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What's the Best Way to Experience Marseilles?

My writing includes my personal travel experiences, destination, history, and cultural information.

I've been to Marseilles a few times. The first time I visited Marseilles, I was not impressed. It seemed to be just another port city. Being close to the end of a long cruise, perhaps, I was just too tired to enjoy the city? On subsequent trips, however, I had a fabulous time and came away with a whole new impression of the city! And to top it off, I found that I had a very personal connection to the fabulous city of Marseilles!

A Bit About Marseilles:

Marseilles, founded in 600 BC by Greek settlers, is the oldest city in France and the 3rd most populated. I find it very interesting that it is the oldest city in Europe which has always been occupied.

Up until the French Revolution in 1792, Marseilles was pretty much off the "historical invasion radar". There had been minor invasions and occupations but nothing substantial. During the French Revolution, many inhabitants fled the city (actually the country) ending up in different European spots. However, Marseilles did gain notoriety during this time...... a group of volunteers from Marseilles sang the national anthem in Paris. Although the song was written in Germany, the crowd so loved the performance that the name La Marseillaisewas chosen as the name of the national anthem.

WWII brought heavy invasion to Marseilles. For a short time, it was occupied by German troops. It soon became liberated and since then, the city has grown exponentially.

Since its founding, Marseilles has relied heavily on its geographic location in terms of maritime trade. As an example of the importance of the port, even today, 50,000 of the 900,000 residents are employed within the maritime industry. In addition to maritime trade, the port brings in about 2.5 million visitors per year. This number includes about 900,000 brought in by cruise ships.

Marseilles Has So Much to Offer:

Second, only to Paris, Marseilles has the most visitors per year. There are 24 museums and 42 theaters, beaches, restaurants, cafes, and of course, fabulous churches! Although it is a large city, most of the activity takes place within three districts. These districts include the Palais du Pharo, Palais des Congrès et des Expositions (Parc Chanot) and World Trade Center.

Once Again, I recommend the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus to see the important attractions of Marseilles. Actually, my first Hop-On, Hop-Off experience was in Marseilles. It was at that point, that I started using my own acronym to refer to the buses: HOHO. Ever since that first tour, I've been hooked on those buses, especially on a first visit or if my time is limited (like on a cruise).

Vieux Port

On several visits to Marseilles, I spent a good amount of time in Vieux Port, the Old Harbor. Not only are there lovely cafes and spots to have a fabulous meal, but the fisherman's market is there. I will warn you, the fish are a bit stinky. But it's really fun to watch the fresh catch being off-loaded from the boats and the locals inspecting each and every fish for that day's meal! I've also witnessed a fair amount of arguing over the prices between the fisherman and their prospective buyers! Once the selection is made and the price agreed upon, one of the workers' will de-scale and filet the fish for the buyer. (for NO additional cost!)

A short walk from the fisherman's market is an open market that offers the delicacies of Provence, along with clothing, fresh produce, meat, and household goods! More haggling on the prices, but you honestly can get some pretty amazing deals and walk away with armloads of bounty! These local markets are great for bring-home gifts and honestly, things for yourself!

Other Attractions in Marseilles:

As stated there are plenty of museums in Marseilles. But, my friends, I'm really not a museum kind of gal. Yes, I loved the Louvre in Paris, but typically, I like spending my time outside, amongst the sights, smells, and visions of my destination. I've talked about it before in previous articles, I love to immerse myself in my destination.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde:

Here's where my personal connection to Marseilles comes in. My spiritual worship spot, Our Lady of the Shrine in Belleville, Illinois is run by the Fathers of the Oblate. If you have read any of my articles on Rome, you will be familiar with my reference. (Click the Rome link for background info).

St Eugene de Mazenod

St Eugene de Mazenod is the patron saint of Marseilles. De Mazenod was from a wealthy French family. The family members were aristocrats. During the French Revolution, his family, like many others, fled France, leaving their wealth behind. At the age of 20, he returned to France with his mother, and the lifestyle of wealth and privilege was resumed. He pursued this lifestyle with dreams of a privileged future until he was 25. Most days he had a feeling like something was missing in his life and remembered his life of poverty in Italy during his respite. He began a more regular church involvement, reading about charitable work and the conversion of prisoners.

His Conversion and Work

'On Good Friday in 1807, he had a spiritual revelation while looking a the Cross of Jesus. He wept with grief over his perceived sins and shortly thereafter, dedicated his life as a priest. As a priest, he asked to not be assigned to a parish. He felt like his calling was to minister to the impoverished, the prisoners, and those who were ignorant of faith. In other words, He wanted to be out in the community where he felt there was a true need for ministry.

