The art of living in Sormiou
All round the Mediterranean basin there is a thousand year-old tradition that people leave the city in the summer to escape the suffocating temperatures. All those villas – Roman then Italian – bear witness to it. So the Marseille cabanon is not a particularly original concept, but, surrounded by a certain mystery and mystique – as if it were a secret known only to the true marseillais – the cabanon has become a central element in local culture.
The cabanon's entry into folkore, which dates from around 1840, the same time that the archetypes of the Marseille character and his town began to appear. Francois Mazuy, author of Essai historique sur les mœurs et coutumes des Marseillais au XIXe siècle [Historical Essay on the Customs of the People of Marseille in the 19th Century] published in 1853, wrote "It needs someone from Marseille to describe a cabanon and its health-giving influence on the ways of this almost unknown population. The cabanon! Here it is on the page, this word which makes so many people who know nothing of the southern way of life shrug their shoulders!" Indeed the cabanon alone focusses all the main points of the supposed Marseille character: difficult of get to know, but generous once he knows you, he is synonymous with the sun and good humour, of doing nothing, tall stories, fishing, bouillabaisse and aioli and of course games of cards and boules. The marseillais as he is described in late 19th century literature (Delord, Labiche, Méry) had a reputation for authenticity, closeness to nature and lack of sophistication "My wildest dream is nothing more than that: a little cabanon, no bigger than a pocket handkerchief, on the water's edge, by some rocks," sang Albert, a Marseille operetta singer between the wars, son-in-law of the composer Vincent Scotto
Central element of Marseille's folklore and culture, the cabanon is nonetheless a very real thing, anchored in a long historical tradition. From the 17th century, the descriptions of the marseillais are clear about that, their hunger for the countryside, reinforced in the 18th and 19th centuries by their fear of epidemics (plague in 1720 or cholera in 1832 and 1884). Each social class had its own refuge: bastides and villas for the elite, cabanons for the people. The origins of the cabanon are indeed rooted in a cabin, a simple shelter, traditional throughout the Provencal countryside, which, transferred to the coast, became a fisherman's cabin. However, as the song has it, "a cabanon is not a cabin". The word in fact describes a small home-from-home outside the town, where the marseillais go to spend their Sundays and holidays. The land around Marseille was parcelled up into small plots, for in the 19th century the arid land around Estaque, Endoume or the calanques [creeks], was worth almost nothing. Many workers, usually the elite of this social group (porters, artisans), and middle class families owned a cabanon. Built with their own hands, it was the refuge for friends and family on Sundays. Its frequent use is proof of how much leisure time was valued. The equipment was rustic, sometimes the cabanon was used by several families. The heyday of the cabanon coincides with the heyday of the Marseille workers: from the 1850's to the 1950's
Since then each cabanon has been handed down from generation to generation as part of the family and cultural inheritance - the rise in value of land and the laws to protect the coastline have made it an important factor. It is evidence too of the Marseille tradition of being close to nature, a characteristic demonstrated as well by the success of the Marseille Excursionists, which in 1914 had more than 8,000 members, making it one of the biggest excusrion groups in Europe. Today highly prized, cabanons remain in the most beautiful sites, including in the calanques which were made into a Regional Natural Park in 2011.
Alain Corbin (dir.), L’avènement des loisirs 1850-1960, Paris, Aubier, 1995
Pierre Echinard « Le temps du loisir », Marseille au XIXe siècle. Rêves et triomphes, Musées nationaux, Musées de Marseille, 1991, p. 365-392.
Jean-Marc Tixier, Le cabanon, Marseille, Jeanne Laffitte, 1994
Claudie Gontier, Le cabanon marseillais, images et pratiques, Cerfise, 1991