Nineteenth century buildings
Here are some examples of nineteenth century apartment buildings in Marseille.
The ones in the first two photos are in the Rue de la Rotonde in the first arrondissement, near the Saint Charles railway station.
Third photo: These buildings were designed and built in 1881 by an architect named Sixte Rey, who in his lifetime was best known for designing the beautiful cemetery Saint-Pierre de Marseille. This cemetery is larger than Père Lachaise in Paris and is also visited by people trying to find the graves of famous people.
Fourth photo: The entrepreneur who financed these apartment buildings was named J.B. Durbec.
Fifth photo: More nineteenth century buildings near the old harbor. Apparently these buildings were controversial at the time because some people in Marseille thought they looked too Parisian.
The Alcazar, so called because it was decorated in Moresque fantasy style, was a popular café-theater and music hall. It opened in 1857 and had room for two thousand spectators sitting at tables, where they could drink and smoke while watching the performances.
Like most variety theaters, it had a turbulent history, but with various interruptions it continued as a prominent venue for popular entertainment for over a century. It finally went bankrupt in the 1960s. In 1969 a fire on the ground floor destroyed the Alcazar archives of over a century, and in 1979 the remains of the old music hall were finally demolished.
The ornate doorway was preserved, however, and was incorporated into the new public library that was built here from 2000 to 2004.
- Theater Travel
- Historical Travel
Marseille Skyline Countdown, # 1
Don’t worry, I’m not going to do a complete Skyline Countdown for Marseille as I did for Frankfurt am Main. So don’t bother looking for # 2 because you won’t find it, at least not here.
(The second tallest building in Marseille is called Le Grand Pavois and is 100 meters tall, but I don’t have a tip on it.)
Marseille’s tallest building is called the “Tour CMA CGM” – a typical French name, don’t you think? The word tour means tower, but I have yet to meet anyone who knows offhand what CMA CGM stands for.
I know now, because I have just looked it up, that CMA CGM is the world’s third largest container shipping group. CMA stands for Compagnie Maritime d'Affrètement (Maritime Chartering Company) and CGM stands for Compagnie Générale Maritime (General Maritime Company), which turns out to be a descendent of the old Messageries Maritimes, the company that used to run ships between France and its then-colonies.
If you have ever seen the film L'Amant by Jean-Jacques Annaud (based on the novel by Marguerite Duras), you may recall that the film ends with an old Messageries Maritimes steam ship leaving the harbor at Saigon to begin a long voyage to Marseille with the tearful heroine on board.
In any case, the CMA CGM tower is currently the tallest building in Marseille. It was built from 2006 to 2010 and is 142.80 meters tall. If it were in Frankfurt am Main, it would be # 14 in the Frankfurt Skyline Countdown.
After leaving the Île d'If, the Frioul If Express makes a stop at the village of Port Frioul, on Ratonneau Island, before returning to the Old Port of Marseille.
This village of Port Frioul wasn’t established until 1974. It now has restaurants and about seven hundred mooring points for boats.
Since 1822 the two largest islands of the Frioul archipelago, Pomègues and Ratonneau, have been connected by a causeway.
In earlier centuries the Frioul Islands were a compulsory quarantine stop for ships arriving from other parts of the world, to make sure they had no contagious diseases on board before they were allowed to land in Marseille. This seems to have worked fairly well most of the time, but in 1720 a ship called the Grande Saint-Antoine somehow managed to circumvent the quarantine and introduce the plague to Marseille, killing half the population.
Back to my first Frioul tip
Back to my Marseille intro page
Église des Accoules
On our guided walking tour of the Panier district we stopped at the site of the old Church of the Accoules.
This was one of the oldest churches in Marseille, built at the beginning of the eleventh century, but it was destroyed in 1794 because it had been used for political meetings during the French Revolution.
Nothing remains except the bell tower and a crucifix that has been mounted on one of the old walls.
Next: Our tour group in the Old Town
- Historical Travel
Our tour group in the Old Town
Some of the buildings we saw in the Panier district were in serious need of repair. Generations of poor people have lived here, especially immigrants. Generations of unscrupulous landlords have charged inflated prices for small apartments in crumbling buildings.
Now the city is attempting to upgrade the district without destroying its character, but inevitably this involves a certain amount of gentrification. The traditional poor inhabitants are gradually moving to other poor neighborhoods a bit further north. They are being replaced by artists and affluent couples who can afford to buy or rent modernized flats in some of these old buildings.
