France Marseille

Le MUCEM – here be dragons

Le MUCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, was opened on January 7, 2013 – the same year Marseille was designated as the European Capital of Culture. The museum contains both permanent and temporary exhibits, a bookstore, a theatre, a film centre, and a beautiful roof top patio with a small café and chairs for sunbathers. Two concrete footbridges connect it with nearby Fort Saint-Jean and Le Panier.

The distinctive architectural feature of the museum is the concrete latticework that covers it.

When we walked by the museum at night and saw it lit up with blue lights, as in the featured image of this post, it made me think of seaweed. I definitely had that impression again as I was going back through the photos I took when we visited.

It also occurred to me that the concrete is an effective windbreak, which is very appropriate as the museum sits facing the open ocean.

It’s fun to walk around the outside of the museum and take pictures of the harbour peeking through the latticework.

Neil and I really enjoyed the temporary exhibition on Seafaring Adventurers. I love old maps, stories of mythical sea creatures, and learning how seafarers met the challenges of world exploration.

The jaw of a prehistoric shark species, the fossil teeth mounted on resin, welcomes you to the exhibit. The carcarodon megalodon (megalodon is Greek for “big tooth”) lived approximately 23 to 2.5 million years ago.

An illustration of “The Vole”, shown below, is excerpted from André Thevet’s The Universal Cosmography, published in Paris, France in 1575.

The rostrum (beak) of a Sawfish was on display. Unlike the image pictured above, which incorporates a similar anatomical feature, a sawfish is smaller than the monster in the depiction, and it is flatter, sort of like a manta ray. This doesn’t make it any less terrifying. I’m with early sea explorers and storytellers – the ocean is full of nightmare fuel.

“Sea Monsters Surrounding a Ship” is attributed to Adriaen Collaert, from Anvers, Belgium, between 1594-1598.

The illustration of “Giant Crabs” below is excerpted from Théodore de Bry’s Small Voyages published in Frankfurt, Germany in 1598.

Below is a copper fish head made in India in the 18th century.

Next up, tools that helped voyagers find their way. I got lost trying to find a laundromat yesterday while I was using Google Maps, so directions are not my forté.

Below is a celestial globe from Iran, dated 1285-1286, made of heavy brass and silver. This is the sixth oldest surviving celestial globe!

A planispheric astrolabe from Yemen, 15th century, made of brass.

Sundial from Munich, Germany, 1582.

How to use a sundial, from a 16th century text.

Portuguese naval commander Dom Afonso of Albuquerque.

Fra Mauro, an Italian cartographer who lived in Venice, created the most detailed and accurate map of the world at that time, a copy of which is displayed below. The Fra Mauro Map is considered “the greatest memorial of medieval cartography.” It is large, measuring 2.4 metres by 2.4 metres. It contains hundreds of illustrations and over 3,000 descriptive texts. It marked the end of Bible-based geography in Europe and the beginning of a science-centred approach toward making maps, favouring accuracy over religious or traditional beliefs.

A nearby plaque reads that the map “was created between 1448 and 1459 at the demand of the King of Portugal. It is the synthesis of medieval cartography, and the knowledge of the world on the eve of major discoveries. At that time the very existence of America was still unknown.”

The map depicts an inverted view (from contemporary maps) of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Southern countries are at the top, northern countries at the bottom, western Europe is on the right, Asia is on the left.

The top left diagram shows a map of the solar system according to the Ptolemaic system. The top right diagram shows the four elements – earth, followed by water, fire and air. The bottom left is the Garden of Eden (more on that below). The bottom right shows the Earth as a globe with the North Pole, South Pole, the equator, and the two tropics.

This 2017 copy is beautiful to look at. I can’t even image how awe-inspiring the original (now sadly lost) would have been to see.

The Mediterranean Sea. Fun fact, Mediterranean is Latin for “Middle Land.” So the Mediterranean Sea is “the sea in the middle of the earth.”

Anglia Scoti, or England and Scotland. Because of the flipped image, England is shown at the top of the island and Scotland at the bottom.

From Norway to Russia.

In the corner is an image of God confronting Adam and Eve. “The terrestial paradise that one still thinks is real,” the plaque at the museum read. Fra Mauro notably placed the Garden of Eden outside of the world, rather than placing it in the far East as was the custom at the time.

The Nautical Planisphere by Andreas Homem, a Portuguese cartographer, created in Antwerp in 1559.

