Millennial views on Marseille
Don’t wait for another empire to collapse before visiting the most ancient city in France
One of Marseille's many lively neighborhoods, Cours Julien, was recently named the 12th coolest in the world, according to global publisher Time Out. I make the mention because it somehow feels as though writing about Marseille requires justification when up against NIce, Cannes, Antibes, Saint-Tropez (and the likes).
The Pope recently made a historic visit to Marseille, also making for some buzz. Long before the Catholic church was instituted, and long before France was France, Marseille was a shining citadel on the sea. Founded 2600 years ago by Phoenicians, Marseille is the oldest major city in France. As the legend goes, Marseille (Massalia) was founded upon the union of Prôtis, a Greek sailor, and Gyptis, a princess of the local Gauls. The harbor of Massalia was offered as a wedding gift, and temples for Artemis, Apollo, and Athena were built on the surrounding hills.
The legend sets the stage for what Marseille–often referred to in French as la cité phocéenne–would become in its very essence: a cité in the Greek sense, autonomous and self-determined, but also a port of entry where foreign peoples and cultures make their home.
Up until the reign of Louis XIV, all kings who claimed Marseille as a part of their kingdom were required to swear, upon entering its gates, to respect the special liberties and privileges of its citizens. Only then were the golden keys to the city handed over. The Sun King would finally put an end to their insolent self-determination. He erected two massive fortifications at the harbor's entry to prevent any future insurrections. Ironically, a century later, a battalion from Marseille arrived in Paris chanting La Marseillaise. From a city that was historically at the nation's fringe would arise the anthem of national unity.
France is characterized by strong regional identities, but Marseille surely has the strongest identity as a city. Its inhabitants are proud to be Marseillais, only incidentally French.
The foundational union between an ancient Greek sailor and the local princess also speaks of ethnic blending. Marseille has since been forged by its distinct ethnic communities, arriving in waves from across the sea. Italians–mostly from Naples–arrived in great numbers during the 19th century, Corsicans as well. Starting in 1915 the Armenians came, fleeing the genocide, followed by Russian Jews from Turkey. The end of the war in Algeria submerged the city with immigrants, referred to in France as les pieds noirs. If you hail from Marseille, you are by definition an immigrant or a descendant of one. Americans will relate to that, as they will the idea that it doesn’t matter where you come from now that you’re here.
Marseille has not only been the great gate of entry for immigrants but also for trade with the Orient and the French colonies. All things exotic once transited through Marseille. Tomatoes, zucchini squash, and dates made their French début there, before becoming commonplace. To this day, the quartier known as Noailles is a huge exotic market the equivalent of which doesn’t even exist in Paris.
I had lived in France for 25 years before my initiation to Marseille. Ashamed to say, I had been turned off by the city’s bad reputation for gangsters, mafia, disorder, grit, and football fanatics. It didn’t seem like a place where I could take postcard-perfect photos. Well, that’s not so far removed from what the Nazis thought as well. A multi-cultural mess, Marseille embodied what they hated most. And so they set about to destroy it, blowing up building after building for no particular reason, until the war ended. By that time, they had wiped out the entire historic area around the old port.
As is always the case when we allow ourselves the chance to experience a person or a place, beyond our prejudices, I was enchanted by Marseille. Not only by its splendor but also by the kindness of its locals who went out of their way to help with all sorts of needs. For sure, there is grit in proportion to its grandeur. Compared to Nice, where all the wrinkles are ironed out to suit the foreign tourist, Marseille has an indomptible and deep-rooted character. It has been an arena for horrendous human affairs, starting with the 18th-century plague. On the hilltop quartier known as Le Panier, a Greek temple once stood, buried now beneath cobble-stone streets that serve as an outdoor museum for street art. At the bottom of the hill, a vast agora leads to the Muceum, a museum of European civilization.
Even the social housing is not devoid of interest. In 1952, Le Corbusier completed the once experimental and extremely controversial Cité Radieuse in a Marseille suburb, now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Emperor Napoleon III, who did much to transform the city, commissioned the largest cathedral to be built since the Middle Ages. La Major as it's called, consecrated at the end of 19th century, offers a glorious neo-Byzantine entry to Marseille from the port.
The Emperor also had a palace built for the Empress Eugénie. His empire collapsed before they had a chance to enjoy it.
The palace is now surrounded by a public park called the Jardin de Pharo. From its heights, you can observe the port, but also far out over the sea. It is one of those places where you can sit for hours, entranced by the shining citadel that Marseille once was and could again become. Beyond the horizon, across the infinite azur, there was once a city called Phonecia, where this odyssey began. Perhaps you’ll also notice the same elderly woman sitting on a bench nearby, gazing motionless toward the sea, with eternity reflected in her eyes.
In addition to the city, you won't want to ignore the beaches and the natural beauty surrounding Marseille: