Capital of Mediterranean France
Marseilles - a short guide
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La Major cathedral, from the entrance to the Mucem museum.Marseilles is a city that only really opened up to tourism at the very end of the twentieth century.
Marseille is the "oldest city in France" and indeed one of the oldest in western Europe. The city was founded as Massalia in around 600 BC, and soon developed into an important port in the ancient Greek world. For the Greeks, and later for the Romans, it was a major point of transition and trade between the civilisations of the Mediterranean, and those of Gaul and northwest Europe.
And that, essentially, has been Marseilles' role ever since. Located near the mouth of the Rhone - the greatest natural corridor between the Mediterranean and the lands to the north, it has long been one of the most important, when not the most important, port in France – a role that explains its importance and its size, as France's third largest urban area, to this day.
Rather in the same way as Genoa or Naples, Marseilles' importance as a port rather hindered its development as a tourist destination; and while other Mediterranean ports like Barcelona and Valencia began to develop their tourism in the 1970's, Marseilles did not. Its port was too important. But more recently, Marseilles has managed maintain its status as one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean, and develop as a tourist destination at the same time.
Fort Saint Jean from the top of King René's tower.The paradox with Marseille is that although it stands proudly beside the Mediterranean, it is not a seaside resort. The gentler and flatter coast northwest of the city is occupied by the docks, and southwards from the "Old Port", the seashore is rocky, with no beaches until the Plage du Prado, 6 km further south. So it's not a place to visit if the aim of the trip is solely or mainly to enjoy the beach. The shoreline and the waterside ambiance, yes; but the beach, no.
For a day-trip or a weekend break or short stay, Marseilles is an ideal destination, specially during those times of the year when it tends to be bathed in Mediterranean sunshine while much of France further north is still struggling with spring or dampened by autumn mists and showers. And getting to the tourist quarter of Marseille around the Old Port is remarkably easy.
The area around the Old Port is the tourism heart of Marseilles, and very attractive too now that the 1970s motorway that formerly stood on stilts between the town and the shore has been put down into a tunnel.
The most interesting and attractive sites of Marseilles can all be reached on foot from a starting point at the Mucem, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations.
Central Marseilles, around the Old Port.Main central Marseilles tourist sites.
Le Vieux Port - the old portThe tourism mecca of Marseilles, the Old Port, the main port of Marseilles for over two thousand years, is now a large marina, flanked on three sides by restaurants bistros cafés and shops. At the inner end of the basin is the pleasure cruise terminal, from which visitors can take boat trips round the port, out to the Island of If, or along the coast to Cassis. for visitors staying more than a day in Marseilles, a boat trip is a must, to experience the views of Marseille from the sea, and the dramatic coastline to the southeast.
Sometimes there is a free ferry that operates across the Old Port, close to the entrance. In recent years, services have been sporadic, and there is talk about introducing a charge.
A short way to the south of the Old Port is the Abbaye St Victor, the current building dating from the 12th century church. The crypt contains a collection of sarcophagi tombstones and decoration dating from the 5th to the 12th centuries.
The Mucem- the Museum of the Mediterranean is a modern cultural and historical museum devoted to the civilisations and culture of the Mediterranean. Tickets (2017) 9.50 Euros - or 14 € for a family ticket. An aerial walkway connects the Mucem to the Fort Saint Jean on the other side of the wharf.
The Fort Saint Jean.This is perhaps the most impressive historic site in Marseilles - a seventeenth-century fortress, built by King Louis XIV, that stands guard over the entrance to the Old Port. Included in the Fort Saint Jean are the 15th century Tour du Roi René (King René's tower), and the Commandery of the Knights Templar.
Access to the Fort Saint Jean is free of charge; there is a charge only for access to special displays which are part of the Mucem, and included in the price of the Mucem ticket. Among the free attractions of the Fort Saint Jean are the fine views over the old city, the old port and the sea, a Mediterranean botanical garden, and the freedom to wander round the ramparts and into some of the historic buildings, including the Tour du Roi René. The upper terraces of the Fort Saint Jean are connected by aerial walkways to the Mucem and to the Old City
The Eglise Saint LaurentAccessible by an impressive aerial walkway from the Fort Saint Jean, this is one of the older churches in Marseilles, a 12th - 13th century church built in the Provençal romanesque style. It is simple and sobre, in marked contrast to the exuberance of the 19th century Sainte Marie Majeure cathedral (la Major) a few hundred metres to the north. From St. Laurent, it is an easy walk to the old town or to the cathedral or to the Old Port.
La Major cathedralLike the Sacré Coeur de Montmartre in Paris, the La Major cathedral is a fine example of French 19th century neo-romano-byzantine architecture, a sumptuous place of worship making fine decorative use of white marble and red and green stone. In architectural terms, it is a pastiche, incorporating elements of style from different historical periods and styles - towers and cupolas, decorative stonework and mosaics. It is the only cathedral in France built in the nineteenth century.
