Marseille is France’s second largest city and largest port. But did you know it is also the oldest city in France? Built around a narrow inlet off the Mediterranean Sea and sheltered by the nearby Frioul Islands, the city has undergone massive changes over the centuries, both positive and negative, but the importance of trade has never declined. Thus the city was always centered around the port.
Around the year 600 BC, Greek traders from Phocaea (in what is now Turkey) founded the city of Massalia around a small sheltered harbor not far from the mouth of the Rhône River, the primary method of trade with the Gallic peoples of the region. Over time, it became the preeminent city in the region, self governing and prosperous.
The small sheltered harbor is today the Vieux Port of Marseille!
Despite losing its independence when conquered by Roman forces under Julius Caesar in 49 BC, the city – renamed Massilia – did not suffer in importance. The port (now known as the old port, or Vieux Port in French) was enhanced, and trade routes were established throughout the western Roman Empire.
More than 2000 years later, much evidence from the Roman period has been unearthed along the Vieux Port. The Roman Docks Museum preserves a small portion of the original port, thought to be a warehouse for the shipping of wine from the region.
The Roman docks museum centers around this ancient warehouse.
Today, the Vieux Port remains the hub of Marseille, though a new larger port handles the commercial shipping to the north. Lined with cafes, shops, and hotels, any visitor to this incredible city will find this the centerpiece of their visit, much as visitors in ancient days would have. Purveyors of fresh seafood sell their wares on the weekends, gulls circling overhead to try to get a morsel, and one can’t help thinking that this has probably been happening here for millennia.
Evidence from nearly every era in Marseille’s history can be seen here at the Vieux Port. Just a few blocks away, the Marseille History Museum explains this incredible history using maps and models of the city through the ages. Exploring the museum, I learned that the city was conquered by Charles Martel of the Franks in 739 and, after changing hands a few times due to treaties and being sacked by Spanish Aragon, it finally became part of France in 1487.
One of the city models at the Marseille History Museum.
Walking around the Vieux Port, visitors are greeted with different building projects of different French rulers as the city gained and lost importance. Fort Saint-Jean, an imposing edifice at the mouth of the port, was constructed by Louis XIV. Across the port, the Pharo Palace was built for Napoleon III in 1858.
While Paris was the French capital, Marseille was at the center of French colonialism, the gateway to French possessions in North Africa and beyond. As these colonies prospered, so did Marseille, and the city became a patchwork quilt of French citizens from all over the empire, come to trade and to improve their lives. The city grew rapidly in the 19th century as many in the colonies immigrated, growing from 130,000 residents in 1830 to more than 550,000 in 1905. While the city expanded outward to accommodate all of the newcomers, the Vieux Port remained the social and economic hub.
Modern Marseille is a diverse city, reflective of both the sprawling French possessions around the world and the myriad of peoples who come to a thriving port to find work. Nowhere can this better be seen or experienced than walking around the Vieux Port. Different dialects of French can be heard, and a true rainbow of skin colors can be seen speaking them. Historic cafes serving the famous bouillabaisse, sit alongside North African kebab shops. Pleasure craft fill the marinas, dotted by the occasional ferry. Overlooking it all, as it has for more than a century, Notre Dame de la Garde.
Notre Dame de la Garde over the Vieux Port.
If you truly want to understand what makes Marseille unique, this is the place you must visit. The Vieux Port captures both the present and past of the city, and will likely continue to do so for decades to come.
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