Marseille is a great city. It's France's second largest city, and it is — by far — the most international city in France, if not in all of Europe until you reach İstanbul.
People have lived in the area for almost 30,000 years, as Marseille has a great location. The city was founded around 600 BC by Greek colonists. After that it was allied with or controlled by the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Frankish kings including, eventually, Charlesmagne. It was incorporated into France in 1481.
As France expanded its international empire, Marseille was the major port connecting the nation to North Africa, southeast Asia, and tropical islands throughout the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and the Caribbean. Those colonies have influenced the population and culture of Marseille.
We will see how to travel to Marseille, and some of the things to see and do once you're there.
As for its name, it's Marseille. English speakers sometimes write it with an added s as in Marseilles. I don't know why, as it's pronounced like mar-say, so I'm sticking with how the locals spell it.
Arrival in Marseille
You might arrive in Marseille in the traditional way, in a small boat. If so, the view at the top of this page is what you will see as you enter the Vieux Port, the Old Port at the heart of Marseille. These days, however, you are much more likely to arrive in Marseille by train.
Gare Marseille Saint-Charles is the main train station. In foreground of this picture we see the TGV, the high-speed trains running at 300 kilometers per hour throughout France. The TGV joins Marseille to Paris in just three hours. There are direct TGV lines from Marseille to Lilles in northeastern France and onward to Brussels, to Strasbourg and to Genève.
Regional trains like those in the background below connect to nearby Aix-en-Provence, Arles, Avignon, and beyond. A regional train east through Nice connects to Italian trains at the border, following the Italian coast to the south and beyond.
If you are arriving in Marseille from outside France, then it is probably by air to Marseille's international airport. In that case, a frequent bus runs from the airport to Gare Saint-Michel every 20 minutes, taking 25 minutes to make the trip.
The airport bus uses the modern inter-city bus station in the north wing of the train station, out of view to our left in this view. Nearby cities like Aix-en-Provence are an easy day trip from Marseille.
You still might arrive by ship, Marseille is a busy ferry port. We'll see the ferry port below.
Marseille has been a busy port of entry and exit for France, especially during the greatest extent of the French Empire.
The North African French colonies of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are directly across the Mediterranean, and Corsica is on the way there. Other French territory down through central Africa could be reached by ships from Marseille leaving the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar.
The French Caribbean islands and colonial territory on the northern coast of South America were on across the Atlantic. Even earlier, French North America was also reached from the port of Marseille.
Once the Suez Canal opened in 1869, the voyage to French Indochina was a little less long.
Colonial expositions in the early 1900s celebrated the diverse French Empire. The poster seen here promises that the 1906 exposition will include 50 official display areas of French colonies, an international section for oceanography and maritime fishing, and panoramas with exotic attractions and reconstructions including the streets of Saigon, an Indochinese theater, Malagasy music, dancers from Timbuktu, Algerian produce and Tunisian souks.
You can see from the poster that the exposition was promoted by Chemins de Fer Paris Lyon Mediterranée. That is, the Paris-Lyon-Mediterranean Railway, the primary early 1900s link from Paris to this port.
Let's head out into the city! In the first picture we're looking off the balcony running across the front of the train station.
On the skyline to the left we see Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, the symbol of Marseille, a dramatic cathedral overlooking the city from its highest point.
The narrow street running nearly straight away from us just to the right of center is the Rue des Petites Maries. It runs straight toward the Old Port from here. We'll go down that way in a bit, but first let's turn to our left and go to the south corner of the station.
A grand staircase leads down from the south corner of Gare Saint-Charles to Boulevard d'Athènes, a major street running north-south. This street changes its name every few blocks, from Boulevard d'Athènes to Boulevard Dugommier, then to Boulevard Garibaldi, and then to Cours Lieutaud.
The staircase is flanked by allegorical statues representing parts of the large French Empire of the early 1900s. These represent the French colonies in Asia.
These represent the colonies in Africa. They're allegorical, things probably weren't so languid in the colonies.
We've reached the end of Boulevard d'Athènes and turned to look back up at Gare Saint-Charles. We will turn back around and go down the hill along Boulevard d'Athènes toward La Canebière, Marseille's main thoroughfare. Boulevard d'Athènes changes its name to Boulevard Dugommier by the time we get a little over half-way there.
