For almost a century, traders at Marseille’s Marché des Capucins have taken their morning coffee or pastis standing shoulder to shoulder at the curved zinc counter of Café Prinder. No longer, thanks to Covid-19. “C’est interdit,” says manager Pierre Auteroche – known to all as Pierrot – his blue surgical mask hanging around his neck as he eats lunch. “It’s a shame but that’s the way it is.” The cafe is empty except for two customers sitting at separate tables. “It’s the first day of our reopening,” shrugs Pierrot. “Let’s see what happens.” 

Prinder is one of the longest-running establishments in Noailles, a quartier known locally as the “belly” of Marseille, France’s oldest city. Outside on the market square, shoppers haggle at stalls spilling with seasonal fruit and vegetables from Provence. With restaurants across France closed from March until Tuesday this week, farmers have struggled to sell the resulting glut of produce. 

The dense warren of surrounding streets is a culinary microcosm of Marseille’s diverse population: there are Corsican fishmongers, halal butchers, Vietnamese grocery stores, Moroccan patisseries, Lebanese bakeries and west African canteens. Most cafes and restaurants reopened yesterday in accordance with the government’s second phase of déconfinement, but a number remain shuttered. 

Other Noailles stalwarts such as the cavernous Maison Empereur, France’s oldest quincaillerie – hardware store – have been open for weeks. Staff there report an increase in sales of traditional Savon de Marseille, a local soap made from olive oil, as people increased hand-washing during the pandemic. Further up the street, septuagenarian tailor Elhadji Sarr has started selling washable masks made from printed waxed fabric from Dakar. 

Mustapha Kachetel at restaurant Femina, known for its couscous

l’orge – made with barley

The business of food – whether shopping for it or eating – has always been an intimate affair in the bustling narrow lanes of Noailles. Now masked shopkeepers plead with their predominantly masked clientele to observe distancing as they queue. Most restaurant owners have spent the months of lockdown redesigning their premises in the hope their businesses – many of them family-owned for several generations – will survive the new realities.

For Femina, an Algerian restaurant famous for its barley couscous, social distancing requirements mean only 30 customers are allowed at any one time; it used to seat 100 diners pre-coronavirus. “It’s a huge challenge,” says owner Mustapha Kachetel, “but we have a loyal customer base and that’s what we’re counting on.” It’s a similar refrain elsewhere. “We’re not afraid,” says Gabrielle de Drezigue at Chez Sauveur, a renowned pizzeria opened by Sicilian emigrés in 1943. “Our customers go back generations.”

Around the corner at La Mercerie, a former haberdashery reinvented as a restaurant two years ago, Laura Vidal and her colleagues are preparing to reopen this weekend. “There’s a lot of solidarity in the neighbourhood,” she says. “We’re hopeful for the future and excited to welcome people back.” Like many, she expects Marseille to benefit from the anticipated influx of Parisians unable or unwilling to holiday abroad this summer. 

Masked man at Saladin spice shop in Noailles

Waiting to welcome customers at Saladin spice shop in Noailles

Many Marseillais like to think of themselves as hardy survivors given the city’s often difficult past. The folk memory of La Grande Peste of 1720, when one of Europe’s last outbreaks of bubonic plague wiped out half the city’s population, remains strong. The plague dead are commemorated with street names and statues. 

Noailles was the scene of a more recent tragedy in November 2018, when dilapidated buildings on rue Aubagne, one of its main arteries, collapsed, killing eight people. “We’ve been punched three times in less than two years,” says one shop owner on rue Aubagne. “The disaster of 2018, the impact of the gilets jaunes, and now the virus.” The death of Pape Diouf, a former chairman of beloved local football team Olympique de Marseille, from coronavirus in his native Senegal in March seemed to make the pandemic all the more real for people here.

Before Covid-19 struck, Marseille was due to host the Manifesta art biennale in June. Now a reworked programme will tbe held in August. Joke Quintens, an adopted Marseillaise from Belgium, has brought visiting delegations from across Europe as part of her Moving Marseille cultural initiative. “Marseille has faced many challenges throughout its history,” she says. “Resilience is part of its DNA.”

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