“Marseille is not a city for tourists. There is nothing to see. Her beauty cannot be photographed. She shares herself ”. Thus the writer who most narrated, and loved, Marseilles, Jean-Claude Izzo, he writes about his city. Yet, though fondly said, this is not true; or only partially. Because the most beautiful thing that is written in every Marseille guide, from the old port to the islands, it is precisely Marseille itself: its port atmosphere and border townmestizo and very ancient, its tolerance born from the multiculturalism of capital of the coloniesits apparent neglect and also its history of crime that sadly brought it to the headlines.
Even if now, after years of interventions and investments, Marseille has changed its face. And after being also European Capital of Culture today it is aiming for much more: cruises and excellent cuisine, new museums and neighborhoods in full revitalization where once there were abandoned industries. In short, an urban metamorphosis that focuses less and less on the sea and more and more on finance, high tech and communications.
Even if then, a few minutes away in the small port of theEstaque you can still breathe the bohemian air of when they painted here Cezanne And Braque. While on cliffs of the Calanques, a short distance from the city, birds of prey still nest. For this reason, visiting Marseille means discovering that perhaps Izzo was wrong: his beauty cannot be photographed. But it feels.
Marseille guide. The port as the heart of the city
The old port it has always been the heart of Marseille. It has been like this for twenty-six centuries and it will be like this again. And this is why it is from here that we need to start even if, in the recent past, as every guide to Marseille tells us, a lot has changed after 2013, thanks to the renovation work designed by the archistar Norman Foster which aimed at more convenient access to the area of give up and a reduction in traffic. In addition to having designed a canopy that covers the fish market that takes place every morning in Quai des Belges.
As mentioned, the area was pleasant, due to the presence of clubs and restaurants and very busy. It is much less busy now – and should be even better in the future – and still very pleasant. The right place to watch the life of that go by Marseille which never loses its nature as a bubbling city. Here, on the north side of the port since 2013 the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizationscalled the first museum of the 21st century in France dedicated precisely to the civilization that developed on the shores of the Mediterranean.
A museum like a bridge
The museum is divided into three parts: the one called J4 which is the central part of the museum and hosts temporary exhibitions and two exhibition areas as well as a starred restaurant; the recovered Fort Saint Jean connected with a suspended walkway where there is a green space where shows and events take place. From here then other walkways connect the fort and museum with other historic areas of the city. And finally the third part which houses other collections.
The whole is suggestive and impactful because it seems that the structure is right with the foundations in the water. As is logical for a city like Marseille which has always lived in symbiosis with the sea. It should be remembered that to go from one side of the old port to the other, since 1880, a boat has been in operation which travels the stretch from the Town Hall to aux Huiles square.
Marseille guide: here is the Canebière
There Canebiere it is the avenue par excellence of Marseille. And anyone, tourist or city dweller, will travel at least in part. It is the symbol of Marseille’s pride and ambitions in the past and was wanted by Louis XIV in 1666 on a road that already existed and which gave it its name: here the rope factories stood: and canebe is precisely the name of the hemp used for the ropes.
Over the centuries it has become more and more grandiose joined by Haussmannian buildings and big hotels and cafes. Since 1928 it has connected the old port with the church of the Riformati. Now much of the grandeur has disappeared despite important restoration works: now mostly chain stores and kebab shops overlook it, but the avenue is still impressive.
Arriving at Capucin district you sink into a kind of souk where spice shops and Middle Eastern bazaars are crowded. Once again the city reveals its mestizo soul by recalling that a Marseille, starting from antiquity, they all arrived. And everyone has found their own space.
The basilica that protects the city from above
Right at the top of the city, on the highest point at 147 meters above the sea, it stands Notre Dame de la Garde, the Romanesque-Byzantine style basilica built in the nineteenth century. Nicknamed Bonne Mere (aka Good Mother), is surmounted by a golden statue of the Virgin, which is said to give protection over sailors, the fishermen and all the Marseillaises.
The church is characterized by the polychromy of the materials and the use of gold and mosaics, among other things very beautiful and consists of two parts: a lower one with a crypt ceiling and one the actual church, the sanctuary, consecrated to the Virgin (that’s why it is celebrated with a pilgrimage on August 15th). The walls are covered with numerous ex-votos displayed on the walls as proof of the great dedication of the faithful. Outside, from the top of the hill, there is a splendid view of the city.