Neil and I loved this map because the American continent makes an appearance, but not much is known about it. The Amazon is shown as being extremely serpentine.

I liked the details of sea monsters and ships on the map.

Here be dragons. It was a medieval practice to put illustrations of sea monsters, dragons, and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps.

I had heard of this practice before. It was really exciting to see it in person!

Below is a map of Venice in 1670 made by Piri Reis. It is excerpted from The Book of Navigation by Kitab-i bahriyye.

Le MUCEM was definitely a fun way to spend the afternoon, and really helped us connect with the history and culture of Marseille as a port city.

France Landmarks Marseille

Fort Saint-Jean

After Notre Dame de la Garde, Fort Saint-Jean was the next attraction Neil and I went to visit.

Fort Saint-Jean is one of two forts, the other being Fort Saint Nicolas, built in 1660 at the entrance to Marseille’s Vieux Port. Instead of protecting the city, however, the fortresses were designed to keep the local population in check. The cannons were pointed in toward the town, rather than out to the sea.

Below is a view of Fort Saint Nicolas across the entrance to the harbour from Fort Saint-Jean,with Notre Dame de la Garde in the distance. ¹

A closer view of Fort Saint Nicolas is shown below. You’ll see that it is a bastion fortress, with walls that are laid out in a star formation. More information on bastion fortresses can be found here.

Marseille had a reputation for rebelling against the central government of France. Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, ordered the construction of the fortresses after he had to come to Marseille with an army to end an uprising against the local governor.

Today, Fort Saint-Jean serves a rather less controversial function. It is a partner attraction with the modern Le MUCEM and makes for an interesting visit, with beautiful views of Vieux Port and neighbouring landmarks.

All right, let’s take a look inside!

I like a good, crumbling wall.

The long galleried arcade is where the officers’ lodgings were located.

The remains of the fortress chapel.

Overlooking the chapel and the King René Tower.

Louis XIV tried his best to deter local insurgent inclinations by building these intimidating fortresses. In spite of his efforts, a local mob overtook Fort Saint-Jean in April 1790 and beheaded the commander of the royal garrison.

So much for that.

During the French Revolution, Fort Saint-Jean was used as a prison. In 1794, the Revolution had completed a full turn of fortune’s bloody wheel. Robespierre was overthrown and guillotined, and 100 Jacobin prisoners being held in Fort Saint-Jean were also massacred.

A violent history, to be sure. Today, though, the stones of Fort Saint-Jean are awash with native Mediterranean plants instead of blood. There are several gardens located throughout the fortress to enjoy.

Aloe vera looks prehistoric.

It’s a good place to grow some sunbathers, as well.

La Tour du Fanal (the Tower of the Lantern) and more garden space, shown below.

There are fun modern art pieces located throughout the site, as well as a space for temporary exhibitions.

The modern art pieces helpfully remind you of the Fort’s partnership with the modern Le MUCEM – the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. A narrow steel bridge connects the two nearby attractions.

Another view of the bridge leading to Le MUCEM.

A second bridge makes it easy to cross into the neighbourhood of Le Panier.

The second bridge leads to the Church of Saint Lawrence, which was just down the street from where Neil and I were staying. We could hear its bells ringing throughout the day!  The Roman-Provencal church was built in the 12th century. It is the only parish church of the Middle Ages in Marseille to have survived to the present day. It even escaped the Nazi bombing of Le Panier in 1943.

A view of Cathedrale La Major (with the old cathedral located on its right side).

Posts on Le MUCEM and Cathedrale La Major to follow.

¹Fort Saint Nicolas, especially, was later used against its own citizens. The Nazis had control of the guns of Fort Saint Nicolas during the battle for the Liberation of Marseille, and used them against the Algerian Allied soldiers who were trying to free the basilica from Nazi occupation.

France Landmarks Marseille

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

Notre Dame de la Garde is a beautiful Catholic basilica and Marseille’s best known landmark. Neil and I were able to see it from the window of our apartment in Marseille. We were excited to go and explore it for that reason. I found that our first visit wasn’t quite enough for me to soak in everything that I wanted to know about it. I got totally sucked into the remarkable history of this monument, and we ended up making the trek up the hill three times in total – one just to watch the sunset! Even if religion isn’t your thing (it’s certainly not mine), there is still lots to love about this attraction. The incredible views of the Mediterranean Sea alone make it worth the visit!

