The old town and the sea
There is probably no European city whose fate is so closely intertwined with the sea. Founded some 2000 years ago by seafarers, Marseille is now the maritime link between Europe and Africa. It also has the largest harbor in the Mediterranean and is now in the process of reinventing its waterfront for the 21st century.
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Old port and Euroméditeranée: antiquity meets modern design
The Euroméditerranée in Marseille is the equivalent of Hamburg’s HafenCity development. World-famous star architects are creating a brand-new district on prime sites at the water’s edge. After relocation of the port’s freight facilities and the demise of traditional industries had made several hundred acres available for redevelopment, construction work started in 1998, and large parts of the project have now been completed.
The Vieux Port is one of Marseille’s most picturesque districts. The scene of the famous fish auctions in the early morning hours, it later quiets down to let visitors enjoy short or long breaks in its numerous cafés and restaurants. For nearly two and a half millennia until around the middle of the 19th century, the Vieux Port’s small bay was the city’s main harbor. The arrival of modern steamships of ever increasing size then made it necessary to build a new harbor to the north of the Vieux Port.
Notre Dame de la Garde:
To the south of the Old Port stands the church of Notre Dame de la Garde. Built in the mid-19th century on a 480 ft. high limestone rock, its steeple is crowned by a statue of the Virgin Mary whose head is all of 656 ft. above sea level and visible from far out at sea. A large number of model ships hang from the church’s roof. These are tokens of gratitude from seamen, for whom Notre Dame de la Garde had a special importance.
Prison island, fish soup and rocky coastline
The most famous occupant of the Château d’If prison never actually went there. The self-styled and allegedly innocent Count of Monte Cristo spends 14 years in one of its dungeons in the novel of the same name by Alexandre Dumas. Abbé Faria, written into the novel as a friend and fellow-prisoner of this fictional hero, was actually imprisoned on If, then a penal island. The island and its former fortress are now tourist attractions. They can be reached by ferry in a few minutes.
This is a fish soup that started off as a poor man’s meal and then made good. It is now a specialty featured on the menus of up-market fish restaurants everywhere in the world. But nowhere does it taste as good as in its home town of Marseille. The only problem is that not everything sold as bouillabaisse actually deserves that name. A genuine bouillabaisse should contain at least four varieties of fish that are served separate from the soup itself and must be filleted in front of the guests.
Well-known bouillabaisse restaurants in Marseille include: Le Miramar, 12 quai du Port, Tel: +33-491/91 10 40, www.bouillabaisse.com and Chez Fonfon, 140 Vallon des Auffes, Tel: +33-491/52 14 38,
Massif des Calanques:
Anyone wishing to escape temporarily from this bustling Mediterranean city can take a trip along the cliffs to the southeast of Marseille. These are cleft at regular intervals by steep, fjord-like valleys called calanques, some of which are filled with water. The limestone cliffs themselves are the habitat of numerous rare plants. The bird life is also impressive, including eagles, falcons and eagle owls. Large sections of the cliff area are closed to the public during the summer because of the high fire risk, but the actual trail along the cliffs stays open all year round.
Photos: Masterfile, C. Moirenc, Corbis (3), mauritius images, getty images