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 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
|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
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)
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
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.
OF NOTRE DAME DE LA GARDE
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.
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
Travel Consultant with The Travel Authority in Mariemont,