The nation of Yugoslavia was formed in 1918 by merging a number of small states and kingdoms with some territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Aleksandar I Karađorđević was the son of King Peter I of Serbia and the former Princess Zorka of Montenegro, he was made King Alexander I of Yugoslavia.
On 9 October 1934, Alexander arrived in Marseille for a state visit to the French Third Republic and meetings with the French foreign minister Louis Barthou. Vlado Chernozemski, a Bulgarian and a member of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, shot the king and his chauffeur as the state procession passed the base of this staircase. This was one of the first assassinations captured on film as Chernozemski happened to be standing very close to a newsreel cameraman. A mounted policeman slashed Chernozemski with his sword, and then the crowd beat him to death.
Providing an example for future conspiracy theories, the newsreel did not capture the precise moment of the assassination. But it was manipulated to give that impression, with three identical gunshot sounds added to the film afterward. Chernozemski really shot over ten rounds, killing or wounding a total of fifteen people.
La Canebière, the main axis of Marseille
La Canebière is a broad avenue leading from a central quarter to the port. Its name is the Provençal word for cannibis. That doesn't mean that all the head shops are located along this boulevard. It used to be lined with makers and sellers of hemp rope supplying the ships docked in the old port at its end.
The inland end of La Canebière is in the Réformés district, named for a "Reformed" Augustine convent that was once here. L'église Saint-Vincent de Paul is better known by the name l'Église des Réformés.
The cathedral was built in the 1850s, but its design is based on the Gothic style of the 13th Century.
As we start down La Canebière we pass another street vendor from Africa. In the background are signs of the southeast Asian parts of the former French empire.
La Canebière is lined by large businesses that have replaced all the rope shops. There are many large banks. The main shopping district is just two to three blocks from the harbor. A tram line runs through the broad pedestrian-only plaza of that shopping district and turns to run east along La Canebière through Réformés.
Along Rue des Petites Maries
Let's go back and drop off our bag. The Vertigo hostel is just across the road from Gare Marseille Saint-Charles, in the first block down the narrow Rue des Petites Maries. It's the yellow building at the right, up the street we're looking at the front of Gare Saint-Charles.
This is a nice place to stay, I have stayed here a couple of times. They have a mix of private and shared rooms.
The Vertigo certainly has a convenient location! Looking out the window of my room we see the front of Gare Saint-Charles at the end of the block and across the busy street.
The opposite direction leads down the hill along Rue des Petites Maries toward the old port. You can't quite see the water from here, but the hill in the distance is on the diagonally opposite side of the harbor.
There are a few other small reasonably priced hotels at the top end of Rue des Petites Maries. The street is also lined with telephone shops. They sell local SIM cards and also have calling booths. You can easily and cheaply place calls to anywhere in the world from the private booths, paying at the counter when you are finished.
We could go up to the station and take the subway down to the Old Port. You see some subway tickets here. But let's walk on down Rue des Petites Maries.
The back streets are lined with small shops selling a wide range of everyday goods. Or maybe not so everyday, if you aren't from a cosmopolitan place like Marseille.
You have to go to İstanbul to find Marseille's mix of people and the density of capitalism per square foot.
Speaking of densely packed international capitalism, let's go through the markets in the blocks south of La Canebière.
Markets south of La Canebière
Markets fill the quarter south of La Canebière between Boulevard Garibaldi on its east and Rue de Rome on its west. The markets are largely operated by the North African segment of the local population.
Large areas feature produce from all around France, the rest of Europe, and across the Mediterranean in North Africa.
It is important in France to designate the precise source of food products.
It will also be clearly marked if the product meets the strict requirements for labeling as organic, designated in French as Bio., for Biologique.
Not Organique as I would have expected...
Many stores in the area simply extend their operation out onto the sidewalk and the street. Shoes and household goods are available at right here.
Some traffic still moves — quite slowly — through the market area delivering even more goods for sale.
Service with a smile!
There is a large informal fish market every day at the innermost end of the Vieux Port at Quai des Belges. But here is a shop that sells fish in the same district where everything else is being bought and sold.
