Local skateboarder Alex Attali is no stranger to speed and adrenaline when riding the ramps. Now, on a drive through his colourful, coastal, wind-whipped hometown in the MINI John Cooper Works Paceman, that racing feeling is transferred to the road.
You could live in Marseille your entire life and still never know this place existed. It's hidden away in forested hills above a southern part of the city, where pavements are replaced by fragrant pine trees, and the drone of traffic by the buzzing of crickets or the howl of a mistral wind.
Walk for 15 minutes up a gravelly track until the terracotta-roofed Provençal houses disappear behind you, and eventually you'll come across an abandoned warehouse, once part of a quarry. Now its crumbling walls are covered in graffiti, and its dusty floors have been cemented into makeshift ramps. To some it's just a tumbledown building; to others it's immediately recognisable as a skate park. But for one particular Marseille-born skateboarder, it's a work of art.
Alex Attali rides the ramps here like he was born on them - swiftly, smoothly, effortlessly - and he knows every beam in the warehouse like he knows the back of his own hand. He spent five years lugging cement up this hillside, after all, as the willing assistant to older, pro skaters such as Jérémie Grynblat and Mehdi Salah. Back in 2007, it was these boys who undertook to build the park.
Leaning up against the bonnet of the MINI John Cooper Works Paceman, Alex admires his hometown.
With a mutual mission, a shared dream, the skateboarders didn't give up, and now the park is a nucleus for the city's skating community, with the layers of spray-paint on its crumbling walls testament to a determined half-decade of sweat, toil and history. Alex describes the skate park as "something that's shaped me, a part of me, totally integral to who I am". From the top of a ramp he surveys the space.
"This is our finest creation," he says, beaming. "Just don't tell anyone where it is!"
Click on a picture to launch the image gallery (6 images)
After a two-hour session in the park, Alex scrambles back down to the foot of the hill, his gleaming MINI John Cooper Works Paceman in Absolute Black and Chili Red there to greet him. Beyond it, the city of Marseille unfolds, with its unique mix of farmhouses, high-rises, graffiti-slathered streets and hilly, vivid green vistas. It's an idiosyncratic place, both rebellious and endearing, with strong youth culture, a vibrant street art scene, Provençal flavour, urban grittiness and 300 sublime days of sunshine per year.
Marseille is also an active city, a city on the move, home to countless tennis courts, football pitches, motocross tracks and kite-surfing shacks. For an energetic local like Alex - dashing between home in Cours Julien, university in Saint-Charles, the secret warehouse and the concrete skate bowl by the beach - there's no better way to navigate it than from behind the wheel of the speedy MINI John Cooper Works Paceman, with its lowered suspension, ultra-powerful engine, athletic appearance and high-performance brakes.
The MINI John Cooper Works Paceman takes pride of place at the beachside skate park.
Skateboard in boot, key in ignition, and the car springs to life. "I love the rush of driving," Alex says, "the freedom that it brings. It's like dropping in for the very first time on a vert ramp, knowing that anything is achievable." A drive in his hometown is as varied and colourful as the city itself, zipping past Algerian souk-like bazaars, crumbling concrete tower blocks, sprawling fish markets, narrow streets lined with pastel-painted shops, legendary Le Corbusier landmarks and coastal boulevards running along a wind-whipped sea.
On one of these coastal stretches, in the 8th arrondissement, is another skate park, less obscure and evocative than the other but still striking with its azure Mediterranean view. "This was where I first saw world championship skaters competing," recalls Alex. "I decided then to take up the sport, and I've never looked back."
Just a few years later Alex was competing himself, mastering new tricks, driving across Europe to seek out new skate spots, living and breathing the culture. "Some of my best memories are of skate trips with friends, hitting the open road, driving to Hamburg, to the Basque Country, to wherever the mood takes me."
Alex's wanderlust, however, will always be secondary to his love of his hometown, and his travels end with him zooming back down the motorway in the MINI John Cooper Works Paceman to that concrete bowl by the beach. "Marseille is an amazing city," he says, "the best place in the world to ride ramps, to party and to live in the fast lane."
Soaking up the sunshine and the ocean, the shops, galleries and al fresco eateries, the dazzling street murals and the mix of ultra-contemporary architecture (such as the Zaha Hadid-designed futuristic office tower) and traditional 17th-century Provençal dwellings, it's easy to share Alex's gushing enthusiasm for Marseille and to appreciate why it's been named European Capital of Culture for 2013.
Towards the end of the day at the beachside skate park, an evening wind whips up, and the usual throng of skaters begins to disperse. Alex makes to return to his MINI John Cooper Works Paceman to drive home before deciding impulsively to attempt one last trick. From the top of the ramp he lets go, succumbing to gravity, flying down one side of the bowl and up the other, into the air.
For a moment he's weightless, soaring, his black silhouette framed against an empty sky. Time stops for a split second, and in that instant Alex Attali feels free. But then his feet find the wooden deck, the energetic pace of life resumes, and he's speeding back to earth.