Written by Alex Drobniewski
(A Runner-up entry in the Heritage Writing Competition.)
Situated as it is between the Roman grandeur of Nîmes and Avignon to the west, and the decadent riches of Cannes and San-Tropez to the east, France’s second city offers a heady mélange of cultures and sights. From an historic centre founded by the Phoenicians to a dense modern, multicultural metropolis, Marseille and its people provide a truly unique perspective, and a perfect gateway into the famously breathtaking Côtes d’Azur.
I found my time in Marseille greatly enriched by a deeper understanding of its heritage and history – something that was broadened by the striking and modern MUCEM (The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisation). It provided an interesting presentation on the founding and development of Marseille that really opened my eyes to the fascinating and turbulent history of the city – from the founding of ‘Massalia’ in 600BC as the first Greek colony of Gaul to its bloodstained history as a flashpoint in the French revolution, Marseille has always been a vibrant centre of culture, trade and politics.
The city does a fantastic job of providing access to this colourful history in its many museums – and after delving deeper into its unique history, it becomes easier to see why Julius Caesar spared it from destruction after his conquest of Gaul, claiming it was already too ancient and significant a city to destroy.
Despite a rich and and fertile heritage, Marseille is anything but set in its ways. Regular cultural events hosted by the city showcase everything from contemporary dance and music to modern re-invigorations of classic theatre, with the Théâtre de la Criée providing everything from hip hop workshops to performances of Shakespeare and his revered French counterpart Molière, all in the fabulously grand and richly historical setting of the Vieux Port, virtually unchanged since its founding nearly three millennia ago, and yet simultaneously overflowing with life and culture.
Marseille’s status as the largest port in France and its historic significance as a place of trade and immigration is in no small part responsible for its unrelenting vibrancy and diversity. New arrivals from every corner of France’s colonies and elsewhere have left their indelible mark on the city, and the streets abound with an intoxicating array of cuisines, cultures, languages and people from all walks of life.
This frenetic and revitalising abundance of activity, culture and sheer humanity nevertheless manages not to rob the city of a certain sedate Provencal charm, and long afternoons of pétanque and gently sipped pastis – a strong aniseed aperitif not for the faint-hearted and not to everybody’s taste but religiously adhered to in the city – are a ritual for the city’s inhabitants and visitors alike. For the young of body or soul, the Cours Julien provides a vibrant atmosphere with its charming, overflowing student bars and stylish international restaurants in the evenings, and a more sedate cultural environment for window shopping and people-watching in the long Mediterranean afternoons.
Not far from this dynamic neighbourhood, with its ubiquitous and varied street art, the imposing cathedral of Notre-Dame de la Garde keeps a watchful eye on the city, providing a perfect viewpoint from which to soak in the immense breadth and haphazard beauty of Marseille.
The building itself is both a striking symbol of the city and deeply interwoven into its heritage – its walls bear scars from the city’s liberation in the second world war, another reminder of the inextricable relationship between this city and its tumultuous history.
Those wanting a break from the energy and dynamism of Marseille are more than well provided for. A quick bus ride from the city takes you to the first of many calanques which form a stunning national park stretching all the way to Cassis.
The cliffs sloping starkly down into hidden coves, pristine beaches and shockingly clear turquoise waves have to be seen to be believed. Brave – or foolish – young men fling themselves from the outcrops in heart-in-mouth dives, tourists and locals alike mingle in the narrow inlets, and a swim in the pristine water is a beautifully refreshing antidote to the challenging journey along meandering stone paths that is required to reach this small paradise.
Revel in the awe-inspiring beauty of the views, watch with small stirrings of envy the occasional yacht drifting unhurriedly across the horizon, and marvel at the fact that you are barely ten miles from France’s most vibrant and diverse metropolis. And don’t worry, it’s there waiting for your return.
POSTED 18th FEBRUARY 2019 by STEVE HANSON on behalf of ALEX DROBNIEWSKI. Photographs were supplied by the author after the competition had been judged.