The literal names of the fish may not be what you expect. For example, Loup de Mer (or Wolf of the Sea) instead of Sea Bass. But, American English and British English use different names for many fish.
The food is certified as halal, meeting all the purity requirements of Islam. Or hallal as the French transliterate the Arabic word.
This sign claims that Moustapha Slimani operates the only halal abbatoir in the region of Provence.
That seems unlikely. About 25% of the population of Marseille is Muslim, there have to be more halal abbatoirs.
About 70% of the population is Roman Catholic, and there are significant Armenian Apostolic Orthodox and Jewish communities. This is the third largest Jewish community in Europe, with 80,000 members. There is even a significant Buddhist community here given the representation of the former Southeast Asian colonies.
We turn the corner and find that we are in the passageway of the vendors of grain, nuts and dried fruit. Nearby is a wide array of olives.
Some of the shops with wide arrays of spices are like Aladdin's cave. This one has nuts and seeds out front, and shelf after shelf of spices inside.
The conical pottery device is a tajine, used for cooking.
Then there is the curious savon noir or black soap, made with linseed oil. Savon noir is a dark brown, nearly black, oily-looking sticky paste. You see it here in the orange bowl at right.
There are many good couscous restaurants specializing in the north African dish. This one is La Goulette, where I have always eaten when in Marseille. It's on Rue Pavillon just off Rue de Rome, just a block or so outside the crowded market streets.
You can eat outside, or in the brightly tiled interior.
You get a bowl of couscous with vegetables and chickpeas plus your choice of chicken, lamb, spicy sausage (merguez), spicy meatballs (kefte), or even more vegetables and chickpeas.
Then there's a bowl with something like spicy tomato soup. You ladle that onto your couscous bowl to your taste.
In the afternoon you might sit at a table outside the Grand Bar Vacon, facing onto a small square where a few narrow streets, one of them Rue Vacon, join together.
Sit down at a small table outside, have an unusually colorful beverage, and watch the world, or at least the French former colonial parts of it, pass by.
Or, you can sit inside another small cafe back in the market district. Better yet, visit multiple ones to compare their atmospheres.
Vieux Port — The Old Port
The city of Marseille was founded as a colony by Greek settlers from Phocaea around 600 BC. They called it Μασσαλία, which we spell Massalia or Massilia. By the mid 300s BC the colony was quite wealthy, establishing the Treasury of Massalia at the major religious center of Delphi back in central Greece. The natural harbor had made this an obvious place to settle and led to the colony's wealth. It was the first Greek settlement given πολίς, that is, polis or city, status in the territory of what is today's France.
The Greeks weren't the first people to live here. Human habitation goes back to Paleolithic times. Those people left paintings and carvings in local caves back in 27,000 to 19,000 BC. The Mediterranean water level was 110-120 meters lower in that ice age time due to the volume of water locked up in ice caps and glaciers. The paintings were only discovered in the Cosquer cave near the Calanque of Morgiou in 1985.
The water level has since risen to the point that the cave's opening is 37 meters below the surface, and from there a tunnel 175 meters long leads inland and upwards until you are above water level within the cave. Any art on the walls within the submerged section, about 80% of the cave, was obliterated.
150 pieces of prehistoric artwork remain. The older ones are 65 hand stencils and related works dating to the Gravettian Era about 27,000 years ago. Then some 8,000 years later in the Solutrean Era, there was a new phase of habitation and decoration. These inhabitants around 19,000 years ago left a number of signs and 177 drawings of animals including bison, ibex, horses, seals, and what look like auks and jellyfish.
More recently but still in prehistoric times, Neolithic people built brick homes in this area around 6,000 BC. These have recently been discovered during some excavations near Gare Saint-Charles.
The Etruscans, Celts and Carthaginians formed an alliance that was pressuring Massalia, so the city allied itself with the expanding Roman Empire. This provided military security and also brought the city into the lucrative Roman trading network. Its excellent port made it the gateway for trade between inland Gaul and Rome.
This trade and travel also led to Massalia being one of the first outposts of Christianity in this part of Europe. Local Provençal tradition, more recently greatly embellished and expanded, says that Mary Magdalen and her brother Lazarus landed here in a boat and personally evangelized the locals.
