Sailing into Marseille, the Basilica de la Notre Dame de la Garde greeted me even while my boat was still far out to sea. Her golden Madonna has been calling sailors home down the centuries. Then came the Chateau D’if. How could I sail past without thinking of The Count of Monte Cristo?
Part of what I love about sailing into a port is how so much of the old town lies by the water waiting to be explored. Like many a Mediterranean town, Marseille began as a village by the sea, and this is where her heart still lies. Palaeolithic cave paintings have been discovered nearby; the village of Massalia was the first Greek settlement in France, established around 600 BC. It was conquered first by the Romans, then by various other nations and city-states during the sea-sawing of alliances which marked medieval and Renaissance Europe.
Marseille still retains the delights of her Le Vieux Port, despite having grown to become France’s second largest city and her major port. The Forts of St Nicolas and St. Jean, built by the Knights Hospitallier of St. John in the 13th C, still guard the entrance to the harbour. The town’s history can be read in her streets; I could easily imagine the sailors heading off to Paris to join the Revolution, singing Le Marseillaise as they went.
I only had a few hours in port, and so hopped on Les Petit Train, which runs from the Vieux Port. I tootled along in an open top carriage, a roof shielding the me from the sun, the open side catching a cool breeze which washed away the heat of the day. The trains were pathetically cute. All the while there was a running commentary, beginning in French, then passing through English, German Italian, Spanish and some others, the dialogue becoming shorter with each subsequent translation.
Les Petit Trains run along two routes. The first took me through the old quarter along cobbled streets far too narrow for cars (yet a few tried). Although still early, the stones had already soaked up the sunshine, and the heat radiated from the streets. I was glad not to be walking.
The old quarter dates back to the original settlement by the Ancient Greeks, being the site of their marketplace. It is named Le Panier, possibly after a bread-basket used for offerings in the original local church. En route we passed Le Maison Diamanté, the oldest building in Marseille (dating back to 1570). As the train rounded corners in these tiny streets (no tour bus could do this) we were offered amazing views back down over the harbour, and along the winding alleyways themselves. A shop window, a doorway opening onto a courtyard, some street art – so many things caught my eye. Washing is strung across the laneways; below are cafes, work shops, houses, and all manner of artisan shops. If only I had all day to explore these tiny streets which barely rate a mention on the map!
Many of the winding alleys are connected by flights of stairs. The top of Le Panier is only 300m above the port – but a very steep 300m. This is where many fishermen once lived, and probably merchants as well, for it is directly above Le Vieux Port. The narrow winding streets and crowded buildings grew to a rabbit warren navigable only by the locals. Outbreaks of the disease proved common – in 1720 some 100,000 in Marseille and the surrounding countryside died from the plague.
By the time of the Second World War the occupying Germans found the maze of Le Panier impossible to police. Consequently, they razed the area to rid themselves of the Resistance and the ‘Untermenschen’. In January 1943, in the depths of winter, some 20,000 people were given a day to evacuate, before the quarter was dynamited. After the war Le Panier was rebuilt, but only few of the original streets remain. Yet the character of the area is still tangible – how it must once have been beggars the imagination.
The Cathédrale de Marseille Notre Dame de Major is a stunning structure of white and dark greenish grey stones. Built on a temple to Diana, the cathedral is modelled on Constantinople’s Santa Sophia. The mosaic floors complement the simple but elegant internal design. Henri II was married here.
After some time spent wandering and enjoying the views, I returned to sea level. The harbour was filled with vessels. These were not the luxury liners of Monaco, where sleek yachts and expensive luxury vessels dominated the waves; Marseille remains very much a working port.
Dumas called Marseille ‘the meeting place of the entire world’, and his words proved true on reaching the eastern end of the port. With a Starbucks, an Irish Pub and the Queen Victoria Hotel nestled together, this area is saturated with both tourists and sailors from every nation. Visiting GI’s in WWII called the main road ‘the can of beer’; La Canebière was designed by Louis XIV and lined with 19th C Hausmann-styled buildings. Not surprisingly, the area is reminiscent of Paris, boasting the same colour stonework and iron-work balconies. Despite this heritage, La Canebière has often been called the seediest street in France.
La Notre Dame de la Garde is reached via La Corniche, which boasts as many hairpin turns as La Corniche in Monaco. As the streets became impossibly steep the views down over Marseille and across the Mediterranean proved simply spectacular. The old port is remarkably small, with the new town stretching in all directions, and a huge swathe of suburbs behind the hills.
(I reached La Notre Dame de la Garde by another of Les Petit trains; Bus #60 also goes to the Basilica, but I doubt the ride would prove as much fun.) After much careening around blind corners we reached a final stretch of olive and oleander trees. Surprisingly, the air vibrated to the sound of cicadas.
The Basilica dominates Marseille. Built in Byzantine style, inside it glistens with mosaics. Model boats hang everywhere, along with other votive offerings given by grateful sailors and their families. Unlike many cathedrals in a European summer, it radiated peace. Below is a museum filled with Roman frescoes.
Cruising from Marseille
The drawback of a cruise is that I didn’t have time to see all Marseille has to offer. There is the Abbey with her catacombs and Hellenic crypts, and the Musée Cantini with works by Picasso and others from the Fauvism school. Then there is the simple delight of wandering her streets and alleyways, finding those places never mentioned in a guide-book.
Instead, we returned to port for a bouillabaisse, in the city where the dish was born. A true bouillabaisse comes with an at least 20 minute wait. First came a bowl of rich broth, along with a platter of nameless fish. Traditionally, fishwives would make bouillabaisse from what ever had not sold from the morning catch. Bony and filled with flavour, these leftover bits are the secret behind the rich stew. Next came mussels, along with croutons to be smothered with that rich capsicum-garlic remoulade. As an accompaniment we chose by a young rosé – a perfect way to finish the day, as we sat planning a future visit.
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