Marseille: the “good child” city of France
With the arrival of the railway in 1873, the journey from Paris took over 19 hours, more than the sailing time to Algiers. Now it’s just a three hour journey, but still a world apart.
Upon arriving at Marseille-Saint-Charles station, visitors are treated to a view from its lavish, elevated forecourt that seems surprisingly distant. Casting my eyes up an ornately decorated 1920s staircase, my gaze followed the Boulevard d’Athènes, a sloping street where orange tile roofs hang over tawny stone walls. The road plunged down to meet the main artery, Rue Cannebière, before rising crescendo to Notre-Dame de la Garde, a perched basilica crowned by a gilded Virgin – the city’s highest point, shining like a sacred lighthouse towards the sea. .
Despite the decline of sea freight and other industries, the Old Port remains the city’s focal point, its waters dotted with yachts dancing like swans on a lake. All roads seem to lead there, and anyone attempting to explore the city on foot inevitably finds themselves in one of the waterfront bras. In my case, it was the Beau Rivage Café, where, at the end of ‘afternoon pastis, I tried to immerse myself in the scene: the Abbaye St-Victor, 1,500 years old and looking like a castle, the oldest church in Marseille; and the chic Hôtel-Dieu which, during the plague, served as lazaretto – an isolation hospital for seafarers in quarantine. Now at the InterContinental Marseille, guests enjoy a five-star spectacle on the water, which in my opinion rivals the great ports of the world, Hong Kong or Sydney, and one sorely overlooked.
For critics, Marseille does not fit their “Parisian” vision of France the way royal Lyon, its closest rival to second-city status, does; or by fans of neighboring Aix-en-Provence, whose posh, conservative residents have helped it earn the nickname “Paris’ 21st arrondissement”.