Here and below we see Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde overlooking the Old Port and the rest of the city.
The Roman Empire slowly crumbled and faded, and here came the Visigoths. They seized this port city.
Frankish kings captured the town from the Visigoths in the middle of the 6th century. It was still in Frankish hands by the time of Charlemagne around 800. He granted the city more power, and it prospered under the Carolingian dynasty and on into the Middle Ages.
As a port city, Marseille was especially susceptible to newly arriving contagious diseases. It was one of the first places in France to be struck by the Black Death, the bubonic plague, which arrived from the east in 1348. Out of a population of about 25,000, about 15,000 died from the plague in 1348!
The population varied with the waves of arriving plagues, and the prosperity varied with the population and also with the city's status. It was favored by a series of dukes and counts, and given special trading status and fortifications by French kings.
King René led the construction of heavy fortifications of the harbor between 1447 and 1453. The city was then united with Provence in 1481, and all of that was incorporated into the nation of France in 1482.
Marseille was a major naval base for the Franco-Ottoman alliance beginning in 1536, and a French-Turkish fleet was based in this harbor.
There was another major plague in the late 1500s. A century later there was yet another uprising, Marseille has always had a tendency to rebel against the central French government. King Louis XIV himself led his army down here on this occasion, and built two even larger forts at either side of the harbor entrance afterward. Then in 1720 the last (so far) Great Plague of Marseille struck, killing 100,000 people in the city and the surrounding provinces.
In 1792, the local population was enthusiastic about the French Revolution, this being another opportunity for rebellion against the central government.
A group of 500 locals marched all the way to Paris to take part in the revolution, singing a song that came to be known as La Marseillaise and later became the French national anthem.
The Old Port is lined with sidewalk cafés and bars. They are open all day and become especially busy in the early evening.
The distinctive dish of Marseille is bouillabaisse, a soup with assorted fish and shellfish along with vegetables. Many of the restaurants offer walk-in bouillabaisse, but purists maintain that you really have to plan this dish 24 hours in advance for the proper selection and preparation of the seafood. A big tureen of speculative bouillabaisse kept in the kitchen just in case someone asks — that just isn't done.
Two distinctive café snack foods are tapenade, a paste made from capers, chopped olives, olive oil and sometimes anchovies; and anchoïade, a paste of anchovies, garlic, black olives and olive oil. Either might be served with thin strips of pita or with raw vegetables.
Many of the bars have live music in the evenings.
Things eventually quiet down late at night.
The Modern Port of Marseille
Marseille started with a wonderful natural harbor, and it has been further improved over the years. But now the Vieux Port is just for pleasure boats and small fishing boats. Marseille's shipping operations have far outgrown the Vieux Port. It is now France's largest commercial port, and one of the busiest shipping ports on the Mediterranean.
Here we see a small boat leaving the Vieux Port. A long breakwater extends in from the right and ends with a small lighthouse. The sailboat is near the opening to the Mediterranean, just to the left of that light. Then we continue walking ahead and turn to our left, looking out into the Mediterranean.
Around 1510, King Manuel I of Portugal tried to ship a rhinoceros to Pope Leo X, on the theory that the Pope probably didn't own one yet but would like to have one, and so this gift would win lots of papal points for King Manuel and Portugal. However, the rhino carrier wrecked on the Île d'If, visible here just a short distance outside the harbor.
Given that the French King Francis I didn't own a rhinoceros either, and in fact had never even seen one, he traveled down to Marseille to have a look at the beast. All this led to the construction of a fortress on the island, Château d'If.
As a naval defense, Château d'If wasn't much of a success. The forces of the Holy Roman Empire, which never was very holy, Roman, or actually an empire, got past it and besieged Marseille anyway. But Château d'If did serve quite well as a very grim prison, something the French have excelled at even though their prisons are well known mainly for being overthrown multiple times and finally destroyed (the Bastille) or being escaped from in literature (The Count of Monte Cristo from Château d'If, Papillon from Devil's Island).
Meanwhile, stories of the wondrous beast reached Germany, where Albrecht Dürer created a woodcut in 1515. He had only heard stories passed along, with inaccuracies added all along the way. He depicted something looking a little like a dinosaur wearing plate armor.
