We arrived in Marseilles before 8 p.m., but there would be no dinner until almost 10 p.m.

Our friend, Christine, had gotten home from work just before we had arrived, and Christophe wouldn't make it back from his software company until after 9.This is Marseilles, after all, a city that works hard.

Settling into their little garden, we watched the full moon rise over the Italian working-class village inside the heart of ancient Marseilles as we nibbled foie gras and sipped their homemade orange wine. Cats made their way along the edges of their walled garden; the smell of lavender and rosemary was all around.

This is more than anything a seaport, the largest on the Mediterranean, and we started with sardines grilled in lemon and sardines rolled in spinach. There were grilled peppers in oil.

The main course was daurade, a grilled fish, with tomatoes provencal and tiny steamed white potatoes. A huge salad came next. Later there was cheese and a plate of pastries from the boulangerie on the corner. We finished, just before midnight, with hot tea made from herbs that Christine cut from the garden.

Life is good here in Marseilles - but you would never know it from reading the travel guides. It is largely the secret of the Marseillais who live here.

France's second-largest city is big and grimy and seamy. It is the city of "The French Connection," with a reputation for gangsters, drugs and crime. People talk about "The Trouble," the racial tension that has come with the Algerian immigration.

All this is true, even if the reputation exceeds the reality. Clearly, Marseilles isn't for everyone: Those in search of all that is trendy in the south of France are directed to Aix-en-Provence, just 30 minutes north of here; the Mediterranean's beautiful people can be found in Nice, just two hours to the east.

What you get in Marseilles is a melting pot of a city that for 2,600 years has served as a gateway of trade and immigration. It is a spontaneous hodge-podge of a city where diversity is not some '90s buzzword but a way of life that has grown up alongside the distinct villages that are Marseilles.

The problem for most Marseilles visitors is that they never get beyond Canebiere, the city's scruffy main drag, or Centre Bourse, the ugly modern downtown mall that you could find in Anytown, USA.

Our own Marseilles Connection, a tight little knot of friends and relatives, were determined we would not make the same mistake.

The place to start in Marseilles is Vieux Port, the gently gentrifiying old port that is packed with fishing boats and pleasure craft. At the head of the port is a monument to just how independent Marseillais can be: Louis XIV built Fort St. Nicolas with the guns facing inward, not outward, to keep the citizens in order.

Make no mistake: Vieux Port has been discovered by the tourists who do make it to Marseilles. But it is a good place to get your bearings just the same.

Get there before noon and you can shop the fish market where local fishermen are hawking everything from sardines to tuna to octopus off their boats. Everything is negotiable here.

This is a good place, too, to listen for the sing-song Marseilles accents and get a taste of the kind of tall tales the locals are noted for. The fishermen here will tell the story, swearing up and down, about the time the port was closed by a sardine. What they might neglect to mention is that The Sardine was a fishing boat that sunk at the head of the harbor.

Vieux Port is also the place to get a boat out to Chateau d'If, the infamous 16th-century prison that legend has it once held "The Man in the Iron Mask." (Never mind that Alexandre Dumas' characters were fictional and that The Man in the Iron Mask was held not here but in the Bastille in Paris.)

Vieux Port is also loaded with cafes and shops. The shaded squares are charming, but even in this hub of tourism you're reminded that this is a real city, not some facade erected for the day trippers.

There was, for instance, the homeless man washing his clothes in the fountain while we and the other tourists drank our grenadine or pastise. A block away, a procession of striking port workers wound their way through the district, blaring their horns and banging on steel drums, a reminder of the changing economics of the Mediterranean. Just across from the grand Art Deco Opera House, the Macadam Flowers, the aging prostitutes, stood poised on the sidewalk, key in the door, waiting for their next customers - or the really big score, a U.S. ship full of sailors, to pull into the harbor.

This is, in every sense, a working city; travelers who cannot appreciate its particular charms need not apply.

Marseilles is less a huge city than the sum of its villages, each with its own distinct character. A poor immigrant village crowded with North African markets can exist next to a square of hot clubs and restaurants. Quiet fishing villages are tucked in just behind the Marseilles' coast road.

Le Panier, the place where this city was born, is a stop worth making. In Boston, this would be ritzy Beacon Hill, with its warren of narrow streets. Here it is what it has always been: home to one generation after another of immigrants, from the Italians to the Lebanese and now the Algerians.