Marseille’s reputation—at least as a tourist destination—is not enviable. Virtually everyone I told about my upcoming visit raised their eyebrows. They told me that the city was very dangerous and should be avoided. One person told me that a friend of his, while merely driving through Marseille, had a gun stuck in his face through the car window. For my part, I would have never even considered going if one of my oldest friends had not, by chance, been living in the city for his historical research. He was very enthusiastic about the place, and assured me that I almost certainly would not get shot.
(According to this website, however, Marseille does indeed have the highest crime rate of any major European city—or at least in 2018. You are warned.)
Marseille is the second-largest city in France—though its population of around 850,000 is fairly modest—and the third-largest metropolitan area, after Lyon. (Need I mention which city is the first?) Like many European port cities, Marseille has a long history, dating back at least to the Ancient Greeks. Indeed, during the construction of a shopping center in the Place Jules Verne, the remains of two Greek ships were found. (If you would like to learn more, here is an hour-long documentary about the attempt to reconstruct one of the boats and sail it in the port.) Not ones to miss a strategic position, the Romans also set up camp here,
By the time I arrived, I had an entire posse awaiting me. Greg—the aforementioned historian—was accompanied by my brother (who had arrived the day before), and Lily, another old friend from New York, who was coincidentally visiting at just the same moment I was. Four denizens of the Hudson Valley thus found themselves thrown together in Mediterranean France, looking for a good time.
After dropping off my bag, the first item was lunch. Marseille is fortunate in having a robust culture of street food—particularly pizza. Just down the block, we found a food truck selling pizza baked in a wood-fired oven. And it was good: with a savory tomato sauce and a few anchovies. I mention this because, for all of its many delights, Madrid does not have a street food culture to speak of (Spaniards always eat sitting down) and also lacks a good pizza culture (Dominos is popular). So I was already rather taken with the city.
The repast done, we then boarded a city bus that carried us beyond the city limits. We were going to visit one of the treasures of the area: Calanques National Park. At first I did not know what the fuss was about. The bus left us near a trail, leading us into an entirely typical Mediterranean landscape: with dry, sandy soil, diminutive pine trees, and sun-baked rocks. Indeed, the area was strangely reminiscent of hiking trails in the Guadarrama mountains of Madrid. We carried on walking, pausing occasionally on the wooden benches, smelling some of the wild rosemary growing along the path, until we reached the coast.
Here is where the park became spectacular. The landscape swelled into peaks and then dropped in sharp cliffs towards the sea. The rough and rugged limestone shone pale in the sunlight, like old bone. This arid landscape contrasted sharply with the aquamarine glow of the Meditteranean. The result was quite dramatic. My favorite touch were the little white sailboats in the distance. We climbed a peak and took in the expansive sight, marvelling at how little the boats appeared amid the seething rock. It is difficult to contemplate such a scene—reflecting on the millenia it must have taken to form—and not feel both physically tiny and temporally insignificant.
After taking in the natural spectacle, we walked back to the bus and headed toward the city center. I want to mention something that we passed along the way, but which we unfortunately did not take the time to stop and see: the Unité d’Habitation, a modernist apartment building designed by Le Corbusier, the great French prophet of modernist architecture. Indeed, the building in Marseille is considered to be a prototype of his Utopian vision of urban planning—spaces designed to equalize social rank, to create a more open and organized city, and to embrace the efficiencies of the industrial age. Unfortunately, Le Corbusier’s vision did not pan out so well in practice, as high-rise apartment buildings were used all over the world as public housing for the urban poor, thus isolating them in corners of the city with few other resources.
Looking at the building in Marseille, however, one does feel a sense of utopian inspiration. Visually it is quite striking: with the entire concrete edifice elevated on stilts, allowing pedestrians to walk under and through the building. Thus, the apartment is integrated with the green spaces on either side, fulfilling the old notion of the ‘garden city.’ The wall panels around the windows are painted red, yellow, and blue, creating an attractively retro color scheme. At least part of the building is now a luxury hotel; and judging from the photos online, the retro aesthetic is maintained throughout. Another part of the building is a modern art museum, in which the visitor can ascend to the roof to enjoy some odd concrete excrescences, as well as a beautiful view of the city and the sea. There is even a nursery school in the building. Despite the attractive and thoughtful design, however, I would much prefer a room in a smaller building, better integrated to the life of the city. Good neighborhoods are organic rather than planned.