The woodcut was a hit, though, and it was copied many times over the next three centuries. Versions found their way into textbooks, sculptures in churches, and paintings. Up into the late 1700s this was pretty much what Europeans thought a rhinoceros was.
Here we have turned back to look back into the Vieux Port. There is Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde up on the hill overlooking everything.
On the left shore of the harbor opening is the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, which incorporates the 12th century Commandry of the Knights Hospitalier of Saint John and the 15th century tower added to that by King René.
The right shore has the Fort of Saint-Nicholas.
Among the most prominent Marseille corporations are CMA CGM, the gigantic container shipping company; COMEX or Compagnie Maritime d'Expertises, a world leader in sub-sea engineering; and SNCM or Société Nationale Maritime Corse Méditerranée, a major operator of passenger and vehicle ferries and container shipping in the western Mediterranean.
The new port of Marseille handles about 100 million tons of freight annually. 60% of that is petroleum, making Marseille the largest petroleum port in France and in the Mediterranean, and the third largest in Europe. Marseille is also, logically, France's largest center of petroleum refining. Most of the remaining 40% of cargo is containers.
The Gare Maritime is a large ferry terminal with regular service to several destinations including Corsica, Sardinia, Algeria and Tunisia. Over 800,000 passengers pass through here annually.
That SNCM ferry is docked near an unusual looking church. Let's go over there.
Le Panier Quarter
Nouvelle Cathédrale de la Major is the seat of the Archdiocese of Marseille.
It was built through the second half of the 1800s on the site that had been used for the cathedrals of Marseille since the 5th century.
Its name, Major, is from the Occitan language, a label applied to the church on this spot since the 12th century.
Walking east from the cathedral leads you into the Panier district of Marseille. This district takes its name from panier, French for basket, as this was once the locations of many markets.
The Germans dynamited much of this area during their occupation of France in World War II.
In January, 1943, the Germans organized a large-scale sweep of the area to round up Jewish citizens and ship them to the death camps. This was organized with the active assistance of the Vichy government under the direction of the chief of police, René Bousquet.
The Germans considered this area to be a "terrorist nest" because of its narrow, curving streets. Himmler had ordered that the arrested French citizens were to be shipped first to the concentration camp near Compiègne in Northern France, and then sent to the Drancy internment camp and on east to the extermination camps.
The entire Panier area was searched house by house. 2,000 Marseille residents were sent off to be killed in the German death camps. The area further down the hill, immediately north of the Old Port, was systematically demolished with dynamite.
The Germans announced that almost all of arrested Jews were "criminal scoundrels", and that when they were transferred from the first camp, near Compiègne, to the Drancy internment camp, they were so dirty and infested with fleas that they had to be submitted to a special cleaning process to avoid an epidemic.
Holocaust deniers today continue to make absurd claims that the death camps were really operated in the interest of public health.
Centre de la Vielle Charité in the Panier district is a Baroque church surrounded by multiple levels of balconies.
This has been a barracks, a soldiers' rest home, and then low-cost housing for people who lost their homes when the Germans dynamited most of the district.
Now two museums are located here, the Musée d'Archéologie Mediterranée and the Musée des Arts Africains, Océaniens et Amérindiens.
After wandering the Panier for a while, you may want to stop for a while at the Cup of Tea tea house. It's on Rue Caisserie, on your way down out of the hilly back streets, almost to where things open up a little as you enter the area destroyed by the Germans.
They have over fifty very specific varieties of tea, described in great detail. I think that this one was Laotian.
Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde
Notre Dame de la Garde or Our Lady of Protection is at the highest point above Marseille, 162 meters above the Old Port to its south.
Charles II of Anjou ordered in 1302 that beacons were set up along the Mediterranean coast of Provence. This hill was the site of one of those beacons.
A chapel was built on the hill in 1214. A fortification was built here in the early 1500s and a more significant church constructed within. It continued as a church within a fortress until the Revolution in the late 1700s. The religious buildings were shut down and worship stopped in November, 1793. The fortress became a prison for members of the royalty and nobility.
