“If you are going to drive to Marseille, please, please, please purchase the insurance,” our rental car agent in Avignon warns us as we contemplate the high cost of adding comprehensive coverage to our agreement. “You see, the young people like to break into cars,” she continues in her soothing French accent, “so be sure you remove the GPS from the windshield whenever you park the car.”
One morning over breakfast at our Avignon B&B, our host asks where we’re headed next. When we tell her that our next destination is Marseille, she frowns and says, “You must be careful in Marseille. Be very careful with your car.” I’m noticing a pattern.
“When we went to Marseille, we went to the church at the top of the hill, took some pictures, and left,” her husband chimes in, recalling a visit he and his wife made to the city awhile ago, clearly perturbed by the fact that we want to visit at all.
“Go to the church and be sure to try the bouillabaisse,” his wife concludes, giving us at least two good things to look forward to when there.
I’m undeterred by these warnings. I know what I signed up for by including Marseille in our itinerary. Despite all of the negative articles and less than favorable travel forum comments I’ve read about the city, my gut tells me that Marseille’s not going to be as bad as everyone’s made it out to be.
A few days later, we speed along the highway leading from Avignon through Aix-en-Provence, down to Marseille, and the scenery changes from largely undeveloped rural land to the outskirts of a congested seaside city marred with graffiti. I feel at home. Clothes dry on lines extending from old tenement buildings, some of which resemble housing projects that still exist in some of America’s inner cities.
As we drive along, I think back to an article I read that mentioned that Marseille is comparable to Detroit. That’s saying a lot in light of the fact that Anthony Bourdain compared Detroit to Chernobyl on a recent episode of CNN’s “Parts Unknown”. From what I see of the city from the highway, indirect comparisons of Marseille to Chernobyl and even direct comparisons of Marseille to Detroit are drastic. Over the course of our short stay in the city, I realized that such comparisons are completely unwarranted and totally off base.
Sure, we walked through a few sketchy-looking areas of town, but even then, I felt safer than I do exploring certain parts of Los Angeles. Contrary to the warnings to skip Marseille, I discovered a handful of reasons why it’s a visit worthy Provençal destination. In this post, I explore just a few of the reasons why you shouldn’t count out Marseille.
European Capital of Culture
After Paris, Marseille is the second largest city in France. Like Paris, Marseille is divided into arrondissements and it even has its own Arc de Triomphe-like structure called Porte d’Aix which stands within view from Cours Belsunce. And like Paris, you’ll even find several buildings constructed in the Haussmann style that’s so prevalent in the City of Light. There are probably numerous other comparisons that can be drawn between Marseille and Paris which has long since established itself as a world cultural hub. But Marseille is now really starting to rise in the cultural ranks as well.
In 2013, the EU named Marseille the European Capital of Culture. By way of background, each year, the EU awards a city with this designation, and for a year, the designated city is required to organize a series of cultural events that have a strong European element. In addition to giving cities like Marseille the opportunity to change their image, this recognition is also the perfect opportunity for cities to generate certain socio-economic and cultural benefits.
Today, Marseille boasts 24 museums, 42 theatres, the Opéra de Marseille, art galleries, and more.
One thing that Paris definitely doesn’t have is easy access to the ocean or a port like Marseille’s Vieux Port (“Old Port”). Around the port, you’ll find several bars, restaurants, cafes, and gelaterias to choose from. Here, you’ll also find a huge Ferris wheel, docked fishing boats and yachts, and boats that take customers on tours of the Calanques. The Vieux Port is definitely a bustling part of the city that offers something for many interests.
Given Marseille’s location on the Mediterranean, the city has always been a hub for immigration. Greeks and Italians started arriving in Marseille in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries, and Russians, Armenians, Vietnamese, Corsicans, the Spanish, and North Africans have all followed suit. In more recent times, Sub-Saharan Africans, the Pied-Noirs from former French Algeria, and the Comoros from the archipelago off of Africa’s eastern coast, now also call Marseille home.
All of these cultural influences make for diverse residents, assorted cultural offerings, and more importantly for food lovers like me, eclectic restaurant options.
People have been living in and around Marseille for almost 30,000 years, and Massalia, the oldest Greek settlement in France in present day Marseille was established around 600 BC. Massalia was one of the most important trading ports of the ancient world.
Temples in honor of Apollo of Delphi and Artemis of Ephesus were erected in the city, and Christianity was first introduced when the city came under Roman rule. According to tradition, Mary Magdalene and her brother Lazarus evangelized Marseille.
During the 18th century, the Great Plague of Marseille claimed 100,000 lives in the city and surrounding provinces. Also in the 18th century, the locals supported the French Revolution by sending 500 volunteers to Paris to defend the revolutionary government, and as they marched, they sang a rallying song called “La Marseillaise” which is now the French national anthem.
Fast forwarding to the 20th century, Marseille was bombed by Germans and Italians during WWII, and in 1943, over 4,000 Jews were taken from Marseille and deported to Nazi-occupied Poland where they were murdered. Much of the city was rebuilt following the war during the 1950s.
Similar to fjords, calanques are steep limestone or dolomite walled inlets, coves, or bays found along the Mediterranean coast. The Calanques of Marseille start on the outskirts of the city in a small fishing village and stretch to Cassis. I will write more about the Calanques in a separate post, but whenever you’re in Marseille, you should definitely take a cruise to gain a full appreciation for these natural marvels.
One of my absolute favorite parts of exploring Marseille was wandering through the photographic alleys of Le Panier. This neighborhood is the site of the historic Greek colony of Massalia. The streets are narrow, there are several stairs, and the colorful buildings are old and utterly charming. Again, I will write more about Le Panier in a separate post, but this is an area of Marseille that shouldn’t be missed.