In the latest of our city guides around Europe, we put the spotlight on an ancient yet dynamic city in the Mediterranean. Marseille has an intriguing atmosphere and exhilarating joie de vivre.
On the west coast of Provence, Marseille is France’s premier Mediterranean sea gateway and has a distinctive mix of ethnic and cultural influences. Taken from our guide to the Cote d’Azur & Provence, here is a snapshot of our city guide to Marseille
Founded as the trading port of Massalia by the Greeks 2,600 years ago, Marseille has been the western Mediterranean’s main port ever since. After the Roman conquest of Provence, the port was sacked and stripped of its fleet, although excavations reveal that Marseille remained a busy town. By the 11th century, the city had revived and continued to develop until the plague arrived in 1720, killing 50,000 residents. By the 1760s, the city was the major port trading with the Caribbean and Latin America.
Marseille’s oppressed workers proved a backbone of the Revolution, the city giving its name to the new national anthem, La Marseillaise, even though it was composed in Alsace. The city sustained extensive damage during World War II. In the second half of the 20th century, large numbers of people from Africa, particularly North Africa, moved to the city. Today, Marseille has a total population of over one million.
The city has plenty to offer, including many museums and art galleries, and boat trips to offshore islands.
The Vieux Port (pictured above); where visitors and residents alike tend to gravitate to the large, rectangular, westward-facing Old Port. It is fortified, enclosed by Italianate 17th-century quays and surrounded by pale stone façades and red roofs. Thousands of boats jostle one another. Steep hillsides slope down to the waterside, overlooked on the south side by the Fort St-Nicolas defences (no entry to visitors) and the powerfully fortified Basilique St-Victor, which has a 5th-century crypt.
It’s a 15-minute ferry journey to the island of If, with its nightmarish prison fortress, made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo. The journey gives great views of the city and guided tours take you to the cells once occupied by the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ and other aristocratic prisoners.