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 metropolis meet those of the coast, its hitherto down-at-heel appearance scrubbed up since its stint as European Capital of Culture 2013. The march of progress is not relentless: occasionally last year’s prestige civic project still 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 the intermittent 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.
The cafés around the Vieux Port, where glistening fish are sold on the quay straight off the boats, are wonderful spots to observe the city’s street life. Particularly good in the afternoon is the north (Le Panier) side, where the terraces are sunnier and the views better. A free ferry shuttles across the port from the hôtel de ville on the north side to the quai de Rive Neuve opposite. Immediately to the north of the Vieux Port beyond the Fort St-Jean, the Esplanade du J4 is the focus of a new cultural quarter.
Two fortresses guard the harbour entrance. The construction of St-Nicolas, on the south side of the port, represented the city’s final defeat as a separate entity: Louis XIV ordered the new fort to keep an eye on the city after he had sent in an army, suppressed the city’s council, fined it, arrested all opposition and set ludicrously low limits on Marseille’s subsequent expenditure and borrowing.