It was a rainy day in May. Starting from the early morning dark clouds closed the sky and the thunder started to play a strong music for hours. Being on vacation in a new country, in a new city it’s not fair to lose any moment and stay at home. But we had no choice, as on that weather we could do nothing. Rain wasn’t going to stop.. But after some hours drops started to come down less and less and we decided to try our luck and go out. On a bus stop we caught a bus to Marseille and let the trip begin.
Who doesn’t know about Marseille city? But before starting the journey in a city, let me tell you few words about the city itself.
Marseille (or Marseilles) is located on France’s south coast and is the third-largest city in France after Paris and Lyon. Being a city on the Mediterranean coast, Marseille is the largest port for commerce, freight and cruise ships.
In the pages of history you may see its name as Massalia. The reason is that the city was originally founded around 600 BC as the Greek colony of Massalia and populated by settlers from Phocaea (modern Foça, Turkey). It became Greek polis (which means city) in the Hellenized region of southern Gaul. However, the city lost its independence following the Roman Siege of Massilia in 49 BC, during Caesar’s Civil War, in which Massalia sided with the exiled faction at war with Julius Caesar.
Now let’s start the journey in a marvelous city full of history, beauty, narrow streets with small cozy markets and much more. Here in this streets, especially in the Old Town part, you can see a lot of examples of street art, all different. One can be just a “scrawling”, but another will show a real art of the street, with nice paintings, small or big, a portrait of someone or a view from the city. If you are a street art lover, be sure to check each corner from your path, as you may discover many places with such adorable colors.
Marseille is also well known with its Mediterranean Bay, which is the Frioul archipelago which comprises four islands, one of which, If, is the location of Château d’If, made famous by the Dumas novel The Count of Monte Cristo. There are many boats services here that can take you to that islands, where you can have a nice walk, discover the 16th century fortress on the smallest island If. The fortress used to be an escape-proof prison, but now it is one of the historical monuments of France.
When our bus arrived to the city, it clouds were already disappearing and the sky was becoming more clear and blue. Luckily the weather became favorable to us. After having a nice lunch close to the sea we took another city bus, which took us directly to the main touristic attraction of the city, to the Notre Dame de la Garde. This is a Catholic Basilica built in 19th century as an enlargement of a medieval chapel. The basilica consists of a lower church or crypt in the Romanesque style, carved from the rock, and an upper church of Neo-Byzantine style decorated with mosaics. The bell tower with belfry supports a monumental statue of the Madonna and Child made of copper gilded with gold leaf. The Basilica is located on the hill, from where you will have a panoramic view of the whole city with all its surroundings.
The interior of the Basilica was attracting with its detailed decorations. Marble made walls were surrounded with mosaic floor and golden shaped ceiling. Inside the church you’ll see a detailed hammered statue of Madonna and a child, which was made after the original one was melted during down during French Revolution. You’ll also have here numerous votive candles and will see many ex-votos on the walls offered to the Virgin to thank her for spiritual or temporal favors. There are also few small museums inside the Basilica, as well as a souvenir market, where you can buy everything related to this place, starting from the magnets and small statues, till the books about the Basilica and the region itself.
From the back side of the Basilica there are steps that lead down to the city, towards the quiet residential buildings. The road would bring us to the Old Port, but before reaching it there was some old fortress style building, which appeared to be the Abbey of Saint Victor. It is certainly one of the oldest buildings in Marseille and was founded in the 5th century nearby tombs of martyrs. The abbey contains some amazing paintings and relics such as a skull or bone fragments. When you get in, you’ll generally enter a church, which has also crypts underground. This crypts contain a collection of sarcophagi from the 3rd to the 6th century AD and archaeological artifacts which makes it a very popular Christian art museum. Here inside the crypt you’ll see some fragments of mosaic art on the walls. This was certainly quite unusual place to visit as it was different from all other churches and cathedrals around. The entrance to the abbey is free and was just few euros to enter the crypt, but if you were going to enter the crypt to pray, it’s also free of charge!
Not very far from the Abbey of St. victor there is the Old Port of Marseille, or as locals call it Vieux Port. This has been the natural harbor of the city since antiquity and was just a rocky cove in Mediterranean. In th 19th century the harbor had capacity of 1000-1200 ships. But during the World War II the Old Port was left in complete ruins, which reconstruction started in 1948 and nowadays it become one of the most visited places in Marseille. Here also was a water tram, which was running every 10 minutes taking people from one side of the port to the other. This was not a yacht, but still a nice experience to try, especially if you need to cross the city and are quite tired to walk a lot under the sun.
Walking through the narrow streets of Old Town, towards cozy markets, surrounded with colorful street art walls, with small and big souvenir shops that smell lavender all around, will bring you to the Marseille Cathedral (also known as Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille or Cathédrale de la Major). This is a Roman Catholic cathedral and National Monument of France, which is the seat of the Archdiocese of Marseille. It has old and new built parts which differ with their styles. The old part was built in the 12th century in simple Romanesque style, but today only small part of it remains. The new cathedral is built in Byzantine-Roman Revival style from 1852-1896. And by the way, it was Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who laid the first stone of the new building.
Unfortunately the Cathedral was closed when we arrived there, but even from outside to make a circle around was worth it. The Cathedral was huge, 142m long and is one of the largest cathedrals in France, with a capacity of 3000 seats. The unique architecture inspires with a dramatic entrance with two bell towers from the facade side. But it is easy to recognize the difference of styles used in the building. This place is a must see in Marseille for its magnificent look and impressive view to the sea due to its location. Some people (mainly Armenians, or the ones, who have any relation with Armenians) will recognize the Cathedral which was on the backstage of the poster of one of the most famous movies about Armenian Genocide “Mayrig”, made by French-Armenian filmmaker Henri Verneuil, where Claudia Cardinale and Omar Sharif were starred.
On the way back to the bus station there were still many nice markets with local specialties, such as lavender and olive. In this markets you could find any kind of things, like soaps and cosmetic oils from lavender, which is the “visit card” of Provence. But what was the discovery of the day was the chocolate and some other sweets made from olive oil. There was a nice sweet market, where you could also have a seat and relax, where they had a big variety of sweets, which ingredient was olive oil. The woman working there was explaining us how this all was made and was giving some pieces to try. I should confess, they were quite tasty and interesting.
In general the streets of Marseille were smelling nice, with a breeze coming from the sea mixed with the smell of lavender. The only thing you should pay attention is your safety, as there were a lot of immigrants all around which were looking strange, and the city itself is considered to be not the safest in France. Despite of all, it is a nice place to visit, but surely our time wasn’t enough to visit all the nicest places here. So if you’re going to visit one of the most famous cities of France, take in mind to book more than a day here, to have better experience and more time to explore the city of Marseille. Maybe another time I will also have that chance. Let’s see 🙂
But here our stories are not ending. We still have more and more places to discover together!
Stay tuned 😉