Episode 37 Marseille

Marseille, France

Marseille France

Today on Join Us in France we take you to the beautiful port city of Marseille  in France. You may see an “s” at the end of Marseille in English, but not in French. Being French and stubborn, I will not add the “s”!

If you love our approach to travel and want to tour France with us, visit Addicted to France to look at upcoming tours.

Marseille is the oldest city in France and we’re here to tell you that it doesn’t deserve the bad reputation going around the internet. In Marseille you get lovely weather, great beaches, interesting museums, lots of ports and chances to get on the water, great food–can you say Bouillabaisse?!–great churches to visit and it’s a very popular cruise ship stop too! If you’ve never visited you need to get down there, you will not regret it!

Episode Highlights

  • Marseille in the movies
  • France tourism news
  • A brief history of Marseille
  • The Black Pleague
  • Why is the French national anthem called “La Marseillaise”?
  • Influxes of population in Marseille
  • Marseille during WWII
  • Marseille and the Pieds-Noirs
  • Marseille is the French melting-pot
  • Must-Sees in Marseille
  • Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde
  • La Cité Radieuse by architect Le Corbusier
  • Food in Marseille: la Bouillabaisse
  • If you’re stopping in Marseille on a cruise stop
  • Some things you need to know about taking the bus in France
  • Conclusion

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Marseille in the Movies

You may have seen the Marseille area in famous French movies and books:

France Tourism News

The three most visited museums in France, the Louvre, the Orsay Museum, and the Versailles Palace will soon be open seven days a week. It’ll happen some time next year (2015), we’ll talk about it in the podcast when it is done. The drawback is that when this happens there will be rooms in those museums that will have to be closed on some days, which will be a frustration if you happen to be visiting on that day.

Do You Speak Touriste website to help French hospitality professionals get a little bit familiar with the expectations of tourists from specific countries.

Brief History of Marseille

Marseille France

Marseille is a Mediterranean city situated in the southeast of France at the mouth of the Rhone river and its estuary. It is a natural harbor formed into a curve of about 58 km of coastline, mostly facing west with limestone cliffs and deep fjords called calanques flanking the harbor area.

Calanques Sugiton photo Grafikm_fr
Calanques Sugiton photo Grafikm_fr

Marseille is, in population, the third largest city of France, with about 1 700 000 people in its metropolitan area (Paris and Lyon are 1st and 2nd). In surface area, it is the largest  metropole in France.

Marseille France (1)

Known as a port city and as a place of immigration and mixed populations, Marseille was, for centuries and centuries, the largest Mediterranean port and the most important center of trade, beating out the Genoans and the Venetians for its size and economic importance as a port.

Marseille has the honor of being the OLDEST CITY in France, its founding dates back to the Greeks who went there from the Greek city  of Phocée in Asia Minor (now Turkey) to create a new commercial trading post on the western side of the Mediterranean.

Marseille France

The city of Massilia was built in just about 600 bc, well before the Romans settled the region. It is documented by Roman travelers and Greek merchants that it was, that long ago, the most important trading settlement of  the Mediterranean sea.

Even back in the pre Christian era, Massilia was known as a city of mixity, with all the ethnic groups and religions of the Mediterranean basin living and trading there.

Marseille France

Note: If you want to see what is left of the ancient Greek city of Massalia, go to the shopping mall called the Centre-Bourse. Downstairs is the entrance to the archeology park that has the vestiges of Greek Marseille, uncovered in the 1970’s and now preserved in a lovely small park area.

The Romans, who had protected Marseille from invaders in exchange for a very lucrative commercial arrangement, decided, by the time of Julius Caesar and the Empire, to annex the city because it refused to take sides in the wars between the pretenders to the Empire’s throne. So, in about 50 bc, Marseille becomes part of Roman Gaule and is subjected to its laws. The only  concession made, one that lasts for centuries and centuries, is that Marseille can create its own tax structure and rule itself more or less independently (for a price!!)

That is how Marseille enters into French history – first as a fief of the Consuls of Rome, then of the Emperor, then of the Counts of Provence and Marseille, descendants of the Franks who came and conquered after the fall of Rome.

All this time, it is still the most important and powerful port on the Mediterranean sea!

marseille france

Skipping centuries, we come to the Middle Ages, Marseille is the center of trade from East and West.  It became a major stop for the Crusaders going or coming back from Jerusalem.

The Black Plague


Marseille bubonic plague victims, mass grave
Mass grave of bubonic plague victims in Martigues, near Marseille.

Then, in the 1300’s, Marseille is the seat of one of the most important catastrophes in the history of Europe; it is from ships arriving in its port, in 1347, that the Bubonic Plague enters western Europe!

Coming from Asia Minor, via Venice, the ships carried the plague and from there it spread all over western Europe so that by  5 years later, the Plague was as far as in England, and northern Germany. It is estimated that up to 50% of the population of Western Europe died during that first wave of epidemic.

Marseille was never a slave trade port, unlike other ports in France such as Bordeaux.

