Marseille, situated on the French south east Mediterranean coast (Provence Cote d’Azur area), is the second largest French city and boasts France’s largest commercial port. Its location means that it enjoys a fantastic Mediterranean climate, with mild, damp winters and hot, dry summers, when temperatures in July reach an average of 30°c. The town and its inhabitants have a very distinct character; the “Marseillais” are fiercely proud of Marseille and avidly follow the progress of the town’s football team, Olympique de Marseille. It has recently undergone an extensive programme of renovation and development, making it a vibrant, modern and dynamic city.
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Getting to Marseille
Marseille-Provence airport is 15 miles from the city, and is served by both Easyjet and Ryanair, which offer flights to Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, London, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Additionally, British Airways offer scheduled flights to London Gatwick.
There is evidence to suggest that the site on which Marseille was built has been inhabited for 30,000 years. It is the oldest city in France, founded by the Greeks in 600BC – according to legend, a sailor in search of a new trading outpost was invited to a banquet held by a local chief and fell in love with the chief’s daughter. The couple married, then moved to a hill nearby; this settlement grew and was named “Massalia” by the Romans. This later became Marseille. The port of Marseille played a pivotal role when the French Empire was in its heyday, acting as a link between the North African colonies of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia and metropolitan France. It is still France’s largest commercial port, despite an economic downturn following an oil crisis in 1973. From the 1950s onwards, the city served as a point of entry for over a million immigrants to France – after Algeria gained its independence in 1962, many French Algerians arrived in Marseille and settled there, establishing the city’s thriving French-African quarter.
Culture and the Arts
Marseille is incredibly proud of its distinct character and of the features that set it apart from the rest of France. The city will assume the role of European Capital of Culture in 2013, and is a vibrant and diverse centre for culture and entertainment, boasting an opera house, historical and maritime museums, five art galeries, cinemas, clubs, bars and restaurants. Marseille offers a number of theatres, including La Criée, Le Gymnase and the Théâtre Toursky. La Friche, situated in a former match factory behind the Marseille-St. Charles station, is a large centre for the arts, and the Alcazar, which was a famous music-hall and variety theatre until the 1960s, has recently been completely renovated and now houses the town library.
Activities in and around Marseille
Marseille is brilliantly located for miles of stunning sandy beaches, which are the perfect place to try a wide variety of watersports, or simply to enjoy the Mediterranean sunshine. There are plenty of activities on offer to keep the whole family entertained, including boat trips, windsurfing, fishing, diving, golf and horse riding. The world-famous Marseille Calanques, rocky cliffs sheltering quiet sandy bays, are staggeringly beautiful, and make the ideal backdrop for outdoor activities such as hiking and rock climbing.
Sights in Marseille
The Old Port, or Vieux Port, is the main harbour of the city, of which much of the northern side was rebuilt according to designs by the architact Fernand Pouillon after the destruction of 1943. It is a great place to eat dinner or enjoy a glass of wine in one of the many cafés and restaurants overlooking the marina and its two large forts. The Old Port area also hosts a daily fish market.
Set on a hill overlooking the Vieux Port area is the Abbaye St-Victor, an imposing 12th century Romanesque former abbey. It contains a number of sacred objects, including the twin tombs of 4th century martyrs and a 3rd century sarchophagus. It plays host to a number of religious festivals throughout the year, including the annual “Pèlerinage de la Chandeleur” and the “Festival des Chants Sacrés en Méditerranée”, a festival of sacred music.
One of Marseille’s most famous sights is undoubtedly the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde; it is situated on the city’s highest hill overlooking Marseille. It is a a magnificent Romano-Byzantine basilica, built between 1853 and 1864, featuring stunning coloured marble, murals and inticate mosaics. The shrapnel and bullet holes marking the exterior are a reminder of the fierce struggle that raged in 1944 during the Battle of Liberation. The basilica also offers perhaps the best view in Marseille, with panoramic views over the city and its port.
Fans of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ should be sure to visit the haunting Château d’If, as this 16th century fortress provided the inspiration for Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale. The 30 square kilometre island, situated off the west side of the Vieux Port, housed hundreds of political and religious prisoners. Its sister islands, known as the Iles du Frioul, were used to quarantine people suspected of being plague or cholera carriers. Nowadays, the islands are home to a number of sea birds and rare plants, as well as the ruins of the old quarantine hospital and a fort occupied by German soldiers during the Second World War.
Food and drink
Provence is known for its delicious food, characterised by the flavours of the Mediterranean, and Marseille is no exception – it has a wide range of delicious local specialities. Mediterranean cuisine is noted for being particularly healthy – it is heavily based on fresh vegetables, olive oil and fresh fish. Given its seaside location, it is no surprise that fresh fish occupies a prominent place within the gastronomy of Marseille. Bouillabaisse is a delicious fish stew that is served with a spicy sauce made from olive oil, garlic, saffron, and chilli peppers, called “rouille” (“rust”) on account of its coppery red colour. Other local delicacies to savour include ratatouille, a healthy and delicious Provençal vegetable stew, fougasse, a typical Provençal bread, and tapenade, a paste made from capers, chopped olives and olive oil. No visitor to Marseille should leave without sampling the local tipple – Pastis, a strong alcoholic beverage made with aniseed and spices, is an institution in the south of France. Marseille is also surrounded by superb wine-producing regions, of which the most famous is perhaps Bandol – situated around an hour from Marseille, it has won world-wide acclaim for its excellent Rosé wine.
For those who fall for the charms of the Marseille area, Sextant properties have bi-lingual agents in the area who known the available properties and will be able to accompany you on visits, answer your queries and generally make finding and choosing your ideal property a pleasure – all of which will speed the day you walk into your new home in Marseille.