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In 1816, he had other priests join his community service work. Eventually, he was elevated to Bishop and then Archbishop. As the number of priests involved in this community mission grew, Fathers of the Oblate of Mary Immaculate was founded. And then, the mission became global.

Getting Back to the Notre Dame de la Garde:

After DeMazenod was elevated to Bishop, he commissioned the Notre Dame de la Gard. I am told, that part of the reason for this project and specifically its location was so that when the priests who were sent on global missions would see the huge statue of the Basilica on their way out of and back to Marseilles. The sighting would remind them of their mission.

Notre Dame de la Garde:

The basilica consists of two churches and the mounted statue of the Virgin Mary. Located just south of the Old Port, about 150 meters above the sea, you can't help but see it protecting the waterway, the fisherman, and the people of Marseilles.

The lower church is actually a crypt with the Romanesque-Byzantine style church sitting above it. Sitting atop the bell tower is the Virgin Mary holding Jesus. Gilded in copper plate, she stands over the harbor with sheer elegance!

The upper church is decorated with beautiful mosaics and has 6 chapels, all of which are dedicated to different saints.

As with many of the antiquities, the basilica has undergone rebuilds along with many renovations. These have all been funded by private donations.

It is truly a pilgrimage to visit and light a candle for the prayers of the Virgin Mary.

La Corniche

La Corniche is more of any area than a specific location. It is a drive outside of Marseilles from the Old Port. The area sits above the Mediterranean Sea somewhat like a balcony. Once you have arrived, my recommendation is to leave the car and get out and walk. There is a pedestrian walking lane. The views of the Frioul Archipelago and the towers of the Château d’If are stunning! There are restaurants and cafes. On the drive out, you pass through small fishing villages. La Corniche is definitely a way to kick back while in Marseilles. This is the kind of thing I like to do to de-stress and be cruise ready!

Le Panier

If you don't feel like driving out of Marseilles but still have the desire to kick back, then I suggest Le Painer. It's the oldest area of Marseilles and has beautiful ochre-colored walkways. Formerly, it also had the reputation of being the poorest area of Marseilles with an old almshouse as an example of that. I'm wondering if Eugene de Mazenod walked those streets ministering to the needy? The area was also known to immigrants settling in the area.

Today, it is an up-and-coming trendy district. You will find boutique shops, quaint restaurants, interesting street art, and cafes with no crowds.

La Plaine and Noailles

Just east of the old port, you can truly immerse yourself in the day-to-day lives of the good people of Marseilles. Take some time to wander over to La Plaine and Noailles.

In 1830, Algeria became a French Territory. Since then, Algerian immigrants have settled in Noailles. The streets area plethora of open markets and the scent of food cooking wafts through the air. It can be a bit cluttered and noisy but it is life in full swing!

A few blocks away, you will find La Plaine, another up-and-coming trendy area of Marseilles. If you are fortunate to visit on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings, there is a huge market. It's very similar to the market in the old port I discussed earlier in the article but the products are a bit more high-end. the market has local produce and meats available. Also located in this neighborhood, are fashionable boutiques and cafes.

Boulevard Longchamp

Many moons ago, Marseilles had a serious problem with the water supply. Palais Longchamp and the many parks close by it were built in celebration of the Durance River being connected to the Canal de Marseille. This ended the supply issue and was certainly a cause for a jubilee!

The entire boulevard is lined with 19th-century mansions and trees. It screams elegance and old French money. AS you walk the boulevard, you can almost see the sophistication that once occupied these magnificent homes; you can sense the parties and the music of yesteryear!

Today, the former Palace houses the city's Museum of Fine Arts and Natural Museum.

My Impressions:

As I said at the beginning of the article, my first impression of Marseilles was not great. But, after subsequent visits, I grew to really love Marseilles. It doesn't feel touristy. It has the feel of a lived-in city. Yes, there is plenty to see and do, there are beaches, there is history, and it can be crowded with tour buses. BUT, it doesn't have that commercial,

touristy feel to it. I found Marseilles to be clean and safe with lovely eateries and cafes.

I love that I have a personal connection to it and always look forward to returning. Have you been to Marseilles? Please share your experiences in the comments sections. If you haven't been, what are you waiting for? Book your flights through Kiwi and your excursions through Viator and go have the time of your life!

Until Next time, friends, remember, "To Travel is to Live!!"

© 2022 Dee Nicolou Serkin

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