In the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance period, the king, Francois I decided to protect this very important port from his enemies and had two forts built, one on the edge of the ancient port that leads to the interior, and the other on the island of If, part of the archipel of Frioul, a group of small outcroppings about a mile or two from the entrance to the port of Marseille. Both of those forts are still standing, one was finished in 1526 amnd the other, near the church of Notre Dame de la Garde, was finished in 1536.

The Chateau Fort of If is not only still standing – it was the location for the story of the Man in the Iron Mask by  Alexander Dumas, and the island and the fortress are visitable! This is where the Count of Monte Cristo and the Man with the Iron Mask are set.

Fort of If in Marseille
Fort of If in Marseille

Another fortified structure was built under Louis XIV by Vauban, the genius engineer who created almost all the fortifications that still exist in France today.

Marseille Fort Saint-Jean photo Christophe Finot
Marseille Fort Saint-Jean photo Christophe Finot

Because of the colonies, Marseille continued to be a very important port – trading in sugar, coffee, rum and whatever products were produced and shipped back to France. Interestingly, unlike Bordeaux and Nantes, it did not heavily rely on trade in slaves as a source of revenue.

Why Is the French National Anthem Called La Marseillaise?

During the French Revolution, the people of Marseille were largely on the side of the Revolution, and it was one of their contingents, traveling up to the area of the Rhine to defend Strasbourg, that started singing a song written as a revolutionary hymn. All the people listening along the way heard the song sung by the Marseillais and so the song became known as the Marseillaise, and has been, ever since then the national hymn of France.

Marseille Marseillaise
Rouget de l’Isle singing La Marseillaise painting by Isidore Pils

Influxes of Population in Marseille

Marseille During WWII

Always a city welcoming immigrants and displaced populations, it was home to thousands fleeing the German occupation during WW II. For two years it was part of the free-zone and was home to a large Resistance. That all ended in November of 1942 when the Germans came in, and many many people were deported. In 1944 the Allies bombed a large part of the port of Marseille to prevent the Germans from using the port and the ships (they also bombed the French flottilla in Toulon for the same reason).

Marseille and the Pieds-Noir

In the 1960’s, thousands of Pieds Noirs, the Europeans who had lived in Algeria all the time it was a French colony, arrived in Marseille – many settled in the city and its surrounding area, bringing with them some of the Algerians who had wanted to stay French.

Santa-Cruz Pilgrimage in Nimes
Santa-Cruz Pilgrimage in Nimes

The Pieds-Noirs Pilgrimage Annie mentions in the show is called Santa-Cruz and it takes place in Nîmes in the sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Santa-Cruz, not in Marseille.

Marseille the French Melting Pot

Marseille Notre Dame de la Garde illuminated
Notre Dame de la Garde illuminated in celebration of being named the European Capital of Culture in 2013

Marseille is forever the city of immigrants, many  ethnic groups and religions live there. It is still a major port partly with container ships, but also with ferries and ships that leave the port of Marseille for all the countries of the Mediterranean with the transport of people.

The old part of the city, recently redone and renovated as part of the program connected to being named the European Cultural Capital of the year in 2013, is a wonderful place to visit.

Marseille has a bad reputation on account of movies such as The French Connection, which states that Marseille is run by the mafia, a place with enormous amounts of drug traffic. Like any major city–New York for example–you can live in a city like that and never see any crime if you don’t go to the bad parts of town. The unsafe places in Marseille are far away from where tourists go. French people may tell you that they don’t want to go to Marseille because it’s a poor city, but as a tourist you wouldn’t go to those poor areas. You should go to Marseille to enjoy what’s good there, and as a tourist you’re in a perfect position to do that!

Marseille France
Photo Salomé

Must-Sees in Marseille

All around the Old Port, there are interesting neighborhoods, and sites to visit. One of the most special is the new museum called MUCEM, a museum dedicated to Mediterranean cultures. It is situated on the edge of the Old Port where the docks have been turned into a large park with walkways, benches and from there you have THE MOST FABULOUS SUNSET.

The Old Port area is next to the neighborhood called Le Panier, (the basket because of its shape) the oldest part of Marseille today. Filled with steps (it is hilly as is most of Marseille) and narrow streets, it is undergoing a huge gentrification, and many artists and craftspeople live there. It is also home to the museum called La Vieille Charité, an art and archeology museum situated in an ancient convent-hospital. It is interesting and picturesque. From the Panier you can walk over the the cathedral, a huge church built on the hills near the docks, a church built in a neo byzantine style.

marseille church

If you are down by the Old Port you can walk up the main artery, called the Canebière, a couple of blocks and turn right to enter the major shopping area. This part is filled with all kinds of shops and if you continue you come to the Museum Cantini, a small but wonderful art museum.

