Skip to main content

Marseille's Vieux Port and Forts: An Urban Hike

1-DSC01419Marseille's central attraction, the Vieux Port really lives up to its name, the Old Port, but first glances wouldn't tell you that. It's a sizable natural harbor, sheltered from the sea, that's been an important center of trade since it was founded by Greek refugees about 600 BC. These days, it's mostly used by fishing boats and yachts (the big freighters moved around the corner to the new port in the mid-1800s). Above, a glimpse of the port through an arch in the Panier neighborhood.


Its reputation as a rough and dangerous place is pretty much in its past; in recent years rough venues have given way to bars and restaurants attracting thousands of residents and tourists out for a good time. And in the past couple of years it's had a bit of a makeover for Marseille's reign as 2013 European Capital of Culture. The upgrades included removing almost all traffic, new sidewalk surfaces, and a Norman Foster-designed event space that is an attraction in itself—at least to those who like to see themselves upside down. 




We started out at the head of the port, on a walk to the new Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (no one says that; they just call it MuCEM) that's opened recently at Fort Saint-Jean, one of the two forts guarding the harbor entrance, but it turned into a more comprehensive circuit, including the area around the museum, the heights above it, an ancient church and finally a restaurant memorable for its role in Love Actually. Along the way, we stopped for lunch, after first having dessert from this cart: hand-made fruit-juice ices.


The Hotel de Ville, or City Hall, faces the port; currently it's decorated in banners highlighting Marseille's upcoming role as 2017 Capital of Sport. 



Fort Saint-Jean, now part of the new museum, is certainly an imposing structure; as you approach it, the walls and towers seem to offer no welcome. Which is not surprising, considering their purpose. It was built, along with Fort Saint-Nicolas, in 1660, after a revolt by Marseillais against their royal governor. They were built with their artillery aimed at the city, not against invaders from the sea.



The fort served the French military until the Nazis seized it when they occupied Marseille; for many years it was the last stop before Algeria for Foreign Legion recruits. The interior was largely destroyed by an ammunition storage explosion during the war, and remained unused until it was made part of the planned space for the museum.


 We followed signs for the museum that took us around the King Rene Tower (at left, above) and found ourselves on a narrow walk next to the points we wondered whether we were supposed to be there, but eventually it widened. We were surprised to see a number of people swimming in the harbor, despite the "Baignade Interdite" signs.





Stopping for a geology check: Mostly Limestone, with shells visible




From that path, we got good views of two other Vieux Port landmarks: Fort Saint-Nicolas on the opposite shore, and Marseille's landmark hilltop church of Notre Dame de la Garde.




Continuing around the base of the fort, we got our first look at MuCEM's new building, main site for its exhibits. As you can see, it shares bulky, blocky proportions with the Fort, but its contrasting color and its lacy facade reveal the difference. 



 It's reachable by the roundabout walk we made, but also by a high overpass that begins on the corniche above the port, pierces the fort itself, and continues to the museum.



Just before MuCEM is a small area for boat anchorage, also being used by about a dozen teens as a concrete beach and swimming signs of anyone enforcing the "No Bathing" rule. Perhaps the signs are just to make the liability lawyers happy.



Next door to MuCEM is the Villa Mediterranee, which describes itself as "an international center for dialog and discussion" about the Mediterranean." I'm not sure how they distinguish between dialog and discussion, but the building itself is an interesting cantilevered structure that offers great views and a nice break on the walk.




After a stop at Villa Mediterranee, we continued our walk along the waterfront. Mareseille's 19th-century Cathedral was already poking its towers above the Villa, and as we continued, it came into full view.1-DSC01379

1-DSC01384This is only the latest of Marseille cathedrals to stand on the spot, going back to the 5th century. It was built in the 1850s in Byzantine/Roman style to highlight the city's growing importance and wealth; part of the 12th-century cathedral was left standing next to it as a chapel.





As we continued our walk, climbing again to the heights above the museum area, we found that we were inadvertently following the path of a Marseille history walk whose brochure we had seen at the Marseille History Museum. It's well-marked, and would be worthwhile to have the brochure if you make the walk: some of the signs have lapses in translation.



From above, we were able to look down and see the blocky and grim building that is the memorial to those who died in Nazi death camps. It includes eyewitness and personal accounts of people of Marseille who were deported. Unfortunately, it was not open during our visit, and it is unclear when it will open again.



Continuing on, we were again looking down at the Vieux Port. These low buildings along the edge, built in the early 19th century were the first modern quarantine station and provided a worldwide model for others to identify and treat infected people and products arriving by sea. Now they are used by port administration and customs.



The Saint-Laurent church was our next stop; it sits on the edge between the old port district, the Panier, and the fort itself. Built in the 11th century, it gives an impression of being itself a fortification.


Inside, we found a very simple church with beautiful windows, one of which cast subtle color on the stone around it.








After Saint-Laurent, we began our descent back to the Vieux Port, walking through the streets of the old Panier district, or to some degree their replacements. During the war, German authorities found it difficult to control activity in the area, a medieval warren of small streets and hidden passages that its inhabitants knew well and could readily disappear into.



 On the morning of January 23, 1943, troops, with the aid of French police, forced all residents out of the area and dynamited most of the buildings. Many of the evacuees were transported to camps or prisons, and many have never been accounted for. This plaque was placed by a group of survivors in 1962.




A short way down the street, a reminder of an ancient profession, and one still of great need for today's transient peoples, needing to correspond in new or strange languages...



Reaching the head of the Vieux Port again, we noticed this oddity; a Gothic church, with a Baroque facade that is not blended with the rest of the church...and, on both sides, just behind the facade, retail stores built into the church building.



For a final fantasy, before dinner, we walked down the opposite shore of the Vieux Port to have a look at the Bar de la Marine, Already famous in French literature as the setting for Marcel Pagnol's trilogy (Marius, Fanny, Cesar) of the 1930s, it appeared more recently in one of our favorite films, Love Actually, as the restaurant where the marriage proposal is made.




Our second two-day visit to Marseille...and so much more to see. Clearly we'll have to come back! 


The thumbnail slideshow below includes more pictures...hope you enjoy!


Images (47)
  • 1-DSC01352
  • 1-DSC01354
  • 1-DSC01357
  • 1-DSC01358
  • 1-DSC01359
  • 1-DSC01361
  • 1-DSC01362
  • 1-DSC01363
  • 1-DSC01364
  • 1-DSC01366
  • 1-DSC01367
  • 1-DSC01368
  • 1-DSC01369
  • 1-DSC01370
  • 1-DSC01371
  • 1-DSC01373
  • 1-DSC01374
  • 1-DSC01376
  • 1-DSC01378
  • 1-DSC01379
  • 1-DSC01381
  • 1-DSC01382
  • 1-DSC01384
  • 1-DSC01386
  • 1-DSC01387
  • 1-DSC01388
  • 1-DSC01390
  • 1-DSC01391
  • 1-DSC01393
  • 1-DSC01395
  • 1-DSC01398
  • 1-DSC01400
  • 1-DSC01401
  • 1-DSC01404
  • 1-DSC01405
  • 1-DSC01406
  • 1-DSC01407
  • 1-DSC01412
  • 1-DSC01413
  • 1-DSC01417
  • 1-DSC01419
  • 1-DSC01422
  • 1-DSCN1610
  • 1-DSCN1648
  • 1-DSCN1649
  • 1-DSCN1652
  • 1-DSCN1654

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Add Comment

Comments (2)

Newest · Oldest · Popular
Link copied to your clipboard.