As we have mentioned, we’ve only really taken three days proper holiday this year, but the other week we did decide to make a long-promised rail trip to Marseille. In theory, it’s a little over an hour away by car, but we are not lovers of driving into the centre of unknown French conurbations. And besides, we had a good deal with the railway, (who were not on strike that day), and gave us cheap tickets.
One of the things that strikes you about the impressive Gare St Charles at Marseille is the sense of the town as the gateway to the French colonies. Even before the Suez Canal was opened in the 1860’s Marseille served French North Africa, that vast expanse from Morocco to Tunisia including Algeria, which was (unwisely) considered part of France until the 1960s. It also served the West African colonies, but from the latter part of the 19th century became the departure point for anyone travelling to the French colonies of SE Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. It had an important role but the rise of air travel and the collapse of empire has left it all but a memory.
As you walk down towards the old port there are various buildings and monuments which testify to Marseille’s imperial role, including the very impressive former Chamber of Commerce which features ships along the front.
Mind you, gateways can open both ways, and from overheard conversations it was extraordinary how much Arabic was around.
We went down to the old port which is now full of yachts and pleasure boats of all kinds. (It’s not big enough for the modern ferries and cruise liners.) Here you can take a boat to view some of the local coast or islands, but all we did this time was get on the little ferry from one side of the harbour to the other.
There’s a new port where cruise liners dock and where we walked was full of tourists.
The new Marseille is bustling and lively but you can’t help but think that the city has lost a lot what the French consider so important: its glory. But perhaps given the troubled history and legacy of the colonies that loss of la Gloire may be no bad thing.