It was already getting a bit late, so our next step was to have a night on the town. But first we had to have a little snack. For this, we went to a local shop to buy a baguette and some cheese. Now, I cannot say that I am a particular fan of cheese, or even bread; but this little meal was quite impressive. First, the baguette was far better than what I was used to from New York or Spain—nicely crusty on the outside, while not too flaky, and almost creamy on the inside. The cheese was even more delicious. We bought three kinds (don’t ask for their names), all of them tasty. One in particular impressed me: it had three separate flavors—a sharp attack, a buttery middle, and a bitter aftertaste. The French deserve their reputation.
Evening was fast approaching, so it was time to head into the center of town. In Marseille, this almost inevitably means walking towards the water. We followed the gently sloping ground down to the city’s cathedral, which sits within a few hundred feet of the sea. It looked quite lovely in the waning daylight. Of relatively recent construction (for Europe), the cathedral was made in a Byzantine-revival style, with ample domes and circular arches—a far cry from the angular French gothic. The alternating horizontal bands of dark and light stone used in the facade give the building a playful charm. (Though I did not see it during my trip, I later learned that the much older, much smaller original cathedral can still be seen beside the modern building.)
As the sun sank below the horizon, we found ourselves in the port. Though we were just walking and chatting, this part of the night sticks out in my memory for the vibrant colors that suddenly appeared in the darkening sky. A ferris wheel was lit up neon green, while a nearby museum projected wavy blue lights onto the walkway. The horizon, meanwhile, cooled into an ember glow, turning walkers into dark silhouettes.
But we did not have all night to dawdle on romantic seascapes. We had dinner to eat. For this, Greg took us to a seafood restaurant at the Old Port, where he ordered a terrific platter of the fruits of the sea. There were oysters, clams, mussels, prawns, and crabs, all served on a bed of ice with a few slices of lemon. Now, I admit that I am not the more passionate admirer of seafood; and having it served so raw and unadorned was not exactly to my liking. But there is certainly a kind of purity to such a meal—the unadorned flavor of the Mediterranean.
Our day ended in a bar, over a bottle or two of red wine. From the start, Marseille had maintained a pleasant atmosphere. Contrary to the evil reputation of the French, the people of Marseille were consistently pleasant and friendly. (Maybe it is just the Parisians that are rude.) The city, though not spectacularly beautiful, is full of the charm of old Europe. What is more, since the city does not receive a great deal of tourism, there is a kind of intimacy to the place—the aura of a city that is lived in rather than traveled through. That night, I went to sleep eager to see more.
The next day began with a pilgrimage. We were going to visit Notre-Dame de la Garde, by far the most famous church in Marseille.
There seems to be a universal human urge to climb to tall places and, when possible, build something there. We are willing to endure quite a lot of physical hardship for something as intangible as a view. Of course, there are advantages to having the high ground—most notably, surveillance and defense. This is why so many hills in Europe are occupied by fortresses. Driving through Spain, one even sees castles built on hills overlooking tiny pueblos. Marseille is no different in this respect; a fortress was built on the city’s highest point during the Renaissance.
Before this, the hill had mainly served a religious function, being the home to a gothic chapel. It seems that expansive views, aside from their tactical advantage, also put people into a spiritual frame of mind. When the fortress became militarily useless in the 19th century, the hill reverted back to its primary function as a place of worship. Just as the Marseille Cathedral was getting underway, it was decided to build another large, neo-Byzantine church atop the old fortress. Ever since, the church has served as the most identifiable symbol of Marseille, and the city’s most popular attraction. Hills, you see, are very profitable indeed.
