In recent years Marseille has undergone a renaissance. France’s greatest port has shaken off much of its old reputation for sleaze and danger to attract a wider range of visitors. What they discover is an earthy, vibrant city, where the attractions of a major metropolis meet those of the coast, its hitherto down-at-heel appearance scrubbed up for its stint as European Capital of Culture 2013. The march of progress is not, however, relentless: too often last year’s prestige civic project becomes this year’s broken, bottle-strewn fountain. But that’s Marseille. If you don’t like your cities gritty, it may not be for you. See beyond its occasional squalor, though, and chances are you will warm to this cosmopolitan, creative place.
Founded by the Greeks some two and a half millennia ago, the most renowned and populated metropolitan area in France after Paris and Lyon has both prospered and been ransacked over the centuries. It has lost its privileges to French kings and foreign armies, recovered its fortunes, suffered plagues, religious bigotry, republican and royalist terror and had its own Commune and Bastille-storming. It was the march of Marseillaise revolutionaries to Paris in 1792 that gave the Hymn of the Army of the Rhine its name of La Marseillaise, later to become the national anthem. Occupied by the Germans during World War II, it became a notably cosmopolitan place in the postwar years, when returning pieds noirs (European settlers from Algeria) were joined by large communities of Maghreb origin and by migrants from the Comoros archipelago, a former French colony in the Indian Ocean.