Around 600 BC, Greek merchants from Asia Minor founded the port town of Massilia (Marseilles) that is now Marseilles' bustling Vieux Port (Old Harbor). The twenty-six centuries that followed have made Marseilles the oldest of the great French cities and the city with the second largest population in France.
MARSEILLES' VIEUX PORT
Although Marseilles lies at the western end of the Cote d'Azur (French Riviera), do not expect Riviera ritz and glitz in this industrial city. Yet, in spite of the fact that this "Gateway to the Riviera" had some of the undesirable elements associated with a tough harbor town, the city's stereotyped image has changed.
With a charm and vibrancy that is appealing to visitors, this ancient port town has become a leading place in theater, sport, and fashion design. Little wonder that this diverse, historic city is now a popular port frequented by cruise ship.
The increasing number of cruise passengers who visit Marseilles, and its world-famous region of Provence, are enchanted by the Vieux Port area and the islands dotted around this spectacular harbor.
Running perpendicular to the port is the legendary Canebiere Boulevard, a magical meld of carousels and cafes, sailors and shops. There you will find a potpourri of shops in the Centre Bourse Shopping Mall.
WAITER AT CAFE IN CENTRE BOURSE SHOPPING MALL
At Galeries Lafayette, you can stock up on colorful Provencal pouches containing Herbs de Provence, and jars (or tubes) of aioli, a mayonnaise made from olive oil and pounded garlic. The latter is delicious served with fish dishes and steamed vegetables. You can also purchase the aperitif Pastis, produced in Marseilles in the Pernod, Jeannot, and Ricard distilleries.
While shopping, look for the Cecilia Facio de Figueres pottery hand-made and hand-painted in Marseilles. It offers a range of realistic fishes and flower arrangements. Also, check out the Provencal fabrics that are shaped and treated with shellac to form charming vases.
Finally, do not forget to take home a few bars of soap. Marseilles is the capital of soap making and no visitor should leave without some genuine Marseilles soap. To be labeled Savon de Marseille, the soap must contain at least 72% olive oil. Lavender is the flavor de jour. Visits can sometimes be arranged to the remaining factories in the city.
TAKE HOME SOME SAVON DE MARSEILLES (MARSEILLES SOAP)
Back in the fish houses hugging the harbor of the Vieux Port, you can feast on some of the fish you might see there during the morning fish market. Depending on the season, you may find sardines, tuna, scorpion fish, mullet, sea bass, and sea bream, to name a few. Bouillabaisse, a rich fish soup, is a specialty of Marseilles.
From the Vieux Port you can take boat excursions to some of the nearby islands. Chief among the islands to visit is that of the famous Chateau d'If, where the Man in the Iron Mask and the Count of Monte Cristo were imprisoned. Chateau d'If is an old fortress that Francois I had built in 1524. It became a state prison in the 17th century and owes much of its fame to Alexandre Dumas's novel "The Count of Monte Cristo".
You can also take a boat trip to the islands of Le Frioul, or take the ferry to the Pharo Palace with views over the city, the islands, and the sea. The Palais du Pharo, presented by Marseille to Napoleon III, was designed by the Parisian architect Lefuel.
Rivaling the Pharo for its views is the panorama looking down on Marseilles from the Church of Notre Dame de la Garde. Built atop the highest point of the city, the first chapel was built there in 1214. In 1524, Francois I had a fort built there and the present Romanesque Byzantine Basilica was consecrated in 1864.
CHURCH OF NOTRE DAME DE LA GARDE
From the esplanade of Notre Dame de la Garde, 26 centuries of history are spread before you. The spectacular view from the top reveals the following: remains of the ancient harbor; the imposing Longchamp Palace, a symbol of the power of Marseilles in the 19th century; architect Le Corbusier's impressive "living machine" apartment block; and the typically Mediterranean neighborhood of Panier dominated by the dome of the Vieille Charite. Vieille Charite, a 17th century architectural set of buildings designed to take in vagrants and orphans, is now a multicultural center.
VIEW FROM THE ESPLANADE OF NOTRE DAME DE LA GARDE
Marseilles is at the very forefront of the arts. It boasts of 25 theaters (including two run by the French National Theatre), 10 concert halls, an Opera House, its National Ballet Company, film studios and some of the most popular rap groups. One of Europe's largest multi-arts centers is located in an old cigarette factory.
Over the centuries, Marseilles has preserved its traditions and unique lifestyle. It is an interesting destination in its own right, a fascinating port stop, or an ideal place from which to discover the beautiful villages and historic traditions of Provence.
JANET STEINBERG is the winner of 40 national Travel Writer Awards and a Travel Consultant with The Travel Authority in Mariemont, OH.