterranean, Jews from North Africa, Greeks, Corsicans, Armenians fleeing genocide and increasing numbers from North and West Africa, all with their own customs and cultures but all relatively harmoniously integrated.

However, as a frontier and port town Marseille had all the attendant lawlessness and disorientation, and was overshadowed by its international reputation as a "Wicked City". In 1935 King Alexander I of Yugoslavia and the French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou were assassinated as they progressed along the main thoroughfare, the Canebière, on a state visit, and in 1938 a fire engulfed the Nouvelles Galeries department store, again on the Canebière, taking 77 lives and reinforcing the perception of corruption and inefficiency at the heart of Marseille municipal government.

This latter body was shored up by organised crime, clientelist politics and the political dominance of the Communist Party and the Confédération Générale du Travail (General Confederation of Labour) union confederation.

Marseille, then, could appear intimidating. There is a contrast between the port in its heyday and the loss of local identity and national importance after World War One. Looking at the dual forces that drove its post-war transformation, its decolonisation and immigration, and its adoption and development by local cultural figures, Hewitt assesses that it is Marseille's elusive, pluralist nature that "truly makes it a great city, and so there can be no strictly linear or reductively thematic path to understanding it, its art or its people".

Here we find the story of Zarafa, a giraffe that arrived in Marseille's Vieux-Port on October 31, 1826. She was a gift from the Ottoman Khedive of Egypt to King Charles X designed to win French support in the Greek War of Independence. The voyage from Alexandria had taken 32 days and, after wintering in Marseille, Zarafa completed the journey to Paris on foot over 41 days, with huge crowds greeting her at every stage.

The story illustrates how Marseille was the natural French port of arrival from the Middle East, that it was associated in the French imagination with the outlandish, and that a sea voyage from Alexandria was quicker than a journey to Paris by land.

In 1844 the first instalment of Alexandre Dumas' novel "Le Comte de Monte-Cristo" appeared and the subsequent episodes and the publication of the novel in 1846 went on to make the city and the Chateau d'If fortress at the mouth of its harbour internationally famous.

Then there is "La Marseillaise", the national anthem of France, composed in one night in 1792 during the French Revolution by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, a captain of the engineers and amateur musician, to meet the need for a marching song for French troops fighting Austria. Rouget de Lisle was quartered in Strasbourg at the time and the piece was originally titled "Chant de guerre de l'armée du Rhin" ("War Song of the Army of the Rhine"), but came to be called "La Marseillaise" because of its popularity with volunteer army units from Marseille.

There is Émile Zola's novel "Les Mystères de Marseille" of 1867, which provides a picture of the city in the 1840s, and other important works such as painter Emile Loubon's large canvas "Une Vue de Marseille prise des Aygalades un jour de marché" (A View of Marseille Taken from the Aygalades on a Market Day) from 1853, and novelist Alphonse Daudet's "Tartarin de Tarascon" written in 1872 and characterising the city's cosmopolitanism and exoticism.

Hewitt also shows us Marseille in photography, theatre, reportage, crime fiction and film. From the 1870s a stream of avant-garde artists visited, including Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Paul Signac and the Fauves group, culminating in Georges Braque's visit in 1908 and his extended stay in 1910 that marked his transition to Cubism.

Braque's "Viaduc a l'Estaque" is one of the photos in Hewitt's book, along with Zarafa, the Marseille Exposition Coloniales of 1906 and 1922, investigative journalist Albert Londres, the imposing steel Transporter Bridge built in 1905 (their own Eiffel Tower) and destroyed by enemy action in 1944, poet, playwright and novelist Jean-Claude Izzo and more.

Cinematically, there is Marcel Pagnol's famous trilogy "Marius" (1931), "Fanny" (1932) and "César" (1936), and the Olympique de Marseille football club, founded in 1899 and becoming a major source of municipal pride and cohesion.

It is all part of Hewitt's "series of snapshots", and he is our knowledgeable guide to France's second city with a mystique and culture all its own. Sad to say, Hewitt died a year ago less than a month after completing the text of "Wicked City", which remains as a nice testament to his compendious knowledge.

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