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Visiting the Old Port, Marseille, France: some impressive and largely unchanging views

Updated on March 11, 2013
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Traditional fishing at the Old Port, Marseille
Traditional fishing at the Old Port, Marseille | Source
The Old Port, Marseille, viewed from Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde Basilica
The Old Port, Marseille, viewed from Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde Basilica | Source
Marseille Mayor and Deputy Gaston Defferre (right) fighting a duel with Deputy René Ribière (left) in 1967
Marseille Mayor and Deputy Gaston Defferre (right) fighting a duel with Deputy René Ribière (left) in 1967 | Source
Map location of Marseille, France
Map location of Marseille, France | Source

Taking the long view

This is one of the very widely familiar scenes of France: the masts yachts, and fishing boats at the Old Port of Marseille (1) (French: Vieux-Port de Marseille ), overlooked as it it by Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica (French: Basilique de Notre-Dame de la Garde ) (2). Variations on this scene, from many angles, have found themselves into guidebooks and onto calendars over very many years.

There is a curious sense of timelessness about the Old Port of Marseille. Known by Greeks in Antiquity as Massilia, it is remarkable to consider that this port city was thriving when many of the leading cities of the modern world did not exist.

In the 19th century, what is now the Old Port began to be supplemented by a new port at La Joliette; in the 20th century, Marseille's huge container facilities supplemented existing ones. The great port expansion which came about especially from the middle of the 19th century was caused partly by France's increasing colonial trading activities in the Mediterranean area and also by increased shipping resulting from the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

Some people comment that many of the local people who frequent the Old Port and its cafés are tacit — or more than tacit — supporters of the National Front (French: Front national). Good Republicans are said sometimes to cringe at the disobliging remarks which might sometimes be heard made about foreigners or immigrants: but it is worthwhile remembering also that many workers of the Bouches-du-Rhône department, who in recent years have supported the National Front, are former Communists: one wonders how such a striking, outward shift of allegiance has been internalized. In fact, the reality is that Marseille has for thousands of years been open to overseas newcomers and to the trading links with which they have been associated.

One of the buildings facing the Old Port is the City Hall (French: Hôtel de ville), a building dating from 1653, which, towards the end of World War Two was personally liberated by a Resistance fighter who became the long-serving Mayor of Marseille, Parliamentary Deputy and Interior Minister Gaston Defferre (3).

February 8, 2013


(1) While in English the name of the city has often been written with a final 's': 'Marseilles', yet increasingly the usual French spelling without the final 's': 'Marseille', is being used.

(2) The Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde Basilica was built on a 149-metre hill overlooking the Old Port between 1853 and 1864. Its style is neo-Byzantine. Its architect was Henri Espérandieu (1829-1874). Interestingly, the building of this imposing structure, development of new port facilties and French support for the opening of the Suez Canal which increased Marseille's trade all occurred during the reign of Napoleon III.

(3) Mayor Defferre (b. 1910) served in that capacity from 1944 to 1946 and again subsequently from 1953 until his death in 1986; the determined and firey Monsieur Defferre truly dominated the city's life for several decades.

Also worth seeing

In Marseille itself, its numerous visitor attractions include: the thoroughfare La Canebière leading from the Old Port; Saint-Charles Station's grand stairway; the Longchamp Palace and gardens, and many others.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), where car rental is available ; a variety of air connections between Paris and Marseille is also available. The French railroad company SNCF maintains services from Paris to Marseille. (Paris-Marseille: distance: 778 kilometres.) Some services may be withdrawn, without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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