Marseille is France’s oldest city, and was founded 2,600 years ago.
It is also France’s second largest city and has attained world wide fame since it embodies the country’s ‘rousing revolutionary song’ namely ‘La Marseillaise’ – which is now the French national anthem as well.
In consequence, everyone everywhere has heard of the city of Marseille, and it will probably always be associated with the French national anthem.
Marseille is also the most populated city in France after Paris.
Described as being ‘backed by chalk cliffs and flanked by white cliffs, with its face to the sea’, Marseille’s seaside location is its prime feature.
However, despite the fact that the city’s main commercial sea traffic has been moved to docks created during the 19th century, its old port, namely Vieux Port, is still regarded as being the ‘centre of city life’. For it’s here that the pleasure boats congregate, and it’s also the area that abounds with restaurants. And it’s here too that the people of Marseille come to buy fish from the market and gather together for various festivities.
Another notable feature of Marseille is the Romanesque-Byzantine church of ‘Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde’ (Our Guardian Lady) which was consecrated in the 19th century, and which stands on the city’s highest hill, and is topped by a gilded statue of the Virgin. While it can be seen from anywhere in the city, the view of the city from the church’s terrace is particularly stunning.
To the north of the Vieux Port is Le Panier, which is Marseille’s oldest sector. Le Panier’s main feature is ‘Hospice la Vielle Charite’, once a 17th century Workhouse, but now a cultural centre that houses two museums, one being the ‘Musee d’Archeologie Mediterraneenne’, containing some beautiful pottery and glass and an Egyptian collection with a ‘mummified’ crocodile, and the other being the ‘Musee des Arts Africains, Oceaniens et Amerindiens’.
Described as ‘the greatest expression of Marseille’s 19th century golden age’ is the building known as Palais Longchamp. The palace’s central gallery is flanked by two ornate wings, the north wing being the city’s ‘Musee des Beaux-Arts’.
Opposite the Palais Longchamp stands the Musee Grobet-Labadie, a museum whose walls are said to be ‘decorated with a collection of Gobelin and Aubusson tapestries.
The area known as La Canebiere is a broad boulevard that runs down to the port. This is described as ‘the undisputed hub of the town’. Originally fashioned with the Champs-Elysses in mind, La Canebiere is an expanse of hotels, cafes, and shops. Nearby is the Musee d’Histoire de Marseille, and further along La Canebiere is the Musee de la Marine, said to be housed on the ground floor of the Neoclassical Stock Exchange, and filled with intricate models and paintings of ships on the high seas.
La Canebiere itself is described as being ‘one of the most renowned streets in the world, being shaded by lovely old plane trees, leading to the centre of the town from the Quay des Belges’.
Of particular interest too is the ‘Chateau d’if’, an offshore island fortress that was built in the 16th century to protect the city’s port. In 1580 it was converted into a prison, and Alexander Dumas used it as a ‘grim backdrop’ to his novel ‘the Count of Monte Cristo’, which he wrote in 1845.
Marseille’s fort ‘Fort St. Nicholas’, which was built by Louis XIV, stands on the south side of the Vieux Port. Built in limestone and standing on two levels, it is star shaped, and its cannons are pointed inland. It’s claimed that it was originally built by Louis XIV in a bid to subdue the ‘truculent’ citizens of Versailles!
While now split in two as a result of the erection of the portside boulevard, it’s said that ‘Fort St. Nicholas’ continues to be regarded as one of Versaille’s most imposing buildings.
Marseille’s ‘modern’ beaches – Prado Beaches – are located just around the corniche from the Vieux Point, past the fishing port of Vallon des Auffes. These beaches extend as far as the coast of ‘Les Calanques’, which lies within about fifteen minutes of Marseille’s city centre. At ‘Les Calanques’ white rocks are said to ‘plunge into the blue sea’ and ‘creeks of great beauty’ are said to abound.
Beyond a village called Les Goudes the road is said to ‘peter out’ and access to other even more picturesque creeks have to be undertaken on foot or by boat.
Twelve miles east of Marseille lies Cassis, which has to be approached along a coast road that climbs steeply upwards. And at the Vaufrege Pass one can obtain a magnificent view of the bay of Marseille. Then, as the road descends one gets one’s first glimpse of the Gulf of Cassis, and afterwards one finally reaches Cassis itself.
Cassis is a little fishing port that has three beaches which are surrounded by rocks. And its scenic setting has attracted countless famous French artists in the past.
The ‘calanques’ of Cassis are claimed to be the ‘most celebrated’ in the Mediteranean. Some of the rock formations are said to reach a height of 480 to 650 feet, and the clear water that is exposed only to the light of the sky directly above, is said to take on a deep blue colour that contrasts vividly with the whiteness of the rocks. Boats can be hired in Cassis that can take one on excursions along these waterways.
Deemed to be another of Marseille’s ‘must-see sight’ on any tourist’s itinerary is the 19th century Chateau Pastre, which is said to have a lovely brick and stone façade, and which is set in grounds that lie between the sea and the hills. The chateau’s interior décor is also described as being ‘sumptuous’, and the building is now referred to as Musee de la Faience, for since 1995 the chateau has a vast collection of pottery, ceramics and earthenware on display. The collection, which has been acquired both from areas all around France and the rest of Europe, totals almost 1,500 pieces, which range from the Neolithic period to the present day.
Marseille’s nightlife, it is claimed, has ‘something for everyone’, with the options of nightclubs, live rock and jazz concerts, operas, ballets, classical concerts, and theatres all available according to one’s choice.
Eating and drinking, likewise, plays a major role in Marseille’s nightlife, where restaurants abound in large numbers. And described as the ‘superstar’ of the city’s dishes is Marseille’s own invention, namely ‘bouillabaisse’ – a saffron and garlic flavoured fish dish, which, it is claimed, should always include ‘the scorpion fish’. Another Marseille speciality dish is known as ‘pieds et paquets’ – namely ‘lamb belly and trotters’.
Referred to as one of Marseille’s top restaurants is ‘Le Miramar’, where it is claimed, ‘the finest bouillabaisse in town’ is served.
Marseilles, it would seem, lives up to its reputation of having ‘something for everyone’ – be it day or be it night
Roberta Crookes has worked as a newspaper journalist throughout most of her life, writing news stories, editorial features, advertisement supplements, and reviews. And in the course of her work she has interviewed many famous people from all walks of life. She has also managed to combine parallel careers in both journalism and acting, and, being Welsh speaking from North Wales, her main television featured parts have been Welsh language roles with BBC Wales.