InspireKeith Van SickleProvencal History & Traditions

Two Famous Marseille Expressions

“C’est la sardine qui a bouché le port de Marseille!”

(A sardine blocked Marseille’s port!)

This local saying is famous throughout France. Another that is less well-known is “Chercher Molinari” (look for Molinari). Both expressions, curiously, come from the same famous disaster that took place in the 18th century.

The sardine story is often used as an example of how people in Marseille like to exaggerate. Come on, how can a little bitty sardine block a great big port? But the story is true. Well, kind of.

Molinari sardine Two Famous Marseille Expressions

The Ultimate Fish Story

In 1779 the French and the English were, as usual, fighting each other. One hotspot of their conflict was in India and, during this local skirmish, each had captured some of the other’s men. It was decided to conduct a prisoner exchange and the freed French prisoners were put on a merchant’s vessel and sent back to France. This ship, being on a humanitarian mission, was granted special protection under the laws of war. Its name was…wait for it…the Sartine.

When the Sartine arrived off the coast of Portugal, a British warship thought it was part of the French navy and attacked, killing the captain. Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, the Sartine was allowed to continue, but without anyone who really knew how to pilot it. The sailor in charge wasn’t experienced enough to guide a large ship like the Sartine into a narrow port like Marseille’s. You can guess what happened.

Molinari sardine post card public domain

We Have a Problem!

Yes, the ship ran aground and sank, blocking the port. Which means it was actually a Sartine that blocked the port, not a sardine, but what’s the fun in a story like that? Over time, with many retellings, the ship was transformed into a fish, cementing Marseille’s reputation for exaggeration. With the Sartine blocking the port, commerce stopped, which for a city like Marseille is a disaster. The ship was too large and heavy to be dragged away, and the city fathers were desperate for a solution. Then someone remembered a fellow in the nearby town of La Ciotat, a certain Monsieur Molinari, who was known for solving even the hardest problems.

Monsieur Molinari was duly sent for and pondered the problem for a while, before finally coming up with a clever (though icky) solution. “Bring me pig guts!” he cried. “Lots of them!” The word went out and thousands of pig intestines made their way to Marseille. Molinari directed that they be tied at the ends and inflated, making a kind of balloon. These many piggy balloons were then carried underwater to the ship and placed inside it, slowly raising it off the seafloor. This allowed the Sartine to be towed away, restoring vital commerce to Marseille.

Molinari balloons pixabay

The clever Molari has not been forgotten and instead has entered into local lore. Today in Marseille, “Chercher Molinari” is what you tell someone when they can’t figure out a problem. “You’re stuck? You’d better figure it out. Or else look for Molinari!”

For those who’d like to practice their French, here’s a short and fun video about the Sartine and Monsieur Molinari.

Image Credits:

Sardine: public domain
Sardine postcard: public domain
Balloons: Pixabay


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Keith Van Sickle

Keith and Val Van Sickle made their first trip to Provence decades ago, and it was love at first sight. After that, they came back every year until 2008, when they began a part-time life there, splitting their time between Provence and California.

Over the years, they’ve travelled all over Provence, seeing sights both well-known and obscure. Their French friends have introduced them to favourite restaurants and wineries and picnic spots and taught them funny local expressions (not all for polite company).

Keith now shares this local knowledge in his new book, An Insider’s Guide to Provence. Packed with the Van Sickles’ favourite things to see and do, it’s a must-have for anyone travelling to this glorious corner of France.

Keith previously published two books about the couple's experiences in Provence. One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence, and Are We French Yet?, both are available from Amazon.

You can see all of Keith’s blog posts at Life in Provence.

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