Beyond The Game: Marseille

We sent French street photographer Joanna Lemańska to Marseille so she could experience the city, its people and UEFA Europa League football. What she found was beauty, diversity and a rich collision of history and modernity on the Mediterranean.

Marseille — France’s second city on the south coast. Well renowned for being a Mediterranean melting pot of diversity with rich culture, history and art, many who know it would say it has a southern sensibility of its own. And then there is the accent — a warm and friendly singsong with long and lilting exaggerated drawls. I had been to Marseille only once before, many years ago, but that had been before I was into photography, so my souvenirs of that stay were vague. This trip, however, was to be different. I was travelling to Marseille to take in a UEFA Europa League match between Olympique de Marseille and Portuguese side S.C. Braga. My goal was to experience the passion of the fans, the players and the competition as a guest of Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and then head out into Marseille over the weekend to explore the city, its atmosphere and its surroundings.

Arriving in Marseille by TGV — the high speed train — we were directly immersed into the city’s ambience. Alighting at Saint-Charles railway station meant we were located right in the city centre. Marseille instantly felt different; the city had a palpably different vibe from what we had left behind in the north, not to mention temperature. Mediterranean sun meant the mercury was above 20 degrees in November. Colourful buildings were everywhere, and then there were the people, loud and smiling. All this filled us with joy. Even our hotel, Hôtel Dieu’s, with its imposing facade looking out over the Old Port, had a splendid view. We had arrived in Marseille.

But we were here to witness the football and its impact on the city. The sum of my soccer knowledge up to this point had been catching the odd moment on TV — seeing the fans, the teams and the action through the screen, hearing their excitement in low volume hums. I was now feeling the buzz of the UEFA Europa League at first hand, and I was excited to experience it. The game drew closer.

"For me, being able to spend the weekend in Marseille meant I was able to not only experience this “joie de vivre,” but I could capture more of it, meet the people who live it, take more photos and discover different parts of the city."

However, before the main event, I must tell you of the three days in Marseille. Three days. A long weekend. Time to explore. Certainly, it gave us enough time to confirm a few preconceived ideas of what we expected to find in the city. I had heard that Marseille is a way of life. Drinking pastis, playing pétanque, savoring bouillabaisse — all these things (and more) create a strong feeling of what French people call “joie de vivre.” For me, being able to spend the weekend in Marseille meant I was able to not only experience this “joie de vivre,” but I could capture more of it, meet the people who live it, take more photos and discover different parts of the city.

Several places became real highlights of our stay. Just next to the hotel, the Le Panier district with its colorful facades, old-world character and decorations, made me want to wander about the narrow streets every morning. It’s difficult not to fall in love with Le Panier and its artistic vibe. Some places in Marseille inspired me to do more street photography and portraits of people living there. The Old Port, Noailles district and Cours Julien were perfect to capture lively street scenes, fish markets, omnipresent street art and portraits.

Having a car at our disposal also allowed us to visit places like the Notre Dame de la Garde church and, located a short drive away, a famous Le Corbusier building — La Cité Radieuse. Seeing more distant parts of the city was a treat, but we were eager to return.

"From shooting the streets of Marseille and capturing the spirit of the city, I was now in one of the best spots to admire the Velodrome’s spectacular roof construction and feel the calm before the storm."

For now it was time. The game was upon us. After a little time spent at the hotel and a quick lunch in the nearby restaurant, we were greeted at the hotel lounge by our chaperone for the Thursday evening, Adeline. Chauffeured in a car, we headed toward the Velodrome stadium. I’d already noticed that the locals, so very diverse and elegant in their style and appearance, slowly began to take on uniformity. More and more football fans, both men and women, wearing blue gym suits — clearly supporting Olympique de Marseille — started to appear. The build-up had started. We were already a million miles from the experience of football I knew from the television.

On arrival, we were greeted by Nicolas from the UEFA team, who took us to visit the pitch side of the stadium. From shooting the streets of Marseille and capturing the spirit of the city, I was now in one of the best spots to admire the Velodrome’s spectacular roof construction and feel the calm before the storm. The fans were not yet there, and as I stood behind the goals, I realised this is the best place to take photos of the stadium's curved shape and of the tribunes and fan seats, empty before the match. Later on, we were lucky enough to visit the football commentators’ area and take in its breathtaking view on the stadium’s rooftop. So many views, so many perspectives …. and I saw them all in one visit to the Velodrome.

And then the game finally started. Comfortably installed in the business lounge, this was European football, only turbo-charged. Imagine a glass of champagne in one hand, delicious food in the other and your companion just next to you sharing the moment together. Well, that was it, in all its glory.

Fans who go to football regularly, who are familiar with the sounds, the songs of several thousands of people singing together at the stadium, whistling at the players, clapping their hands, stomping their feet, decrying every refereeing decision ... you will understand that watching a football match on TV can be fun, but to experience this true fan spirit is something else. After Olympique de Marseille scored the first and only goal of the match, the crowd went totally crazy with happiness, waving flags and screaming. If you ask me if it was what I had expected, I could only say that it was much better! To explore a city and be amongst its people on the streets, in the bars, in the restaurants and now to be alongside them as they win in Europe … c’est magnifique!

"Experiencing a European night in all its glory at the Vélodrome was the perfect way to cap a jaunt out of the capital."

I will surely return to Marseille as soon as possible, and I’d love to attend a football match here again, too. Spending days here and turning my Thursday into a long weekend of fun and discovery meant I could understand so much more of the city, and see that football is really an important part of the culture here, as much as pastis, pétanque and bouillabaisse. Experiencing a European night in all its glory at the Vélodrome was the perfect way to cap a jaunt out of the capital.

To find out more about our partnership as Official Rent-A-Car of the UEFA Europa League, visit our sponsorship page here.

You can see more of Joanna’s work in her online portfolio here.

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