Marseille is France's oldest and second-largest city, founded by Greek seafarers in 600bc it's been a major trading point for over 2500 years. The city's past is important because it's this and its location that makes it the cultural melting pot it is today
We are here for the day and our exploration starts at ‘le Vieux Port’ (the Old Port), you’d never guess this immaculate harbour was once a major industrial fishing port. This was the place seafarers landed their catch, and it functioned like this from its discovery until around the 1840s. Unfortunately after this, the Old Port went into decline when larger deeper berths were constructed to accommodate larger ships.
But it wasn’t just the fishing industry that shaped the future of this city, its proximity to the major ports of North Africa, Italy and Spain meant that Marseille has always been a refuge for multiple waves of immigrants that have and continue to settle here.
To the present day, Marseille like any large city has its challenges. Increasing demand for affordable housing and lack of large-scale employment means sadly unemployment for its burgeoning population is high. Vast sums continue to be poured into regeneration schemes here but sadly the label that Marseille is a ‘dangerous city’ still lingers.
Does this mean Marseille is off the menu for visitors? I’ll answer that with a resounding no, in fact, the opposite is true, this is a great city. It’s always advisable when visiting any major city or unfamiliar place to stay alert and be a little street-savvy, and it’s no different here, there will always be opportunistic crime and no-go areas no matter where you go.
So what can you expect when visiting this city? I’ll start where I began, overlooking the now revamped and mainly pedestrianised Vieux Port. Friday is Fish Market day and people come from far and wide to buy straight off the boat. It’s amazing to see the fish being prepared for customers, the chatter and the hectic atmosphere, it’s worth a look.
If early starts aren’t your thing, then why not just wander in the pleasant surroundings, perhaps take a look at the fabulous installation L’Ombrière de Norman Foster, Foster is an awardwinning British architect known for his modern designs of steel and glass. L’Ombrière is a giant polished steel canopy reflecting the visitors walking underneath, very Instagramable.
Heading uphill behind the Port we enter the Le Panier district, ‘panier’ in French means ‘basket’ and this place is a small basket in the middle of the city. It’s one of the few historically old districts of Marseille left standing after WWII. Having once been known as ‘a little grubby’ area Le Panier was given a new lease of life in the 00s, following its selection for European Capital of Culture in 2013.
Here, every street corner is a museum, walls are adorned with extraordinary street art and its narrow alleyways with pretty buildings, small shops and cafés connect to larger spaces that double as extended terraces for cafés in warmer months. Take your time and admire, visit the ‘Vieille Charite’ (Old Charity) building, a historical workhouse now utilised for arts and cultural activities.
Having now ventured back towards the Old Port we reach Marseille’s enormous Cathedral, Cathédrale La Major. A national monument of France, its dimensions are similar to the St. Peter’s Basilica of Rome, and it took over 40 years to build. This city and the wider region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur offers so much to the visitor making city breaks, and longer holidays all very possible and of course this is France, the home of gastronomy…Marseille is no different, it’s stuffed with eating possibilities, and thanks to historical immigration the food choices here go off the Richter scale. Africa, Italy, Greece, Spain, Corsica and more are all represented here, take your pick from the markets offering fresh produce, fish and spice or head out for fine dining, harbourside eats or sample a taste of Africa, Ghanaian, Moroccan, Tunisian the list goes on. Marseille is a fascinating multi-cultural melting pot, something that’s replicated in its famous dish ‘Bouillabaisse’, a rich fish stew with perfectly balanced exotic flavours. It’s so famous there’s even a national day for it! A good Bouillabaisse takes a long time to perfect, each unique ingredient blending with the other to create something really special, that’s Marseille in a nutshell…get it on your ‘to-go’ list.