Marseilles is undoubtedly a port city, with quays that stretch into the waters of the Mediterranean and fishing boats anchored in the harbor. Waterfront restaurants offer sea urchins fished from the depths and just-opened oysters still steeped in salty brine. Marseilles’ seaport is the product of far-flung worlds brought together, of shipping routes that date to the Phoenicians in the 6th century B.C.
But maneuver past the old port to the cobble-lined streets of the city, and you will move beyond the maritime throughway to the heart of old Provence. If you follow the Canebière away from the port and work your way through the narrow backstreets, you will discover a sandy boulodrome just beside the music conservatory. There the residents of Marseilles pass sun-drenched afternoons playing pétanque, a version of bocce ball or boules specific to southern France.
The origins of pétanque date to ancient Greece, and the spread of the Roman Empire brought an early version of the game to Provence. Players adapted the techniques over the centuries that followed. The modern rules of pétanque were formally created in the early 20th century, and it’s these regulations that guide the Marseillais who play in sandlots across the city.
You’ll know you’re close to a playing field when you notice the hollow clack of balls and the clink of ice in glasses. As you draw nearer, you’ll hear the sound of pastis being poured. Perhaps you will join the players for a glass. Or even a game. The citizens of Marseilles are fiercely proud of their pétanque skills, which they have honed beneath the blue Provencal sky. Try your own hand at pitching the boules and you will soon discover why this is one of the most pleasant ways to pass an afternoon in Marseilles.
Photo courtesy of http://eurokulture.missouri.edu/?cat=21