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Facts about Marseille, France

Updated on April 19, 2014

Marseille is the second largest city in France. The country's most important port, Marseille (sometimes anglicized as Marseilles) is situated on the Mediterranean coast east of the mouth of the Rhône River. The city is the capital of the Bouches-du-Rhône department and of the Provence-Alpes-Côtes d'Azur region.

The City and Its Setting

The coast is rocky and broken by numerous inlets (calanques). From one such inlet, the present Vieux Port ("Old Harbor"), the 2,500-year-old city has grown. Owing to its situation 29 miles (47 km) east of the mouth of the Rhône, the harbor was not clogged by the sediments that ruined ports on the river itself. The Vieux Port is entered between the twin fortresses of St-Jean and St-Nicolas, built to control as well as protect the turbulent population.


Above the port rises the most well-known feature of the Marseille skyline, the hill crowned by the 19th-century Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, surmounted by a gigantic gilded statue of the Virgin. The Vieux Port is not large enough for modern commercial shipping, but it is crowded with yachts and fishing boats. Townspeople come to its quays to buy fish, and from there the tourist can take a boat to the island Château d'If, which housed political prisoners during the Bourbon monarchy.

Many of the picturesque narrow streets of old Marseille were razed in 1943 during World War II by order of the German occupation authorities. Fortunately the elegant 17th-century Hôtel de Ville (city hall) was spared. Excavations conducted in the section of the old town that was destroyed revealed a Greek amphitheater and vestiges of the Roman port. The quays of Greek Marseille were similarly unearthed in the 1960s, during the clearance (prior to redevelopment) of the district bordering the Bourse (stock exchange) and the Canebière, a long street that runs inland from the head of the Vieux Port. The Canebière is the heart of modern Marseille, lined with stores, restaurants, movie houses, and cafés and crowded each day with townspeople and visitors.


Urban Expansion

In the decades after World War II, Marseille was the center of the most rapidly growing metropolitan region in France. Migrants from home and abroad—notably, repatriated French people from Algeria and citizens of North African countries—added to an already heterogeneous population. Urban expansion posed major problems because the city was hemmed in by the hills of Provence. The architect Le Corbusier proposed giant apartment blocks in generous green space, each housing 1,600 to 2,000 people, with shops, a restaurant, a nursery school, and club and sports facilities within each building, but only one block, the Unité d'Habitation, was built (1952). Residential expansion in Marseille proper appears now to have reached its limit. The emphasis has shifted to the suburbs and the wider metropolitan region.

Marseille Cathedral
Marseille Cathedral | Source

Cultural Life

Marseille has a large scientific university, a medical school, and various scientific research establishments. The best known of its several museums are the art and natural-history museums in the Palais Longchamp and the Cantini Museum, housed in a 17th-century residence, which has a collection of Provençal faience.

Although Marseille is the oldest city in France, most of its public buildings were built in the 19th century: the Bourse, the Palais Longchamp, Notre Dame de la Garde, and the enormous New Cathedral, with its eight Byzantine domes. Medieval Marseille survives in the remains of the abbey church of St-Victor and the Romanesque Old Cathedral.

Economic Development

Since the mid-19th century, Marseille has developed to serve the needs of France as a whole rather than those of the immediate region. It is ideally situated for commerce and for processing imported materials, located as it is on the route between western Europe and the Mediterranean, Africa, and Asia; the Paris-Lyon-Marseille rail line by way of the Rhône Valley provides an essential link with the interior.

The processing of imported raw materials by the city's industries includes grain milling, soap making, sugar refining, vegetable-oil refining, and the manufacture of chemicals. The city's commerce expanded with its port, which developed northwest of the city after 1844 in a series of artificial basins, sheltered by a giant breakwater. In 1927 the port was connected to the Étang de Berre by the Rove canal tunnel. The Étang de Berre, the site of oil refineries, is a large lake to the northwest of the city with its own entrance from the sea.

The port and its facilities continued to expand after World War II. The decline in long-distance passenger traffic through the port was partially offset by a growth in car-ferry and passenger traffic to Corsica and North Africa. Facilities were enlarged for roll-on and roll-off loading. The Lavéra petroleum port was opened in 1952 to serve the Étang de Berre oil refineries and petrochemical plants. In 1964 the French government and the Marseille Port Authority jointly created at Fos, west of the Étang de Berre, another series of basins cut into the alluvium of the Rhône mouth. This new port was designed for large carriers of oil, natural gas, and other bulk commodities as well as for container traffic. An associated zone of steel, oil refining, and chemical industries was developed as a Mediterranean counterpart to "overindustrialized" northwest Europe.

At the same time other transportation facilities were developed. They included new highways to Paris, Italy, and Spain and a crude-oil pipeline to Switzerland, eastern France, and the German Rhineland. Marseille-Fos became an effective river port when the canalization of the Rhône to Lyon was completed. Transportation developments within Marseille itself included highways penetrating to the historical core of the city, a road tunnel under the Vieux Port, and a subway system. Marseille-Provence airport, in Marignane, ranks just after those in Paris.

Have you ever been to Marseille?

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