The walk up to the hill was relatively painless (even if we did it before having any coffee). The church presented a splendid sight to us pilgrims, as the sun shone directly behind the building. The basilica is dominated by a large tower, topped with a gilded statue of the virgin. Both inside and out, it is characterized by the same bands of light and dark that distinguish Marseille’s cathedral. In the interior you can find attractive mosaics in a pseudo-Byzantine style. But what I found more charming was the surprising sense of cramped intimacy in the church—pilgrims packed into pews, the walls full of little paintings, and toy boats hanging from the ceiling.
It would be generous, however, to consider the basilica itself an architectural wonder. It is impressive more for its situation than its design. The view is panoramic and thoroughly captivating. You can see the green, grey hills that encircle the city, and the red tile rooftops of the buildings as they fall towards the sea. White sail boats filled the water, accompanied by the odd motored craft.
Off the coast you can see the Frioul Islands (called simply “Les Îles”), four small floating bits of limestone that serve as home to about 150 residents. On the smallest, there is a well-preserved castle (islands are also useful for defense), the Château d’If—iconic as the site where Edmond Dantés was imprisoned in Dumas’s The Man in the Iron Mask. The island was actually used as a prison, in fact; much like Alcatraz, its location made it extremely difficult to escape from.
On the opposite side of the basilica, you can see the white folded shape of the city’s football stadium, the Vélodrome; and beyond that, you can see the monumental conglomeration of apartment buildings, La Rouvière, which seem to be as much part of the landscape as the mountains.
After partaking of the spectacle—and a quick coffee in the café next door—we went back down the hill and returned to the port. There, we visited the Mucem, short for the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, which was opened in 2013 when Marseille was dubbed a European Capital of Culture for that year. We did not visit the exhibitions, however, as we were short on time, and Greg assured us that they were not spectacular in any case. Instead, we headed up to the roof, to enjoy another coffee in the modernistic museum building. The outside of the entire structure is covered in a kind of grey, plastic web, like artificial seaweed, which certainly stands out among the sandy-colored stone that makes up the surrounding area.
The visitor can walk directly from the roof of the museum to the neighboring castle, Fort Saint-Jean, via an elevated walkway. This is yet another fortress in the arsenal of Marseille, built during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV. The old turrets provide an attractive view of the Old Port, and many parts of the fortification are now occupied by lovely planned gardens. Across another elevated walkway there is the church of Saint-Laurence de Marseille, a lovely old Romanesque church. From there, the old port (le vieux port) is just a short walk away.
(By the way, I have an idea for Marseille’s new official tourism slogan: “Come for the Port View, stay for Le Vieux Port.”)
On any given day, the water is full of hundreds of little white boats, bobbing gently in the tide. Restaurants wrap around the water, offering French classics like moules-frites (though that’s actually from Belgium!). At the end of the port, you will find something which, as an American, cannot but make you pine for the Old World: fishermen and women selling their fresh catches. Little brown and grey fish float in plastic bins, while their vendors call out their prices. And it is no mere spectacle; when I was there, the fisherpeople were doing good business. I am sure it tastes better than frozen fish at the supermarket.
Right next to this little market is a bit of public art, the Ombrière. Like the museum, this is yet another relic of the 2013 European Cultural Capital Celebration—a design by big-time architect Norman Foster. The Ombrière is an elevated roof whose underside is an enormous mirror. This makes for good fun as you walk underneath and crane your neck, and it is a gift to amateur photographers. It would be much appreciated in a rainstorm, too.
Now it was time for lunch. For this, we decided to experience a different kind of cuisine. Because of the city’s location on the Mediterranean, and owing to France’s colonial past, Marseille has a deep connection with Northern Africa (the Maghreb). Thus, there are many thousands of immigrants in the city; and of course they brought their food with them, too. This was readily apparent when we sat down to have some kebab. Of course, kebab is a European staple, to be found anywhere. But this kebab was special—not the cheap ground meat sandwich with ketchup and mustard, like you find in Spain, but a properly spiced dish with good ingredients. I was very happy with my meal.
After lunch, my brother had to catch his flight back to Madrid. (Our visits were staggered since we had different days of the week off.) This meant a little trip to the city’s Saint-Charles train station so he could catch the bus. Though you may not believe it, this train station is one of the architectural highlights of Marseille, mostly owing to the richly decorated grand staircase—adorned with statues, columns, and elaborate light fixtures—that leads from the city center up to the station building. The station building itself is quite attractive as well, a classic open metal frame.
