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The special magic of Marseille, France’s oldest city

The second and oldest city of France, and ever the home of lost and controversial causes, Marseille has a special magic of its own. Founded by the Greeks as Massalia circa 600 BC, the city made the mistake of backing Pompeii against Julius Caesar during the Roman civil war: Caesar turned Massalia into a political eunuch, removing its walls, its weapons and its warships. Having rid itself of the Saracens, who sacked the port in 838 AD, Marseille did not profit from the Crusades as much as has often been suggested. Indeed, in an attempt to drum up business, Marseille acquired a whole district of Jerusalem as quarters for the Crusaders and gave the return passage free. It could be said that this was the earliest recorded example of a package tour. 

Although union with France had stimulated trade by the 18th century, Marseille remained peculiarly vulnerable to death and disease. In 1720 a virulent plague, carried on a ship from Syria, killed more than 50,000 inhabitants of the city.

As the French Revolution gathered momentum, in 1792 Marseille sent 500 volunteers to Paris.  Tired and footsore, they raised their spirits in the Parisian streets by singing a battle song written by a young Alsatian staff officer, Rouget de Lisle, for troops on the Rhine:

Allons, enfants de la patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé

which was taken up by cheering spectators and spread like wildfire. Before long, it was the battle hymn of the Revolution, known, because of how it had come to Paris, as La Marseillaise. It was the first and only time that Marseille found itself in tune with Revolutionary sentiment. Opposed to the government known as the Convention, Marseille’s own version of the Terror endured long after the fall of Robespierre in Paris, with ever increasing atrocities. Marseille’s penchant for backing the wrong horse continued under the Empire when, hard hit by a British naval blockade, the city became royalist. No sooner had Louis XVIII been restored than Marseille declared for Napoleon – just in time to see him exiled permanently to Saint Helena.

The opening of the Suez Canal in November 1869 enabled Marseille to profit from the much shorter route to India and the Far East, once again becoming the pre-eminent French port. In the second half of the 19th century its accumulated wealth was used to erect many of the buildings that dominate the city, including the cathedral Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, the Palais Longchamps with its beautiful fountains and imposing statues, the Stock Exchange and the Gare-St-Charles. It must be acknowledged, however, that no true architectural masterpiece is numbered among them, and until the recent opening of a subterranean passenger concourse, many a traveller loaded down with luggage had good reason to curse the railway station’s grand staircase, complete with its marble statues and almost equally inanimate porters.

More steep steps exist in Le Panier, north of the Old Port, where tiny streets and houses form what seems to be the oldest part of Marseille, a charming, atmospheric quarter typical of a true vieille ville on the Côte d’Azur. What may spoil it for the purist, however, is that the real thing no longer exists. In 1943 the Germans gave its 40,000 inhabitants 24 hours to depart, then blew the district to bits. Amidst the rubble, the remains of the Roman docks at Massalia emerged, including vast storage jars used for its great grain trade, and the odd anchor fished out of the bay.

Painstakingly rebuilt after the war, the streets between Le Panier and the Old Port today are lined with cafés and seafood restaurants. Little boutiques sell specialities from Old Provence, including pale-green bars of the city’s own soap, called savon de Marseille. The best shops can be found in the pedestrian rue St Férréol. It runs at right angles to La Canebière, called after the provençal word canèbe meaning hemp, as this was the location of the largest rope factory in Europe. Once the mecca of Marseille as a shopping street, La Canebière is now decidedly passé: its broad pavements are still lined with cafés but the traffic has destroyed its former pre-eminence. Although Marseille lacks the glamour of real Riviera resorts, its multicultural inhabitants, many originating in the former French North African colonies of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, combine to create a young, dynamic, distinctive ambience that pervades the entire place. In the far south the seaside village of Les Goudes, which might have escaped from a Greek island, has a sweeping view of Marseille and wonderful walks. On the coast road is a picturesque inlet packed with pointus (small boats in vivid colours) known as Vallon des Auffes, named after the auffiers who made a living out of ropes and rigging. Try the seafood specialities here at Chez Fonfon, probably Marseille’s most famous restaurant, patronised by politicians and the media glitterati. Or in the city proper why not drop in for a drink at the Café de La Plage in the Escale Borély, a night club where aspiring dancers put the stars of ‘Saturday Night Fever’ to shame, showing astonishing versatility and stamina.

Although still the home of the Marseille fishing fleet, and a daily fish market on the Quai des Belges, the old harbour is less of a commercial centre than a congested anchorage for luxury yachts. Two notable forts still guard the harbour entrance, the Fort St Jean, dominated by the Tour du Roi René, a square tower built by the provençal King René between 1448 and 1452; and the 17th century Fort St Nicholas, whose star-shaped defences were completed in 1668.  Twice every daylight hour in season, boats pass these forts on the hugely popular trip from the Quai des Belges to the Château d’If, once also part of Marseille’s defences, but best known as the island prison of the fictitious Count of Monte Cristo. Written by Alexandre Dumas in 1844 – in this, his annus mirabilis; he also produced The Three Musketeers – the story begins as Edmond Dantès lands in Marseille, ready to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mercedes.  Within 24 hours his world turns upside down, betrayed, punished for a crime he did not commit, and imprisoned in the Château d’If for life. His escape from a prison where hitherto death had been the only means of escape, his discovery of a king’s ransom on a remote island and his return to France as the fabulously wealthy Count of Monte Cristo sets the stage for an epic tale of bitter-sweet revenge.


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© Vanessa Bouvier

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