Marseille entrée du port
Paul Signac Entrée du port de Marseille, which you can see at the Musée Cantini
Notre Dame de la Garde
Notre Dame de la Garde
Notre Dame de la Garde

Walk down to the Old Port with its sailboats and small motor boats, and curve around and look up to see the famous and very impressive Notre Dame de la Garde, the church made of green and white stone set upon the highest hill right there. From la Garde you  have the most amazing view of the sea, the Old Port and the Old part of Marseille.  It is a church dedicated to sailors, and it is filled with ex votos, offerings from families for sailors saved, or for sailors lost at sea. Notre Dame de la Guarde is a must-see church in France in our opinion.

marseille notre dame de la guarde ex-voto
Modèle 1951 helmet of the French Army on display as an ex-voto at Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseille. The back of the helmet is slightly bent, suggesting that it was hit by a shrapnel and saved its owner.

Down below, back at the Old Port  there is a wonderful large square behind the port filled with little restaurants, and the colors of the buildings and the open space seem very Italian!

At the end of the Old Port you can catch a boat that will take you to the Chateau d’If, to the Frioul islands (the largest one has stores, restaurants, beaches and houses on it) or, if you have the time you  can get a boat that will take you out to the calanques. The boatride takes you  into the deep cliffsided fjords with turquoise water – to see the Calanques, you either have to go by boat or get to Cassis, or one of the extreme southeastern points of Marseille, and then walk into them. You  can hike up to the top of the cliffs and look down at the water, but there are only a few places where you can go down below.

Marseille has beaches; the most famous is the Prado beach, further down the coast, accessible by city bus or by car. There are restaurants, play areas and a large space for going into the sea. All along the coast, once out of the port area, there are beaches and swimming is possible there.

La Cité Radieuse by Architect Le Corbusier

For those interested in modern architecture, you  can take a city bus out past the Prado circle, to the site of the Cité Radieuse, a major work by the architect Le Corbusier, a modernist whose ideas in the early part of the 20th c. influenced generations of architects to come.

La citée radieuse by Le Corbusier photo Toutaitanous
La citée radieuse by Le Corbusier photo Toutaitanous

Food in Marseille, La Bouillabaisse.

Marseille Bouillabaisse
Bouillabaisse photo Slastic

The most famous dish of Marseille is its Bouillabaisse, a very elaborate fish stew made with lots of rock fish and some shellfish. The authentic dish is very long to prepare. If you wish to have it in a restaurant and want to have “the real thing” it will be costly (50€ per person) – but it is delicious.  Also associated with Marseille are aoli, a garlic mayonnaise (Rouille), tapenade, a spread made with crushed olives and of course olive oil, which comes from the olive groves that grow all around the region.  And you cant go to Marseille without trying its famous aperitif, Pastis, an anise liqueur whose recipe is kept secret.

Marseille la Rouille
La Rouille photo Marion Deveaud

It’s a big meal and it’s expensive, the real thing will cost you at least 50€. Look for restaurants that are members of the Charte de la Bouillabaisse.

Marseille is famous for its soap, the Savon de Marseille, a soap made with olive oil, and also, for its wonderful weather. It is very  sunny in Marseille even though there can be wind, the famous Mistral.

savon de marseilleLiquid Savon de Marseille

liquid savon de marseille

The Olympique de Marseille is a huge soccer team in France, extremely popular.

Marseille on a Cruise Ship

When you take a stop in Marseille you will dock in the large commercial port and they will not tell you of any way to get to the city of Marseille, but you can totally do it. Walk to port exit #4 and take bus #35. That will take you to La Joliette, major transportation hub in Marseille. From there you can walk towards the big church on the hill or take bus #55.

A great resource about cruise ports, including Marseille is Tom’s Port Guide.

If you want to go to Aix, take bus #50 from Saint-Charles, there are buses as often as every 5 minutes, Annie was right, again 😉

Taxis between the commercial port and the old port are 40€, cruise ship buses are usually $20, bus ticket 1.9€.

Things You Need to Know about Taking the Bus in France

Bring cash, they do not take credit cards. If you buy your ticket on the bus it’ll be more expensive, this is done to encourage riders to buy their tickets at kiosks, not in the bus. Your bus ticket is good for one hour and includes transfers. You can generally buy bus tickets in France at any tobacco shop.


All in all, it is a very interesting city to visit. Whether you are coming by train (bullet train is only 3 h30 from Paris, by car, by  plane, or off a cruise ship, it is a beautiful and very interesting city to visit.

It is also a good base from which to go visit Aix en Provence, Cassis, or, if you have access to a car, to some of the outlying villages of Provence.

Table_dorientation_marseille photo revjoy




3 thoughts on “Episode 37 Marseille”

  1. Just finished episode 37 and as usual thanks for the wonderful journey. I’d be interested if Annie could give us an example of the Marseille accent compared to the Toulouse accent (compared to the Parisian accent).

    I’d like to share the following link from Google that takes the visitor on a night walk through a neighborhood in Marseille: Promenade Nocturne
    Thanks for your hard work.

    1. Hello Richard and welcome to Join Us in France! Interesting night walk, thank you for sharing. I’d never heard of those night walks. I love the sounds. I’ve sometimes wondered if I should add city background sounds like those used in this link to Join Us episodes. Thinking, thinking. I really can’t do accents, but I’ve made a note to record people with strong accents and play them on the show sometime.

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