Marseille is the second largest city in France and the third metropolitan area. Located in the former province of Provence and on the Mediterranean Sea, it is France’s largest commercial port. It is considered the Provençal capital, one of the Occitan capitals of Occitania, and the most populated, and France.
Marseille is also the capital of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur région, as well as the préfecture (capital) of the Bouches-du-Rhône département. To the east are the villages of the Calanques and Cassis, further afield is the town of Toulon. To the north of Marseille are a range of small mountains and the Mont Saint Victoire. To the west of Marseille is the Camargue region and the Gulf of Lyon. The city itself is spread across a wide geographical area divided into 15 arrondissements. The central four contain most of the city’s historic buildings and its services. The city’s main thoroughfare, the wide boulevard called La Canebière, stretches eastward from the Old Port (Vieux Port/Panier quarter). Adjacent to La Canebière is the Old Port (where the marina and fish market are located.)
To the south east of central Marseille is the Prefecture and the roundabout Castellane (a bus and metro interchange) in the 7th arrondissement. To the south west are the hills of the 9th arrondissement, dominated by the Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. The train station – Gare St Charles – is north of the Centre Bourse in the 3rd arrondissement. It is at the end of La Canebière and is near the square of Victor Hugo. The airport Marseille-en-Provence lies to the North West of the city at the Etang de Berre.
Vieux Port is the old harbor and heart of Marseille. Lined with yachts, fishing boats and restaurants, most streets lead to this historic center. Vieux is also the location of Marseille’s famous fish market held on Monday through Saturday mornings.
At the entrance to the old Port are two large forts – Fort St Nicholas on the south side and Fort St Jean on the other. The main commercial centre of the city intersects with the Canebière at Rue Paradis and the Centre Bourse (the main shopping mall). Pedestrianised squares radiate away from the Canebière and the old port such as Cours Julien and the Place du Général De Gaulle, both of which have fountains.
Abbey of Saint-Victor
Dating back to the 5th century, this structure is located on a hill above the old port and contains the twin tombs of the 4th century martyrs and a 3rd century sacrophagus. The sanctuary was destroyed in a Saracen raid but rebuilt in 1040 A.D. Each year on February 2nd, the statue of the Black Virgin inside the abbey is carried through the streets in a candle lit procession; green candles are used to represent light and hope.
Notre-Dame de La Garde
This structure is the highest point in the city and offers beautiful panoramic views of the Marseille area. The architecture dates back to the 19th century and is located 1 km south of the Vieux Port. Inside the cathedral are beautiful mosaics, multicolored marble and paintings by the Dusseldorf School.
The Château d’If is a stable (later a prison) located on the island of If, the smallest island in the Frioul Archipelago situated in the Mediterranean Sea about a mile offshore in the Bay of Marseille in southeastern France. It is famous as the setting of Alexandre Dumas’ adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The château is a square, three-story building 28 m long on each side, flanked by three towers with large gun embrasures. The remainder of the island, which only measures 30,000 square meters, is heavily fortified; high ramparts with gun platforms surmount the island’s cliffs. The Château was built in 1524–1531 on the orders of King François I as a defense against attacks from the sea. However, its construction was extremely controversial. When Marseille was annexed to France in 1481, it retained the right to provide for its own defense. The castle was therefore seen by many of the local inhabitants as an unwanted imposition of central authority. The castle’s principal military value was as a deterrent; it never had to fight off an actual attack. The closest that it came to a genuine test of strength was in July 1531, when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V made preparations to attack Marseille. However, he abandoned the invasion plan, perhaps deterred by the presence of the castle. This was perhaps fortunate, given the weaknesses identified by the military engineer Vauban in a scathing report in 1701: “The fortifications look like the rock, they are fully rendered, but very roughly and carelessly, with many imperfections. The whole having been very badly built and with little care… All the buildings, very crudely done, are ill made.”
The Château d’If’s isolated location and dangerous offshore currents made it an ideal escape-proof prison, very much like the island of Alcatraz in California. Its use as a dumping ground for political and religious detainees soon made it one of the most feared and notorious jails in France. Over 3,500 Huguenots (French Protestants) were sent to If, as was Gaston Crémieux, a leader of the Paris Commune, who was shot there in 1871.
The island became internationally famous in the 19th century when Alexandre Dumas, père, used it as a setting for The Count of Monte Cristo, published to widespread acclaim in 1844. In the book, the “Count” (actually the commoner Edmond Dantès) and his mentor, Abbé Faria, were both imprisoned on If. After fourteen years, Dantès makes a daring escape from the castle, becoming the first person ever to do so and survive (in reality, none are known to have done so). He adopts the identity of the Count of Monte Cristo and takes revenge on those who had falsely sent him to the island, driving them into bankruptcy and suicide. As was common practice in those days, prisoners were treated differently according to their class and wealth. The poorest were literally at the bottom of the pile, being confined to a windowless dungeon under the castle. The wealthiest were much better off, living comparatively comfortably in their own private cells (or pistoles) higher up, with windows, a garderobe and a fireplace. However, they were expected to pay for this privilege, effectively forcing them to fund their own incarceration.
The city boasts a wide variety of sports facilities and caters to almost every interest. Among the more interesting sports is one that is similar to marbles/bocchi ball (see picture below). Sailing is also a major sport in Marseille. The winds can blow from different directions and allow interesting regattas in the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Most of the time it can be windy while the sea remains smooth enough to allow sailing. It has been considered as a possible site for 2008 Americas Cup. Marseille is also a place for other water sports such as windsurfing, sailing and powerboating. Marseille has three golf courses to its north and north east. The city also boasts dozens of gyms and several council owned swimming pools. Running is also popular in many of Marseilles parks such as Le Pharo and Le Jardin Pierre Puget.
Cassis is a town commune of the Bouches-du-Rhône département, in southeastern France. It is a popular tourist destination, famous for its cliffs and the calanques.
Cassis has drawn many famous painters to its sunny bay including Vlamick, Matisse and Dufy. Cafes, restaurants and seafood shops cluster around its harbor and three beaches. Be careful not to look up as as Cassis lies at the foot of Europe’s highest cliff, the 1,300 foot Cap Canaille!