Not so long ago, Marseille had a reputation as dirty, poor and dangerous. But thanks to a decade-long economic development plan and urban renewal and infrastructure projects in the 2000s and 2010s, much has changed, at least in the areas most visitors to the city will see.
Marseille is the oldest city in France and one of Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements. Founded by the Greeks in 754BCE, its reason for existence has always been as a trading port.
By the late 1880s, shipping demands exceeded the capacity of the original port. Commercial shipping was moved south to adjoining La Joliette. Vieux Port (Old Port) as it became known, languished.
But a comprehensive overhaul completed in 2020 has brought it back to life. Pedestrianised, scrubbed clean, ringed by restaurants and home to a picturesque marina filled with recreational boats including some real beauties dating back to the early 1900s.
A few fishermen still tend their boats in the traditional way.
And there’s a small fish market on the quay every morning.
High on a hill above the Old Port is Marseille’s most visited site, the Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde. The church is the emblem of the city and can be seen from just about everywhere. Locals call the church ‘La Bonne Mere’ (the Good Mother) for the enormous statue of Mary watching protectively over the sailors, fishermen and citizens of the city.
Inside, there’s some seriously impressive mosaics.
But it’s the views which are the star attraction. The church is on the highest point in Marseille, and from the forecourt there are 360 degree views over Marseille, the hinterland behind and out to sea.
The bell tower is topped with a 12 metre high pedestal on which the 9.7 metre high statue of Mother Mary stands. There are steps inside leading up to the level of her eyes, behind which is a platform which must have even more phenomenal views, but it’s closed to the public.
The entrance to the Old Port is flanked by forts built in the 1660s. Heavily damaged during WWII, they have been completely spruced up.
There’s Fort Saint-Nicholas to the south.
And Fort Saint-Jean to the north.
You could be forgiven for assuming they were for defence against potential invaders, but you’d be wrong. They were built to control the local population after an insurrection against the then governor. The cannons, now long gone, faced in toward the harbour, not out to sea.
But it seems the city has a rebellious soul. Ever wondered where the French national anthem, La Marseillaise got its name? The song was written in Strasbourg, but was first sung in Paris by revolutionaries who marched there from Marseille to support the new republican government during the French Revolution.
From Fort Saint-Jean a walkway leads to the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (MuCEM), a curiously structured museum which explores this vast topic in a couple of unique ways. One we found interesting was an exhibition comparing traditional clothing from ancient Mediterranean cultures with haute couture from the modern era. How very French!
Mostly it was an opportunity to shake our heads at the ridiculous outfits. The modern ones, that is. Most of the designers are men – LaCroix, Gaultier, Lagerfeld et al – and just like the old days, it seems the aim of haute couture is to make outfits as uncomfortable as possible for women.
Behind MuCEM is Cosquer Mediterranee which houses an exhibition on the Cosquer Cave paintings. Completed around the same time as the Lascaux caves we described in our post on the Dordogne, they became partially submerged by ocean due to climate change 9,000 years ago. Having done Lascaux, we didn’t feel the need to visit the exhibition, but the building itself is impressive, with a glass floor cantilevered over an ornamental pool.
In the plaza there is a randomly placed giant teddy bear.
And nearby is the Cathedral Sainte Marie Majeure, more simply known as ‘La Major’. It’s one of the largest cathedrals built in the 19th century, equivalent in size to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
With a distinctly middle eastern red/white colour scheme, it was nicknamed ‘Pyjamas’ even when it was first erected. The foundation stone was laid by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. It is huge – 142 metres in length – and a listed National Monument.
Between the cathedral and the port is Marseille’s oldest neighbourhood, the still grungy area known as Le Panier (the Basket) for its steep lanes and tall tenement blocks which supposedly evoke a shopping basket.
1.5km offshore to the west of the Old Port is Ile d’If, a tiny island of three hectares with just one building. Chateau d’If was built in the 16th century as a fortress but was later converted into a prison. Mainly used for the arbitrary detention of political and religious prisoners, by the 1800s it was one of the most feared penal facilities in France.
It’s the prison featured in Alexander Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo and although the hero of the novel escapes from the island, in reality no one is known to have done so. Surrounded by steep cliffs, it is the French equivalent of Alcatraz.
During the summer season, a ferry from the Old Port delivers visitors to Ile d’If to explore the prison, and continues on to the nearby twin islands of Ratonneau and Pomègues which were joined by a rock wall in the 1800s to create a harbour.
Ratonneau is just 2.5km long and never wider than 500 metres. Outside the port there are virtually no roads, just tracks which can be linked up to create a walk of about 7km around the island.
It was once a quarantine island for sailors arriving in Marseille with suspected cholera or leprosy. Hiking to the east of the island, a track passes the former officers’ quarantine facility.
And the general hospital, now used as a training facility where the unemployed can acquire carpentry, masonry and other construction related skills.
The walk skirts several idyllic swimming coves and climbs up and along the cliffs.
As well as visitors coming by ferry, it’s a popular destination for boaties.
It’s a great place to spend half a day, but fiercely hot this time of year.
Another must-do from Marseille is a boat trip to see the Calanques. ‘Calanques’ is a Provençal word meaning ‘coves bordered by steep slopes’. In the Calanques National Park north of Marseille, towering white limestone cliffs plunge dramatically down into the ocean. It’s possible to walk along paths on the cliffs between some of them, but to truly see them you need to approach from the sea.
We did a half day boat trip which sailed from the Old Port past Cape Croisette with its tiny community and excellent scuba diving.
Then along the coast where 26 Calanques of varying sizes are to be found on the approximately 20km stretch between the cape and the town of Cassis. Some of the coves are accessible by foot from the top of the cliffs, others are accessible only by sea.
The further north, the steeper they seemed to be. For perspective on how tall they are, the white speck on the water in the next photo is, of course, a boat.
It was a glorious blue day and a nice way to end our time in Marseille. Next we headed to the Joliette port for a night ferry to Bastia, Corsica for some hiking in the hills. More on that in our next post.