First Time in Marseille

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The reputation of Marseille, at least in our experience, is that it is a little rough around the edges. But it is the second-largest city in France with an immensely long history and a notably diverse population.

Marseille is only three hours from our home by train. We decided to put our toes in the water, going for just one night. That way, we could decide if we’d like to return to explore further.

The heart of old and new Marseille is the Vieux Port — the Old Port. Today, it is the center of tourist activity. It is also a center of private boating, judging by the parking-lot of vessels.

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We selected a modest hotel very close to the water; while our room had only an oblique view of the harbor, the hotel’s rooftop terrace offered an expansive vantage for the harbor, the district, and Marseille’s iconic church of Notre-Dame de la Garde above the city.

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We joined a small crowd on the terrace for a sunset cocktail. It felt like, if Marseille has hipsters, many of them were there with us.

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Top on my list of destinations was the Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée, or MUCEM. Partially for the content of the museum; mostly for the architecture. The museum, first opened in 2013, sits next to and is connected with Fort Saint-Jean.

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The new part of the museum is unabashedly modern. It sits serenely next to a very old stone fort. A long, almost impossibly slender bridge connects the two. The exterior cladding of the new museum appears organic, porous, tantalizing, and even soft. And yet this screen is made of concrete. I really wanted to see this concrete netting up close.

We entered the museum complex indirectly, through Fort Saint-Jean.

We were invited to wander among the exhibition pavilions that sit atop the earthen mass of the fort, at the level of the tops of the fortification walls. We climbed the tower of King René (15th century) for another view over the Vieux Port.

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Just across the strait that leads into the protected harbor stands fort Saint Nicolas (17th century). Up until 1423, defenders of the city hung a chain across the strait to keep unwanted ships out.

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The designers of the MUCEM brilliantly reimagined how visitors can experience the fort. The public space is now an extended Mediterranean garden. Rosemary, olive trees, lavender, sage, thyme, euphorbia, cistus and more soften the stone passages.

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Some museum visitors were more interested in the warm sun than the exhibits.

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We crossed the long gently arced bridge to the new building.

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The concrete screen protects a metal and glass building, and its exterior ramps and stairs.

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The organic screen pattern filters the Mediterranean sun and frames views of the outlet to the sea.

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Our critical conclusion is that the modern addition sits serenely next to the old fort. The scaleless black screen counterposes the great cream-colored stone walls of the fort. The architect’s having concealed the conventional elements of the building, such as stairs, office windows, and columns and beams, requires us to experience the slightly mysterious building without preconceptions.

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A comparison between MUCEM’s black box and an adjacent modern museum building is telling. The neighbor, in itself, is daring and interesting, with its seemingly impossible cantilever. But its big gesture coupled with conventional walls and windows is already starting to feel dated; is it a fancy office building?

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MUCEM sits confidently and quietly amid city, fort and sea.

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Sadly, the exhibits in the museum were less interesting than the place. The permanent exhibit is relatively small — about the history of agriculture around the Mediterranean. The small permanent exhibit leaves room for many temporary offerings. Each time we visit Marseille in the future, we will check to see what is going on at MUCEM.

We wandered through the neighborhood between the museum and our hotel.

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We were starting to become aware of just how many of the buildings in this part of Marseille aren’t very old; they look like they are from the 1950s and 1960s. We stopped briefly at a crosswalk amid the concrete buildings, storefronts, and traffic lanes. Seemingly out of nowhere, a middle-aged man was standing behind us asking if we knew the history of the building behind him. My first reaction to someone unknown to us coming up to us is to turn away and ignore. Invariably, they want something, and perhaps are setting up a distraction for pickpocketing. Well, not invariably, as it turned out. He directed our attention at the historical marker with black-and-white photos from just after World War II, and he pointed up at the medieval-looking building on the corner. It is called the Hôtel de Cabre. A sheet merchant had it built in 1535.

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Our spontaneous guide explained that much of Marseille was destroyed during the war. Marseille was an important hub for the French Resistance, a fierce stronghold for the Germans, and a gateway to the war in North Africa. The fight to liberate Marseille from the German occupation was intense and destructive, with much bombing by the Allies and sabotage by the Germans. This history explains why so many of the buildings we saw on our visit are from the 50s and 60s.

Marseille, Zerstˆrung des alten Hafenviertels
from the internet

The district around the Hôtel de Cabre was almost completely destroyed. But the Hôtel de Cabre survived intact amid the ruins. In the years just after the end of the war, new buildings arose around it. However, the new urban plan forced a main street right through the site of the Hôtel. So, the city built rail lines, jacked up the entire building, turned it 90 degrees, and moved it to the side — which is where it remains today.

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In the base of the building is a hair salon. Our self-appointed guide owns the salon. He just seemed to enjoy sharing some of his city’s history. We went from being suspicious to warmly thankful for his outreach.

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The more we discovered about Marseille, the more interested we grew, especially about its ancient history. Around the corner from our hotel stands the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille. Fortunately, the museum is fascinating and very well presented. We really enjoyed the models of Greek and Roman Marseille, known then as Massalia. These views show what the city may have looked like during Greek times before the Romans claimed it in 49 BC. Today’s boat parking lot occupies this same harbor. Our hotel is near the boat sheds at the top right of the image. MUCEM and Fort Saint-Jean are at the lower left.

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Today, vendor pavilions, shops, cafés and restaurants line the promenades around the Vieux Port.

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A delightful mirrored canopy protects part of the plaza from the hot sun.

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Before leaving for the train station for our trip home, we stopped in a shop that sells lavender products. The young woman working in the shop told us that she wants to improve her English to speak more like an American than an English person. We explained (in French and American) that we were visiting from Carcassonne but only for a day. We asked what else she would recommend for us to visit beyond the Vieux Port when we next visit. She immediately recommended that we take a boat trip along the coast to the east of Marseille; it is an area called the Calanques, famous for rocky coves and clear water. That sounds nice, we said, but what about what else we could explore in the city itself. She thought a bit, and then said, “Well, not really anything.” She shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

We’ll just have to explore unknown Marseille ourselves next time.

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