Fourth and fifth photos: The enigmatic slogan “La Street c’est chic” apparently refers to street style fashions, which means dressing in creative and original ways by combining new and vintage articles of clothing. (Have I understood this correctly?)
Next stop on our guided walking tour: Vieille Charité
- Historical Travel
Association de Bien-Fêteurs
When I first saw the whimsical façade of the Association de Bien-Fêteurs in Marseille’s Panier district I thought it was some sort of joke or party club, like the Institute of Clavological Sciences in the Old Town of Lyon.
But it turns out that the association has a more serious purpose. It was founded in 2008 to provide “creative support for Liberia” and particularly to help young people who were victims of the long drawn-out Liberian civil war.
Next stop on our guided walking tour: La Chocolatière du Panier
Place de Lenche
This is a lively little square in the Panier district, with a small theater, a bar, and an ice cream shop.
From some of the outdoor tables at the Bar de la Place (first photo) there is a rather cramped view of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde if you look at the proper angle between two nondescript twentieth century buildings.
Second photo: I came to the Place de Lenche after our guided walking tour of the Panier district because our guide assured us that the shop Le Glacier du Roi (The ice cream maker of the king) had the absolutely best ice cream in Marseille. It was fine, I must admit, and certainly the best ice cream I had in Marseille because I didn’t try any other.
What interested me particularly about this ice cream shop was that it had a typical feature of Marseille, namely loose electrical cables hanging around the façade at odd angles. I also noticed this at the stage entrance of the municipal opera house and at several other places that I neglected to take pictures of.
The next day: Bus 83
Gare St Charles
It might seem odd to recommend visiting a railway station, especially when this one is not in the most salubrious of locations, but even if you're not going anywhere by train (or by bus....the main bus station is here too), have a look at the magnificent staircase leading from Boulevard d'Athenes to the station on top of a hill. At the top, there are spectacular views across the rooftops towards Basilique du Notre Dame de la Garde, and down into the "Arab quarter" of Belsunce. It's a great place to people watch...either sit on the steps, or avoid the hustlers and touts who work the steps by sitting in one of the bars just opposite the staircase.
Le Corbusier: Unite d'Habitation
I had been keen to see Le Corbusier's ideal block of flats known as Unite d'Habitation, the building that spawned a million featureless concrete blocks all over the world. I'd seen pictures of the bizarrely sculpted roof, the rooftop running track and paddling pool, the different coloured and shaped balconies, and decided that it was worth the long trek out to see it for myself. so off I set, following Rue de Rome out of the city centre until it became the Boulevard du Prado, pavements filled with market stalls until I reached the Olympique Marseille football stadium.
Just across the busy six lane boulevard lay the Unite d'Habitation, and ad first glance I did wonder what all the fuss had been about. It looked a little tired. Close up, I could see the detail, patterns carved into the concrete, primary colours lining the windows, no two balconies the same. I was all set to go in and find my way up to the roof, but a sign on the door stopped me. Due to renovation work, access was for residents only. Aaaaaaaagh! Bad timing. Bad bad timing.
It was then that I felt incredibly thirsty, but could I find a grocery store with a fridge full of refreshing cold drinks? Of course not...there never is one when you need one.
Eglise des Reformes and Place Leon Blum
La Canebiere is the main artery running through central Marseille, its posher end down by the Vieux Port, and by the time it reaches L'Eglise des Reformes (full name Eglise St Vincent de Paul), it has become much less touristy and a lot seedier. The church at the end of it all is a very imposing structure, towering above a square and visible from all round the centre. Completely different to the cathedral and the basilica of Notre Dame, this church is more Gothic in style, although it is roughly the same age as the other two.
In the little place between two main roads and a tramline, there are a few shady seats, a bandstand, lots of graffitti and kids on skateboards, and a couple of giraffes. Yes, giraffes. A mother and her baby, both made of books, no less. Originally it's skin had been made entirely from books, but this was set alight by some football fans in 2010, and now it is an iron beast. but while the baby giraffe hides its head under the mother, you can peruse the second hand books in its belly and even make a swap or a donation if you feel like it. I don't know why they chose a giraffe as opposed to any other animal, or why they were put here, but it is things like this that make me like Marseille more.
