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Tour description

Marseille, France

Marseille may sometimes be given a wide berth by travelers in search of a Provençal idyll, but it's their loss. Miss it, and you miss one of the most vibrant, exciting cities in France. With its cubist jumbles of white stone rising up over a picture-book seaport, bathed in light of blinding clarity and crowned by larger-than-life neo-Byzantine churches, the city's neighborhoods teem with multiethnic life. Its souk-like African markets reek deliciously of spices and coffees, and its labyrinthine Vieille Ville is painted in broad strokes of saffron, cinnamon, and robin's-egg blue. Feisty and fond of broad gestures, Marseille is a dynamic city, as cosmopolitan now as when the Phoenicians first founded it, and with all the exoticism of the international shipping port it has been for 2,600 years. Vital to the Crusades in the Middle Ages and crucial to Louis XIV as a military port, Marseille flourished as France's market to the world-and still does today. In 2013 Marseille will be the European Capital of Culture and will host all manner of special events throughout the year.

Abbaye St-Victor. Founded in the fourth century by St. Cassien, who sailed into Marseille full of fresh ideas on monasticism that he acquired in Palestine and Egypt, this church grew to formidable proportions. With a Romanesque design, the structure would be as much at home in the Middle East as its founder was. The crypt, St. Cassien's original, is buried under the medieval church, and in the evocative nooks and crannies you can find the fifth-century sarcophagus that allegedly holds the martyr's remains. Upstairs, a reliquary contains what's left of St. Victor, who was ground to death between millstones, probably by Romans. There's also a passage into tiny catacombs where Early Christians worshipped St. Lazarus and Mary Magdalene, said to have washed ashore at Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The boat in which they landed is reproduced in canoe-shaped cookies called navettes, which are sold during the annual procession for Candelmas in February as well as year-round. 3 rue de l'Abbaye, Rive Neuve. Admission charged.

Cathédrale de la Nouvelle Major. This gargantuan, neo-Byzantine 19th-century fantasy was built under Napoléon III-but not before he'd ordered the partial destruction of the lovely 11th-century original, once a perfect example of the Provençal Romanesque style. You can view the flashy decor-marble and rich red porphyry inlay-in the newer of the two churches; the medieval one is being restored. Pl. de la Major, Le Panier.

Centre de la Vieille Charité (Center of the Old Charity). At the top of the Panier district you'll find this superb ensemble of 17th- and 18th-century architecture designed as a hospice for the homeless by Marseillais artist-architects Pierre and Jean Puget. Even if you don't enter the museums, walk around the inner court, studying the retreating perspective of triple arcades and admiring the baroque chapel with its novel egg-peaked dome. Of the complex's two museums, the larger is the Musée d'Archéologie Méditerranéenne (Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology), with a sizable collection of pottery and statuary from classical Mediterranean civilization, elementally labeled (for example, "pot"). There's also a display on the mysterious Celt-like Ligurians who first peopled the coast, cryptically presented with emphasis on the digs instead of the finds themselves. The best of the lot is the evocatively mounted Egyptian collection, the second largest in France after the Louvre's. There are mummies, hieroglyphs, and gorgeous sarcophagi in a tomblike setting. Upstairs, the Musée d'Arts Africains, Océaniens, et Amérindiens (Museum of African, Oceanic, and American Indian Art) creates a theatrical foil for the works' intrinsic drama: the spectacular masks and sculptures are mounted along a pure black wall, lighted indirectly, with labels across the aisle. 2 rue de la Charité, Le Panier. Admission charged.

Château d'If. François I, in the 16th century, recognized the strategic advantage of an island fortress surveying the mouth of Marseille's vast harbor and built this imposing edifice. Its effect as a deterrent was so successful that the fortress never saw combat, and was eventually converted into a prison. It was here that Alexandre Dumas locked up his most famous character, the Count of Monte Cristo. Though the count was fictional, the hole through which Dumas had him escape is real enough, on display in the cells. On the other hand, the real-life Man in the Iron Mask, whose cell is also erroneously on display, was not imprisoned here. The IF Frioul Express boat ride and the views from the broad terrace are worth the trip.. Admission charged.

