Help Wanted at Place Castellane


It was a Saturday evening and we had a last minute idea to enjoy a pizza and a movie at the Place Castellane. We had no expectation that a tame weekend outing would show a bit of Marseille’s wild side.

Just a ten-minute walk from our apartment, Place Castellane is a lively area and has everything you want. The place itself is a rond point, a roundabout, with a stream of circling cars. The baroque La Fontaine Cantini, built in 1908, sits in the middle and is topped by an obelisk, an architectural element that is dramatically illuminated at night so as to be easily seen from up and down the boulevards that flow into the place. On one side there is a metro stop that allows pedestrians to avoid the commotion of Renaults and Vespas and cross underground.

As you walk around the circle, most of the sidewalk is made up of outdoor seating for cafes, brasseries, and restaurants. Each has its respective (usually smaller) establishment inside, but outside is where you find the action. Unless it is raining, you find people. With the cooler temperatures, you will find see-through wind barriers and outdoor heaters, but you always find people. When the local professional football team — l’Olympique de Marseille, known as OM — plays, or any other football or rugby match is on, wide screens appear amid the outdoor seats. There are also snack food counters such as L’Authentique, a spot favored by students where you can find sandwiches such as the inexplicably named sandwich americain, where the French fries are stuffed into the sandwich. (And this sandwich is found all over France!)

A big feature of Place Castellane is the large outdoor market called the Marche du Prado named after the boulevard it stretches along going south from the place. Every day of the week from morning until mid-day except on Sunday there is every sort of food vendor as well as clothing and other non-perishable product vendor. On Saturdays you can cross the street and enjoy the sight and smell of numerous flower vendors. The vendors are often colorful and extremely polite and patient. Peggy is fast becoming loyal to a craggy bread seller who offers tastes and extreme discounts before closing time.

We headed for the Le Cesar cinema on the place to see a movie. The movie was scheduled to start at 10:15 PM. Since it was around 8 PM, we thought we had time even though we have learned that when you dine in France — whether for lunch or dinner, whether in a modest brasserie or nicer restaurant — you should never be in a hurry.

It turns out the next day on Sunday was a big event, the Marseille-Cassis Classique Internationale semi-marathon run and 10K walk in the mountains south of Marseille that attracts thousands from all over France. (We had previously tried to register for the walk but were too late.) So the restaurants were busier than normal.

We chose a pizzeria just off the plaza because the weather was quite warm for mid-October and there were a few outdoor tables empty among the diners. The order went predictably, but after a while we noticed that the group of five next to us who had been there before us had no plates of food. More time passed and no action. An interesting couple sat on the other side of us: a not quite passable transvestite with a rough looking man, both drinking wine and smoking heavily, with no food before them. Continuing a theme, we noticed a lesbian couple nearby, but they were enjoying a pizza. A man wearing a kepah came in and sat down with friends. Meanwhile, large groups of people entered the indoor restaurant.

After more time, our young waiter appeared with two pizzas (in France, often each person orders a plate-sized pizza rather than one to share) looked at our paper ticket tucked into a corner of our table and walked away and began a tour of the entire outdoor eating area looking for the pizzas’ proper home. Unsuccessful, he set down the pizzas on an open table and crossed the street between the outdoor seating to return to the restaurant. A bit later he returned and picked up the pizzas and walked to our table, looked at our ticket again, and delivered the pizzas to us.

We noticed that some of the group of five had been served food, but not all. They continued to talk and laugh good naturedly.

Suddenly, an ambulance with lights flashing pulled up in front of the restaurant and we saw a man being helped from the restaurant into the ambulance. We started talking to the group of five and learned that they were participating in the semi-marathon the next day and that they were mostly amused by the goings on.

Four women walked into the outdoor area hoping to be seated, but the now harried waiter pointedly ignored them. They looked at each other and walked out.

Suddenly, the transvestite leaped up from her table, grabbed a carafe of water, crossed the street, and entered the restaurant, leaving her drinking and smoking companion alone.

By now we had missed the movie but since we were enjoying the reality show – and the pizzas were excellent – we didn’t care.

I went into the restaurant to pay knowing that waiting for a check was foolhardy. I found chaos inside. There were numerous diners on the first floor and the second floor. Next to the cashier, there was the transvestite, sweating as she madly washed dishes! The cashier stand was a mess of papers.

We again spoke to the group of five runners and learned that the injured person taken away in the ambulance was a server who had cut his hand on a wine glass and that the restaurant owner herself had fallen in the kitchen and was out of commission! Heartlessly, we all laughed together.

On this night at a pizzeria on the Place Castellane, Marseille earned its reputation for craziness, diversity, and a resigned acceptance of the vagaries of life.


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3 Responses to “Help Wanted at Place Castellane”

  1. Anne & Mark Templeman Says:

    Hi Rudy and Peggy,

    A short note to wish you both ‘Joyeux Noël’ and a happy New year. Enjoying reading about your adventures in Marseille.

    Mark & Anne – England

  2. Gloria and Karl Says:

    Hi there, well needless to say, I want to go to this restaurant! Because I teach multiculturalism and diversity, I’ll be able to deduct the meal ! Love, Glo

  3. veronique HIRBEC Says:

    What a terrible experience this place @ Castellane !!!! it doesn’t excite us much about coming back !!!!

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