Visit Marseille, from the old port to the islands: the Panier
Our Marseille guide then takes us behind the Town Hall where the historic district of the city is revealed: “Le Panier“, a maze of streets and squares and stairways on the north side of the hill that reaches the old port. It is the first nucleus of the city, the one in which the Greeks settled and for this reason it is considered the oldest urban neighborhood in France.
The origin of the name seems to derive from the sign of an inn called “The Logis du Panier“, which was in this area in the seventeenth century and over time, after a long period of decline now the whole area has been subjected to a complex work of renovation. Despite the works and interventions, it remains a very suggestive area where the best thing is to get lost: and let go of your legs looking for glimpses to see and corners in which to stop.
The image that will remain most in your mind is certainly that of steep roads that climb up the hill sometimes interspersed with stairs. All around are houses as high as five floors attached to each other leaving only space for narrow and dark alleys: but on the other hand there was little space and it was necessary to find accommodation for the many foreigners who arrived here over the decades: and among their many courses and Italians.
The Greek cisterns and the Corso building
Among the widenings to visit in our wandering through the alleys is la place Place de Lenche (which stands where there was the ancient Greek agora): takes its name from a Corsican family, the Lincio, who had built their palace right there thanks to the wealth derived from the processing and trade of coral. Even today it is very popular as a meeting and market place and under it there are the caves Saint Sauveuror rather the cisterns of the Greek city from the 3rd century BC classified as a historical monument in 1840. Too bad: they are still inaccessible.
Just up the hill it is located Place des Moulins and it is a square where tourists often do not arrive: this is the territory of Panier people. Once there were windmills here and one still remains today. At certain times of the day it looks like a village of the Provencewith plane trees, fountains and people talking.
Beyond Marseille for a trip into the blue
The Frioul archipelago it is located right in front of the city and for a long time it had a strategic role being dedicated exclusively to military use. Since the 1960s, however, Friul has been returned to the city by the Ministry of Defense and everything has changed.
Today, around a hundred inhabitants live throughout the whole year that it welcomes overall 40,000 visitors a year attracted by a unique flora and fauna. The village of Port Frioul was born in 1974: now it is some places to eat, a tourist port which welcomes the boats of those sailing along the coast and there is also a fish farm with innovative techniques which has been defined as the first organic farm in the world.
There are well 200 species of plants in these islands and many are protected as are the seabirds that nest there. Here are over thirty kilometers of coastline protected from the lashings of the mistralthe wind that beats the coast.
The Isle of If and the Count of Monte Cristo
The Marseille guide will tell you though that of all the islands most tourists want to visit the island of If. Tradition has it that The Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned here. That is, in the fortress built in 1500 which soon became a prison for the most dangerous convicts but also for Protestants in the 17th century.
The most famous prisoner is undoubtedly José Custodio Faria that Alexandre Dumas will describe in his book the Count of Monte Cristo. Then in 1890 the fortress will stop being scary. And now the island and the castle can be reached with a boat service that transports more than ninety thousand people every year.
L’archipelago of Riou it is made up of several islands and reefs that reach over 160 hectares of land right in front of the Calanques. Now, since 2102, the archipelago is a former nature reserve integrated into the Calanques National Park.
The island of Riou is the largest island of the archipelago: measure about 2 kilometers long and 500 meters wide. Here you can find plants of rare protected species and there are several diving sites. The regulations of the reserve establish strict restrictions on access so as not to disturb the wildlife. Camping and the presence of commercial activities are strictly prohibited.
Guide of Marseille: we finish with the trip to the Calanques
Finally, one of the most beautiful excursions from Marseille is the one at calanques, the long expanse of white limestone cliffs interspersed with coves that stretch over thirty kilometers south of the city. The show of crags it is glamorous and dramatic, one of the coast’s most spectacular Mediterranean of France.
However, they are largely inaccessible by car and difficult to reach on foot and therefore it is worth choosing a boat trip. That’s why to visit Marseille to the fullest you need to leave the land behind and look ancient Massilia from the sea. Izzo would agree. And this gives us the opportunity to discover the blue soul of the oldest city in France.