Even in the course of our single day’s exploration of Marseille, we found ourselves stumbling across various elements of what has been a dramatic and frequently turbulent history. In vaguely chronological order, we came across the following.
As the history books will tell you, Massalia was a Greek colony founded around 600 BC. The town’s history museum was built alongside the remnants of the ancient port, discovered in the late 1960s during excavations for a new shopping centre. The museum is on our list when we visit another time.
Christianity came to Marseille in late Roman times, but the town suffered attacks from the Saracens in the 8th and 9th centuries, who destroyed the 5th-century monastery of St Victor. Its rebuilding in the 11th century was with fortified towers which make its remains look much more like a castle than a church. As with other layers of Marseille’s history, it’s now surrounded by newer buildings and parked cars.
In the 16th century Francis I had a fort built on a small island just off the harbour entrance to protect the coast from invasion. This was the Chateau d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo. Political prisoners (basically anyone who disagreed with the government, including, for a long time, Protestants) were sent here from the late 16th to the 19th century. Some time we will pay it a visit, but in the meantime here it is with a modern marina behind slightly spoiling the effect of its high cliffs and towers.
It wasn’t just in medieval and early modern times that the city’s history was turbulent: it was a centre for the French Revolution and gave rise to France’s current national anthem (La Marseillaise). You might think that the two forts which flank the entrance to the old harbour were built to keep enemies out, but no. When they were built on the orders of Louis XIV in the 1660s, their guns were trained inland towards the unruly town.
And finally, Marseille was occupied by the Germans in 1942 and suffered extensive damage during its liberation in 1944. Shell marks on the wall supporting the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde have been preserved as a reminder of the conflict.