Known as the heart of the Mediterranean, Marseille is the oldest city in France. This bustling metropolis with more than a million inhabitants, is France's second-largest and its premier port. Marseille is a place of unique sounds, smells, and sights. It is a dynamic city, as cosmopolitan now as when ancient Phocaeans first founded it as an international shipping port 2,600 years ago.
The topography of the area has changed over the centuries: originally the port extended to what is now the Centre Bourse. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, all of the town's marine activities took place here.
Today, pleasure boats are moored beside fishing boats, and every morning the fishermen sell their catch at the renowned local fish market. The town hall, situated on the right bank, looks onto the Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica which dominates the south bank and provides a panoramic view of Marseilles.
The attractions of the city are largely concentrated around the port, including the opera house, museums, galleries, theatres, monuments (such as Pharos Palace, various forts, St Victors Abbey) as well as the Panier district where the ancient Phocaeans first settled. Beside the Hôtel-Dieu, which dates back to the 18th Century, and the Accoules bell tower constructed between the 17th and 19th Centuries, is a stairway typical of old Marseilles that leads directly into the Panier district.
Place de Lenche is where the Greek agora (meaning marketplace) of the ancient city once stood. The area still bustles with life in the market, restaurants and theatre. At the summit of the old town is Place des Moulins which in the 16th Century was home to fifteen windmills making flour. Both the windmills and the warehouses were demolished three centuries later. It retains the tranquility of a village square, with its fountain and local school.
The Vieux Port, the old harbor, is especially colorful, in contrast to the somewhat dreary industrial dockland nearby. It is also the destination of many North and sub-Saharan Africans, who, along with the Italians, French, Lebanese and Armenians, create a lively mix of races and creeds, that have always harmonized.
Marseille is the most important port in the Mediterranean. The major imports include petroleum, wine, fruits, and olive oil. New industry has recently come in: Eurocopter, the world's largest helicopter maker and Comex, a marine and nuclear engineering group are recent additions to the economic life of Marseilles.
Marseille today actually occupies twice the amount of land space as Paris. In spite of the difficulties inevitably associated with life in a large city, it is bustling, always fascinating, and unlike any other in France. The arts are coming alive in Marseille! An abandoned, former cigar factory has been named La Friche la Belle de Mai, and has opened recently as a 164,000 square foot space entirely dedicated to dance, theater, music, film, visual arts, and literature. There are rooms for rehearsals, performances, workshops, a radio station, and lounges for conversation.
The city is a showpiece: a medley of brilliant white stone rising above a picture perfect seaport framed by enormous neo-Byzantine churches. The winding alleyways of the old town reveal ancient buildings painted in broad strokes of saffron and robin's-egg blue. It provides the perfect setting for its film industry, because there is nothing artificial about Marseilles. The town is filled with real beauty and raw energy. In 1998 the World Cup was held in Marseille with four players on the winning French team being natives of the city.
Marseilles will always be known for its beaches, for its 35 miles of gorgeous coastline, and for its superb bouillabaisse. It is emerging now as a dynamic creative center for musicians, filmmakers, theater directors, and fashion and furniture designers. The exciting story of this new Marseilles is now unfolding. What a perfect time to visit!