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Published: October 15th 2018
Arriving direct from the wide avenues we had walked along in Lyon, our first impression of Marseille was that it seemed just a bit more edgy and gritty. The walk from the Gare Saint Charles down to the Vieux Port and La Panier wasn't far. About 1.4 km. Not scary at all (despite a lot of the publicity about the area), just a little more life and movement, much narrower streets, a bit more litter about and a more diverse population. We refined this impression as we moved about some parts of the city but we didn't move too far away. It may be the weather that has been great for most of our week here but that, combined with the life of the city, made Marseille a European city that we could easily live in.
We had organised accommodation in the area of La Panier bordering on the Vieux Port. We did this on the basis of reviews that reported that Vieux Port was the place where most of the tourist interest would be found. This was good advice as far as it went. The area around Vieux Port is very tourist oriented. Very easy and perhaps even indistinguishable
from other similar places. Back away from the port area it is a little less pristine - but not much. La Panier is more interesting but the tidying up that has taken place - which, given its history was no doubt needed to make it more safe and comfortable for residents and tourists alike - has made the place just a little bland. Unfortunately, the strategy of increasing the cost of living here, which was successful in changing the area from what was described to us a 'favela' to a tourist friendly old town by clearing out many of the criminals, has also moved out the small businesses - the shoe makers, small stores, boulangeries, small cafes etc. We had to hunt for a nearby place to buy a croissant and baguettes for breakfast, but there were several good and not-so-good restaurants nearby. At La Boîte à Panisse, one minute's walk from our apartment, we had the best sardines and panisse we've come across.
Marseille has had a rough history marked by war, massacres and destruction interspersed with periods of considerable economic power. Established by the Phoenicians as Massalla (and later called Massilla), taken over by the Greeks and
developed into a Greek city, taken over by the Romans in 49 BC, it remained as a Roman city for a few hundred years. Then it entered the musical chairs game carried out in this part of the world by nobles who took over and then traded and trashed cities without much regard for the people who lived there other than as chattels to be taxed.
The Black Plague arrived in 1720 and that took out over 100,000 people, 60% of the population. The Aragonese arrived later on and raided and killed, along with others. Killing large numbers of the population seemed to be the pattern for conquerors. The Nazis were probably the worst, at least the most systematic. They had the best technology so far and blew up 75% of La Panier that they considered to be giving them the most trouble and all except half a dozen buildings in Vieux Port that seemed, to them, to have some merit. The birthplace of the French Resistance seems to be claimed by more than one part of France. The people of La Panier, the then poor of the city, appear to be the Marseille candidates for beginning the resistance.
At the very least they annoyed their new occupiers so much that most of them lost their homes.
In 2013 Marseille was elected European Capital of Culture. We were told that some people here talk about it as the flipping of the tortilla. It changed a lot of things. The mafia organisations that had held a strong influence over the affairs of Marseille had their power dramatically reduced and many of their leaders were gaoled. The city decided it wanted more tourists (and more of their dollars) so it cleaned up La Panier, redeveloped the Vieux Port, opened up the cathedral at the New Port (that appears to have sat there with lower than expected use since it was completed 150 years ago), built a lot of infrastructure and tidied the place up pretty well.
The result is good. The place we stayed in was a nice apartment on the border between Vieux Port and La Panier and it was quite convenient, easy and safe. Admittedly we don't have problems in most places - primarily, we suspect, because we are inoffensive old people who don't carry stuff in our back pockets or an open backpack, and one of
us often looks kind of shabby. And these days we aren't often out in the early hours of the morning, drunk, or perhaps with a couple of exceptions ... more than a couple ... can't remember.
The Musèe d'Histoire de Marseille is worth a visit. The museum is on the site of an archaelogical dig that you can wander about. The exhibits that are in the modern building provide a very good analysis of the history of the city from before before the Phoenicians established the town of Massalla to the present, very effectively. The presentations are modern and well thought through. There could perhaps be a little tweaking to ensure that the commentary in the headsets, providing guidance in the language of your choice, more closely matches what one might be looking at, but you can generally work it out.
Again we took a walking tour covering the old and new ports and La Panier. Ezeqiel of Marseille Free Walking Tours was a good guide, using a mixture of serious historical information and gentle humour to provide a professional and thoughtful tour lasting 2 hours. There were a lot of people on this tour held on a
beautiful sunny day. Luckily, on this occasion the guide had a little amplifier on his belt that meant that those such as me - with hearing aids and increasingly hearing challenged - have a chance to hear something. It was good. As is the pattern on these tours, Ezequiel worked for tips. I know that it is unlikely that he will read this post but just a hint we have picked up from others doing the same thing - find a gentle way of letting people know what sort of tip might be reasonable for such a tour. Those on our tour who considered 5 Euros an appropriate tip from two people must have had a lousy time, been short of cash or tighter than most.