Click on the link to watch a video of the burning giraffe
Noailles and Marche des Capucins
Across La Canebiere, the grand-but-shabby main boulevard running through central Marseille, is another lively quarter with a North African feel. Noailles has a colourful and raucous food market known as Marche des Capucins, based around the Noailles metro station and in several surrounding streets. If anywhere reminded me of Tunis, it was this market...the smells, the sounds, the Tunisian pastries on sale at the bakeries. This is not a sedate Provencal market, and that seems to be what draws a steady stream of tourists too, all looking for a taste of the exotic. The market ends abruptly at one point, and I found myself in a street of brothels, so this is maybe one area to avoid after dark...actually, none of the side streets off La Canebiere are particularly well lit at night...but during the day it is a great place to dive into.
Only one photo I'm afraid, of one of the more organised sections of the market close to the metro station...I'm always far too self-conscious taking photos in markets!
Memorial de la Marseillaise and Quartier Belsunce
Tucked in a sidestreet in the Quartier Belsunce is a new museum dedicated to telling the story behind La Marseillaise, the French national anthem which was originally a marching song adopted by volunteers from Marseille calling for the French Revolution. Maybe if I was French, I would have had more interest, and I'd probably be more familiar with the stories. But the way the museum is laid out, you have to spend a certain amount of time in each room as the displays run on a loop, doors open automatically when it is time to move on, and there is either not enough time to look at the exhibits in a room, or too much time in a room with nothing but a wall of faces screeching the national anthem at you. It was interesting to begin with, but once you've heard a choral version, a jazz version, a soprano version, a bass version, a reggae version (yes, I did say reggae), and countless other versions, I found myself willing the displays to come to an end soon. I'd elected not to wear an English audio head set, perhaps a mistake but I hate wearing those things and wanted to test my French...most of it I understood, but found I did switch off during the lengthy piece of theatre with actors' voices booming as various heads were lit up on the walls. I was also the only visitor, so felt obliged to appear interested throughout...it's an odd sensation to be in a warehouse-size room on your own with faces appearing on every wall serenading you with yet another version of La Marseillaise at top volume.
I was much more interested in the local neighbourhood, the Quartier Belsunce, traditionally an area that has attracted immigrants, firstly Italians and Spanish, then Lebanese and Egyptians in the 19th Century, followed by waves of Armenians, Turks and Greeks at the start of the 20th century. After World War 2, more immigrants moved in, mostly from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, and so it continues today, with communities from other parts of Francophone Africa. Today, Belsunce is a place to come for couscous and mint tea, internet cafes offer cheap calls to le Maghreb, shops sell brightly coloured shawls and dresses alongside veils and abayas, prayer beads and Islamic books, and alarm clocks in the shape of mosques. Towards the Cours Belsunce main street, things become more sub-Saharan with Ivoirian and Senegalese shops mixing with those from the Comoros and Congo. My guidebook warned against visiting Belsunce, as did other travel advice online, but this does seem over the top. It's not a rich area by any means, but safe enough to wander round. It's also a historic area, with many buildings quite beautiful if you take the time to look past the litter and dirt. Regeneration projects connected to the European City of Culture 2013 are taking place, and one street is optimistically being nicknamed "rue des Arts" for its galleries and boutiques.
As I visited during Ramadan and August, most shops and cafes were closed during daylight hours, only becoming lively (i.e. packed to the rafters) at sunset. I'd like to see what the quarter is like in a normal month.
Quartier Du Panier
The north side of the Vieux Port is mostly modern, as this area was blown up during the German occupation in WWII, it's inhabitants shipped off to concentration camps. Up the hill is what remains of the old town, now known as Le Panier, a maze of narrow streets and stairways. It's quite an atmospheric neighbourhood, although not all of it is originally old, and many streets and squares have been gentrified, with cafes and art galleries in clusters in between more down-at-heel residential areas. It's worth having a wander around, and although there are a couple of sights to aim for, the best strategy is to take any street from behind the quayside town hall, and get thoroughly lost. It's not a huge quarter, and sooner or later you'll end up on one of the main roads that surround it. Alternatively, you can take a noddy train from the quayside, which seems to get a round of applause as it passes certain trendy cafes!
Abbaye St Victor
Marseille's oldest church is somewhat hidden and neglected. Barely signposted, to find it, you have to head along the south side of Vieux Port until there is a little inlet before the fort. From the waterside you should be able to see what looks like a little castle, which happens to be the Abbaye St Victor, it's belltower looking as if it was built to withstand an invasion rather than to house bells. It's not all thet pretty from the outside, especially given its surroundings (scaffolding on most buildings and a litter-strewn park), but apparently the interior and the crypt are fascinating. I say apparently, as the church was undergoing restoration work, like most places in Marseille in 2012, so was closed to visitors. Wish someone had pointed that out before climbing all the steps in the heat.
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