The church was reopened for worship in 1807. The number of worshipers increased significantly, and the fortress chapel was expanded.
In 1850, the priest asked the Ministry of War, which still owned and controlled the fortress, for permission to further enlarge the existing church. Alphonse Henri, comte d'Hautpoul, on his final day on the job as Minister of War, agreed in principle but said that the request was too vague. Come back with details.
The following year, in April 1851, a new request was submitted. This was for an entirely new church, much larger. This came with the support of General Adolphe Niel.
The project was approved. Construction started in 1853. There were problems, both financial and practical, as it was difficult to cut the foundations into the very hard rock at the peak.
The church was finally consecrated in June, 1864.
The views are fantastic. In the first picture we are looking west over Île d'If and the other islands in the Frioul Archipelago. Below, we look over the Old Port and beyond that to the new port complex continuing for kilometers up the coast.
In the second picture we have turned toward our right. The innermost third of the Old Port is barely visible at left, just above the nearby trees.
Below, the long red roof of Gare Saint-Charles is visible if you know what to look for (about 11 o'clock from the cross, to the right and slightly above a row of three large rectangular buildings). The blue and white tourist tram provides one way to get up and down the hill between the Old Port and the basilica.
The interior walls of the church are covered with devotional plaques, thanking Our Lady of Protection for saving the donors from storms, shipwrecks, and other troubles.
Ship models hang from the ceiling, representing ships saved by Mary's intervention and ships that were lost but someone survived.
Above the plaque listing the numerical characteristics of the hill and cathedral, we see a plaque thankful for protection against cholera, one of the recent plagues.
That's right, this is a plague plaque.
Reconnaissance à N.D. de la Garde
qui nous a préservées du choléra
nous et nos familles
Les Dames Télégraphistes
Recognition to Our Lady of Protection
who has saved us and our families
from the cholera
The Lady Telegraphists
There are several plaques commemorating individuals and groups involved in the final fight to eject the German occupiers. The Germans retreated to the basilica and its surroundings, and the battle to finally eject them raged around the peak of the hill.
Brave leader, killed on the field of honor on 7 September 1944 at the head of the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Algerian Infantry Regiment, having fought for the liberation of Our Lady of Protection on 26 August 1944 with his brothers in arms of the 7th Algerian Infantry Regiment of the 9th Cavalry and of the Free French Forces.
Another honors the Marseille Volunteers of the African Commandos killed for the liberation of France.
The Coast Road to Cassis and La Ciotat
There is a wonderful drive along the coast roads from Marseille past Cassis to La Ciotat. In places the route winds around the Calanques, the steep and deep rocky canyons extending down to the Mediterranean. If you've seen Transporter 3, it begins and ends in a small calanque.
At the right we are looking west, into the sunset, along the rugged coast toward Marseille. You see the openings of a number of the Calanques as the coast fades into the distant haze.
The route to take is to follow the coast road out of central Marseille near the Vieux Port. It's Corniche Président John F Kennedy within the city and it takes you past the popular beaches.
Then, somewhere around Plages du Prado, turn inland and get on the D 559 highway going first south and then turning east and leading toward Cassis and La Ciotat. That road quickly climbs to an elevation of 365 meters.
The Calanques can be reached from a series of minor roads and hiking paths including GR 98, Grande Randonée 98.
The harbor town of Cassis is back in one of the larger bays, the town is off to the right and not quite visible in the picture above. Just on the other side of the turn-offs to Cassis, turn to the right off the D 559 onto the smaller D 141 road. This high road is signposted as leading over Les Crêtes or The Crests.
Notice the signs at the intersection, the road is closed during inclement weather. This can include the strong mistral wind which could make it quite hazardous to drive this high twisting road with very high drops to either side.
We stopped our sturdy Romanian built Dacia Duster along the way to take in the spectacular views.
The D 141 then descends into La Ciotat, where there are many restaurants along the large and busy waterfront.
The D 559 road appears on this map as the southernmost red road leading from southern Marseille to La Ciotat.
D 141, however, does not appear here.
C Morgiou indicates Calanque Morgiou, where the Cosquer cave paintings from 27,000 to 19,000 BC were discovered.
Happy exploring! Bon voyage!