Ferry Boat. This Marseille treasure departs from the Quai below the Hôtel de Ville. For a pittance (although technically free, it is appropriate to tip the crew) you can file onto this little wooden barge and chug across the Vieux Port. Pl. des Huiles on Quai de Rive Neuve side and Hôtel de Ville on Quai du Port, Vieux Port.

Fort St-Nicolas and Fort St-Jean. These twin forts guard the entrance to the Vieux Port. In order to keep the feisty, rebellious Marseillais under his thumb, Louis XIV had the fortresses built with the guns pointing toward the city. The Marseillais, whose identity has always been mixed with a healthy dose of irony, are quite proud of this display of the king's doubts about their allegiance. To view the guns, climb up to the Jardin du Pharo. In spring of 2013 Fort St-Jean will open under the banner of the Musée National des Civilisations de L'Europe et de la Mediterranée (National Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean), housing in part the folk-art collection of the former Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires in Paris. Quai du Port, Vieux Port.

Le Panier. This is the old heart of Marseille, a maze of high-shuttered houses looming over narrow cobbled streets, montées (stone stairways), and tiny squares. Long decayed and neglected, the quarter is the principal focus of the city's efforts at urban renewal. Wander this neighborhood at will, making sure to stroll along Rue du Panier, the montée des Accoules, Rue du Petit-Puits, and Rue des Muettes.

Musée d'Histoire de Marseille (Marseille Museum of History). A modern and open space, this museum illuminates Massalia's history with a treasure of archaeological finds and miniature models of the city as it appeared in various stages of history. Best by far is the presentation of Marseille's Classical halcyon days. There's a recovered wreck of a Roman cargo boat, its third-century wood amazingly preserved, and the hull of a Greek boat dating from the fourth century BC. The model of the Greek city should be authentic-it's based on the eyewitness description of Aristotle. Centre Bourse, entrance on Rue de Bir-Hakeim, Vieux Port. Admission charged.

Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. Towering above the city and visible for miles around, this overscaled neo-Byzantine monument was erected in 1853 by Napoléon III. The interior is a Technicolor bonanza of red-and-beige stripes and glittering mosaics, and the gargantuan Madonna and Child on the steeple (almost 30 feet high) is covered in real gold leaf. While the panoply of naive ex-votos, mostly thanking the Virgin for deathbed interventions and shipwreck survivals, is a remarkable sight, most impressive are the views of the seaside city at your feet. Off bd. André Aune On foot, climb up Cours Pierre Puget, cross Jardin Pierre Puget, cross bridge to Rue Vauvenargues, and hike up to Pl. Edon. Or catch Bus 60 from Cours Jean-Ballard.


Marseille offers contrasting shopping opportunities. For lovers of French haute couture there are many boutiques in the new town stocking the major designer labels-Christian Lacroix is a local boy-plus a thriving new fashion scene of young designers selling their own ready-to-wear collections from stylish galleries. Cours Julien is lined with stores, while Rue de la Tour in the Opera district is a center of modern design, known locally as "Fashion Street."

By contrast, the city, particularly Le Panier and rue St-Ferréol, also has numerous shops selling regional crafts and delicacies, including bright fabrics of blue and yellow, pottery, olive-wood items, plus delicious olives, olive oils, honey, tapenade (an olive paste), and dried herbs. Savon de Marseille (Marseille soap) is a household standard in France, often sold as a satisfyingly crude and hefty block in odorless olive-oil green. But its chichi offspring are dainty pastel guest soaps in almond, lemon, vanilla, and other scents.

Four des Navettes. The famous bakery Four des Navettes, up the street from Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, makes orange-spice, shuttle-shape navettes. These cookies are modeled on the little boat in which it is said that Mary Magdalene and Lazarus washed up onto the nearby shores. 136 rue Sainte, Garde Hill.


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