Le Quartier du Panier - la ButteThe St. Laurent church stands at the southeast top of "la butte", the hilly outcrop north of the Old Port. This is the oldest part of Marseilles, an area occupied for over two and a half thousand years. The old quarter here is known as the Quartier du Panier - a network of narrow streets with small shops and restaurants and street vendors. It is hardly 600 metres from end to end. Not to be missed in the quartier du Panier is La Vieille Charité, a former 17th century hospice, with colonnaded facades round a central courtyard. The complex contains several museums, including an archaeological museum and a museum of Africa. Entry to the site is free, but there is a charge for the museums and galleries.
La CanebièreThe "Champs Elysées" of Marseilles, La Canebière is an avenue running northwest from the end of the Old Port. The Marseilles tourist office is on the Cannebière, just up from the port.
Le Musée CantiniThe best fine art museum in Marseilles is located in Rue Grignan, 400 metres southeast of the inner (eastern) end of the Old Port. The Cantini museum specialises in art of the first half and middle of the twentieth century, covering Pointillism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, abstract art, and Surrealism – and is one of the best in France for this period. There are plenty of major works by the most important artists of the period, including Matisse, Signac, Dufy, Marquet, Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Miró, Max Ernst, Arp, Picasso, Giacometti, Bacon and many many more. Entrance 5 €uros (2018).
Other sitesIn addition to a self-guided walking tour in and around the area of the Old Port, as detailed above, there are a number of other places further afield in Marseilles that merit a visit.
Notre Dame de la GardeAnother 19th century neo-byzantine church, N-D de la Garde is unmissable, as it can be seen from all over Marseilles. It stands at the highest point in the city, about 160 metres above sea level, to the south of the Old Port. Its domes and cupolas are abundantly decorated on the inside with gilt mosaics. The building uses a similar blend of white and coloured marble to that used in the building of La Major cathedral. It is another fine example of exuberant 19th century architecture. Most of the visitors who go up to the church do so to admire the spectacular views that it offers over Marseilles, the coast, and the surrounding landscape. It can be reached by taking bus line 60 form the old port. A visit to Notre Dame de la Garde is included in one of the "little tourist train" circuits. See below
The Chateau d'IfA must for the tourist in Marseilles. Boat trips to this island in Marseilles bay depart from the Old Port. The château is a fortress built in the 16th century by François I, which featured in the famous novel by Provençal writer Alexandre Dumas, the Count of Monte Cristo. It was also used in the movie the French Connection. Explore the old prison and enjoy the views of Marseilles from the sea.
Musée des Beaux Arts - Fine art museumNot one of the great French privincial museums, the Marseille fine arts museum has mostly paintings by French artists, though few works by the great masters. It also includes four paintings by Rubens, one by Tintoretto and one by Perugino.
Plages du Prado
The coastline south of the Old Port is rocky with few proper access points to the water. The only real beach in Marseille itself is the Plages du Prado, a A three kilometre bus ride (line 83) from the Old Port, along the corniche to the south of the city. Very busy during sunny weekends and in the school holidays. The beach area is man-made, and was developed in the 1970s on a base of rock and stone excavated for the building of the Marseilles metro system.
Rocky shorline, looking towards the Plages du Prado and the hills of the Calanques National Park beyond.
Rocky shorline, looking towards the Plages du Prado and the hills of the Calanques National Park beyond.
The Little TrainAnd of course Marseilles has its "petits trains touristiques". Three circuits possible, departing from the north side of the Old Port. 174 Quai du Port, about in the middle of the quay.
Madragues de MontredonA small harbour at the southern end of Marseilles, and the start of the Calanques national park. (See below). Take bus 19 from Rond Point du Prado station on Metro 2 line as far as the terminus at Madrague Mont Rose. Easy access from here to the harbour, then to trails / small roads along the rocky coast to Callelongue. Great views and opportunities for swimming off the rocks..
Marseilles' hinterland, Provence, is more popular as a tourist area than Marseilles itself. There are plenty of opportunities for day trips out from Marseilles, some accessible for visitors who do not have a vehicle.
Yachts moored in a calanque at Cassis.France's most recent National Park, created in 2012. The Calanques are narrow inlets at the foot of the steep, sometimes towering, limestone cliffs that characterise the coastline to the east of Marseilles. At the heart of the Calanques is is the little seaside town of Cassis.
The hills behind the coast are arid limestone. Hikers can access trails from the southern terminus of bus line 22 at "Les Baumettes" (recommended). Connect to bus line 22 from Metro 2 or Bus 83 lines at Rond Point du Prado.
They can also be reached from the terminus of Bus line 20 at Callelongue.
Take care if leaving your car in an open car park in this area. Lock all doors and do not leave valuables or bags visible to prying eyes.
Aix en ProvenceAccessible by local train (do not take the TGV!) from Marseilles. A beautiful historic town that embodies the flavour of Provence.
The CamargueRenowned wetland area and natural park to the west of Marseilles. An hour's drive. See Camargue guide. Not accessible by train.
Roman Nimes and ArlesBoth towns are easily accessible by car or train from Marseille. See Roman France and Nimes guide.
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