I had heard bad things. From multiple sources. And the kinds of sources that don’t generally say something without first thinking about it. They all had similar stories, recounting times where they felt uncomfortable or simply not welcome.
Even the French tend to hold a bad impression of it. They say that it’s more dangerous. They say that there isn’t much to see there anyway. It is the butt of jokes in France.
This is Marseille, the second largest city in France. It’s also considered to be the oldest, founded by Greeks in roughly 600 BC.
The city is situated on the Mediterranean Sea and thus makes for a perfect port location. It was able to thrive throughout history due to the industry that this provided but it brought with it many dangers. In 1720, the Great Plague of Marseille killed more than 100,000 locals.
Perhaps this also explains why the city is renowned for being more hostile than others. Yet the rumours (as per normal) aren’t upheld in this town. Undoubtedly, there is a rough edge to this old city but as one walks through it’s inner city streets and alleys they can’t help but feel perhaps this is just a thing of the past.
The first day it rained non stop. It was cold and blustery and there seemed no escape to the rain. The kind of bluster that would rip your umbrella apart. Just as it began to die down and give hope of stopping altogether, a gust of wind would arrive and bring with it a heavier downpour. Perhaps this environment was fitting for a city like Marseille. The cold and wet stone pavements of the streets didn’t stop the seamen from soldiering on in all those years in the past, and so nor should it stop me from exploring the city.
In the city limits at least, there was never a sensation of being uncomfortable – life operated as normal here just as it did in every other city in France. The people, on the most part, will leave you to your own devices and there are enough tourists exploring the main sights that you’re never truly alone in the dark.
But perhaps this isn’t the best year to comment on daily life in Marseille. Because things are slightly different this year. In 2013, Marseille has been elected as the European Culture Capital and they have embraced this wildly. Events are regular and there are extra exhibitions around town. This has certainly attracted even more tourists and probably attracted greater funding from the authorities to clean up the streets somewhat.
Regardless, the rumours of Marseille being unsafe were unfounded. The outer suburbs weren’t explored, and this may well be a different story but if you stick to the city limits, you will feel comfortable enough.
Nor were the moans and groans of fellow French that there is not much to see in Marseille. Even excluding the extra sights due to being the Culture Capital of Europe, Marseille has an astounding array of sights to see.
One of the biggest and best is the Notre Dame de la Garde, a church built on top of a hill overlooking the old Marseille city. It’s becoming clear that this was a common thing to do when constructing a city. Find the tallest hill within the vicinity and build a church on top of it.
Chances are the Notre Dame de la Garde is the first thing people will notice when exiting the major railway station Gare Saint Charles. It presents itself as a towering figure symbolically overlooking the city, keeping it safe.
The Notre Dame de la Garde offers a couple of things. One is that when you arrive there the architecture is quite astounding. The best of this is the interior that makes the Notre Dame in Paris pale in significance. The many stained windows allow the external light to penetrate it’s thick walls into the inside and it reflects of the golden arches and domes on the ceiling producing a glittering effect. Models of boats hang from the roof, an indication of what is important in this town.
Atop this church lies a behemoth of a statue of the Notre Dame herself. It is she that supposedly protects the town, and both inside and outside of the church is lined with plaques of citizens or organisations that have given their thanks to her for the ongoing protection. Somewhat ironically, she protected me on my first visit by providing me shelter from the rain and winds outside.
The second advantage is the view that it provides of Marseille. The sprawling urban landscape is in full view from here and it provides a full indication of just how expansive Marseille is. It also looks out over the Mediterranean Sea, providing a view of the islands nearby. One of these hosts Château d’If, made famous in the Compte de Monte Cristo. The centrepiece of the view is another major attraction of Marseille, the Vieux Port (literally, the old port).
The Vieux Port is where this town began and although all of the industry has since been shifted to the west it still houses a lot of boats. These boats come in the form of either privately owned or used for tourism. This is the hotspot of Marseille and is where one will find the best restaurants. The water is a sparkling blue on clear sky days but get closer and the beauty will lessen slightly. Many people use the place to eat their lunch while watching the activity of the inner city and then simply dump their trash into the harbour. It makes for a pretty ugly sight next to the harbour as the water contains all forms of trash.
But Marseille is not known for being a beautiful city. It has spectacular and pretty elements without doubt, but to call it a beautiful city would be a stretch. There are nowhere near as many parklands here as compared to other French cities and the few that are in the city don’t seem to be maintained very well.
And while this may not be preferable, this is Marseille. And it’s representative of Marseille and it’s the true Marseille. With an open mind you can begin to appreciate that it’s all part of the charm that it provides. A different form of charm that is commonly associated with France, but it’s a charm nonetheless.