Our impression of the area around Vieux Port was that perhaps the city had overdone its clean up. It is impossible to say, but you do wonder. What were grassed areas are now paved, possibly to assist in cleaning and to make it more acceptable to tourists. Unfortunately, all the paving makes things hot and glary and, in a place that gets hot, this is not ideal.
We had the opportunity to
ponder the need for clean spaces each morning from 5.00am till around 7.00am. I can be precise because the noise is pretty special. At that time of the morning there is not a lot of traffic and the roar of these compact, rather neat machines was certainly enough to wake me. We aren't urban dwellers and are more likely to be woken by a kookaburra cackling on the clothesline than a machine that has large rotating sweepers on the front, a suction pipe of some nature behind the sweepers that takes up all, and I do mean all, of the random litter and leaves that have had the temerity to drop over the last 24 hours. The machine is complete with a high pressure water hose that, apart from increasing the decibel level when engaged, seems very effective at removing whatever detritus the sweepers miss. The operation of the hose, at times, requires either the driver or an offsider to scamper amongst the parked cars and such to spray areas of special concern.
These aren't just a Marseille thing. We spotted the same machines in Lyon but operating at the much more civilised hour of 2.00pm, or perhaps, to
be fair, that is simply when we saw them. I do have to say that the cleaners did an excellent job and were very careful to sweep every leaf and piece of paper.
Marseille has a metro that appears to take you to much of the rest of the city. There is a bus system that supplements the metro and extends, of course, out of the city. The Calanques are a popular destination for those who want to swim and climb. You can also take a boat (not when it's windy, though) to the Calanques which are in a national park outside the city. We moved around on foot for the most part and, even though anywhere from the Vieux Port is uphill, the walk up to the Palais Des Arts through the Notre Dame du Mont area and on to Place Castellane was very enjoyable. It provided us with a perspective of life in Marseilles that was a little more realistic than that down in the port area. Still very comfortable.
The walk up into the hills was required because that is where the music, or rather the musical instrument, shops seem to be. Alas, no really
nice mandolins. Pity that it isn't a popular instrument in Europe. I guess we will just have to go to the good old USA.
We did have an interesting time at the Place Castellane. This is a reasonably significant transport hub. Buses, the Metro, major roads and even footpaths come together here. There are a lot of people, particularly at peak periods. We arrived, fortuitously, at the beginning of lunchtime. As you would expect there was a variety of restaurants and eating establishments. Most of the Place was in full sun and it was a hot day. We spotted a group of restaurants in the shady part and headed there to look at menus. After perusal it became clear that this group of 4 restaurants - 2 inside and 2 outside - was actually all the one place, the Cafe Massena. And it was popular. Before we actually worked out that it was the one place we had snagged a table and settled in. Everyone, it seemed, was in a massive hurry with the exception of two ladies sitting more or less alongside us, and us. Waitstaff running back and forward to the kitchen, food and drink appearing quickly
and efficiently, much noise but, with all that, a very effective and efficient operation.
One of the ladies next to us had ordered moules (mussels) which are very popular at the moment. Unfortunately, they weren't completely to her liking. She carefully opened them all, counted the actual mussels against the number of shells. There was clearly a discrepancy so she called the waitress who referred the matter to the man who seemed to have some sort of authority who immediately delivered another meal, this time acceptable. No time to waste arguing.
This same lady turned to us at one point and asked if we were English or American. When we told her that we were Australians she was delighted. She had visited Australia and loved it. We shared stories for a while. A Marseille native, she didn't like Marseille much though. It was no longer the place it had been. I guess when you get to a certain age that can be par for the course.
The Notre-Dame de La Garde is apparently not the principal church in Marseille but it is the most popular and definitely has the best position high on a major hill above
the port area. Views from there are 360 degrees of the city. We took the number 60 bus from a stop in the Vieux Port (but I think the bus starts in Belsunce). A little easier than walking up but certainly an easy walk down. The views are spectacular. The queues for the Basilica were very long and there was a gale blowing on the day we visited so we took our (somewhat hazy) photos and left the interior to those with more dedication to the cause. But the views from this church are not to miss on your visit here.
A week doesn't provide enough time for conclusions but we did form an impression that the people of Marseille are not the sort to let things go by. There does, however, seem to be a stronger 'live and let live' philosophy here than in some places. If you need to stop and turn around in the street then you do so. Perhaps you try not to upset others too much but, if you do, they will express their displeasure loudly, you will then explain to them, again loudly, what you are doing and tell them to wait. The
turn completed, all continue on. On a bus full of people, a lady presses the button, perhaps the driver misses the stop, perhaps it just looked like he might, but suddenly half the bus is calling out 'Arrêtez, Arrêtez, Arrêtez'. Bus stops and the lady gets out. Everybody gets involved. None of this pass by with your eyes averted stuff.
An enjoyable and lively city.
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