But we did not have all day to contemplate train stations. There was still one monument left on the agenda: the Palais Longchamp. This is indeed a palatial building, though not really a palace: it is a piece of celebratory architecture, a monument to the completion of the Canal de Marseille.
This canal, completed in 1849, was an enormous engineering triumph, requiring the building of tunnels, bridges, and aqueducts in order to transport the water 50 miles (80 km) to the city, using just the pull of gravity. To this day, the Roquefavour Aqueduct—built to carry the water over the Arc valley—is the largest stone aqueduct in the world, stretching 375 meters (1,230 feet)! The canal still provides the majority of Marseille’s water. (New York City’s Croton Aqueduct, another monumental project, was completed at around the same time, and traveled a similar distance. Both projects were motivated by similar problems—growing population, salty local water, and outbreaks of cholera—but the Croton Aqueduct was supplanted within just a few decades.)
Given this background, you can understand why the Palais Longchamp is truly a celebration of water. The two wings of the building extend out from the central arch, where a statue of some Greek goddess rides atop the waves. Water pours down a mossy basin into a pool, and continues falling down towards the street. The visitor can enjoy this splashy spectacle from the two monumental staircases that wind up on either side, which lead through the triumphal arches to the lovely garden on the other side. The two wings of the structure, I should note, are home to two museums: the Museum of Fine Arts (on the left) and Natural History (on the right). They were both closed by the time we got there, though. So we contented ourselves with sitting aside the fountain, having a good chat, and drinking from a bottle of red wine my friend brought along. As far as French evenings go, this was one of the best.
We finished up the night with a home-cooked meal. For this, we took advantage of the North African influence in French cuisine—a lasting relic of the French colonies. We bought merguez sausages, couscous, and eggplant, zucchini, and tomato for a ratatouille. This meal, so simple, made a lasting impression on me, and I have tried to replicate it many times since. The merguez was particularly impressive: made from lean lamb meat, full of garlic and spice, it is very much unlike the sorts of sausages available in Spain. The couscous—also not popular in Spain—was light, fluffy, and filling, while the ratatouille (made by my talented friend Lily) was wonderfully flavorful.
The night ended, as it always must, with an episode of a history documentary—this one, about the Spanish Civil War (free on YouTube). It had been a wholly enjoyable day.
I did not have much time before my flight the next day. And I had even less time to see Greg, since he had to go work (he was researching in a government archive in the area). So after a breakfast with Lily, I headed off to see one final Marseille monument: the Abbey of St. Victor.
This is an extremely old monastery—dating from the fifth century—though it was mostly destroyed by invading Vikings and Saracens, and later rebuilt in the tenth century. The abbey is situated next to yet another old castle, the Fort-Saint-Nicolas; and indeed the church looks quite formidable itself: its high, crenellated walls make the building look more military than devotional. Certainly, positioned as it is with a commanding view of the old port, the church would have been a good defensive structure in the case of an invasion. Though I am not sure that the monks would have made the best warriors.
The building is just as formidable on the inside as without. Spare of decoration, the visitor is confronted with grey stone walls forming a somber environment. Even more dark and gloomy is the crypt, where the visitor can find half-ruined tombs and cracked carvings. Yet the building’s interest goes even further back than the church’s founding, as a Greek-era quarry was discovered here, as well as a Hellenistic Necropolis. As so often happens in Europe, history is simply piled on top of itself here.
Before my bus left to the airport, I had just enough time to eat some more delicious kebab. That may have been a mistake, however. All of us experienced some sort of stomach problem either during or after our trip. Lily got sick on the way over from New York. In my case, for many days after returning to Madrid, I would find myself nauseated after eating just a bit of food. It was rather odd.
Infirmity or no, however, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this supposedly dangerous city. One comes away from Marseille with a very different image of France than the typical Parisian experience. The people were friendly, the food relatively cheap, and the environment thoroughly Mediterranean. I would gladly return to see more of the region.