Notre-Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard) is known locally as “the Good Mother.” It was given the title of Basilica Minor from Pope Leo XIII in 1879. A popular Assumption Day pilgrimage takes place here on August 15.

The winds were very strong the first day we went to visit it, especially as the basilica is located on top of an exposed limestone peak – the highest natural point in Marseille. When we were outside I was very thankful I had worn leggings underneath my dress. The breeze at one point felt like it was strong enough to lift me up and carry me away!

The exterior of the basilica is made with white limestone and green sandstone. A 37-foot copper statue of the Virgin Mother and Child, gilded with gold leaf and weighing ten tonnes, adorns the bell tower. The “Good Mother” is seen as the guardian and protector of the people of Marseille, especially mariners.

The present building has several levels. The lower levels contain a museum, a restaurant, and administrative offices. The basilica itself consist of two main levels. The lower level is the Roman-style crypt. It is peaceful and somber.

The upper level is the Neo-Byzantine basilica. It is a riot of colour and story. It consists of ornate marble arches and domes, decorated with beautiful mosaics.

Notre Dame de la Garde feels like an appropriate place of worship for a port city. While touring inside, the winds made it sound like there was a gale force storm battering the walls.

Throughout its history, sailors and other worshippers have expressed their gratitude and devotion to the basilica and to the Virgin Mother through the giving of ex-votos. An ex-voto (“following a vow”) is “a plaque, object or little picture, left in a sanctuary by someone who, finding themselves in danger, has made a vow for protection, help or healing and considers that the vow has been fulfilled thanks to the intercession of the Virgin Mary with God. An ex-voto is an offering of thanks for and public demonstration of the grace received” (this explanation given in a pamphlet obtained at the basilica’s museum).

For example, below is a simple ex-voto recognizing Notre Dame de la Garde for saving a family from the cholera epidemic in 1884-1885.

There are many votives to be found around the basilica such as paintings, plaques, model boats, and war medals.

Football shirts have even been offered up by players and supporters of the local football team! A helmet from the French army, slightly bent from a potential shrapnel blast, hangs on the wall. Neil and I enjoyed the many boats that hang from the decorated ceilings of the basilica. They are offerings from mariners grateful for being spared from shipwrecks, storms, pirates, and other misfortune on the sea.

Models of boats (and even a couple of planes, if you look closely in the third picture).


Life preservers.


Below translates as: “In recognition of the Good Mother for having protected the firefighters during the three terrible days of the fires on the hills North of Marseille on July 25, 26 and 27, 1997.”

A collection of war medals from the Franco-Prussian War.

World War I.

The Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde also has a fascinating history. In 1214, the hill known as “La Garde” was the property of the Saint-Victor Abbey. Master Pierre, a priest of Marseille (and possibly a hermit), was granted permission from its abbot to build a chapel on the hill.

Notre Dame de la Garde overlooking Saint-Victor Abbey.

Master Pierre dedicated the church to the Virgin Mother. Its increasing popularity demanded an expansion of the sanctuary through the construction of a second chapel in 1477.

In 1516, Francis I of France visited the chapel with his wife and mother. He observed that Marseille was poorly defended (Fort Saint-Jean and Fort Saint-Nicolas wouldn’t be built until 1660), and noted the strategic position of the hill overlooking the city and coastline. In 1524 Marseille was besieged by Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, during the war for the possession of the Duchy of Burgundy. The city was nearly lost, but Francis’ opponents fled when he arrived with his army. He ordered the construction of two fortresses: one on the island of If, and one atop the hill with the chapel.

A drawing of what the fort looked like.

You can see part of the old fort’s wall at the base of the church.

Rather than close the chapel or restrict its use to that of the fortress garrison, Francis I decided that the public would still be able to worship at the church during times of peace. This is the only known example of a military fortress sharing a space with a public chapel. A drawbridge granted access to the fortress and the chapel, and was raised every night. This tradition of raising the drawbridge every evening continues today with a new drawbridge that was installed in 1879. The Chateau d’If was finished in 1531 and the fortress in 1536.

The current drawbridge raised after the basilica is closed for the evening.

After the French Revolution, the fortress was turned into a prison. Many of the chapel’s treasures, including its collection of ex-votos, were melted down or auctioned off.

In 1795, Joseph Elie Escaramagne, a Marseilles sailor and merchant who escaped the guillotine for the crime of conspiracy against the republic, leased the chapel of Notre-Dame de la Garde. He was able to reopen it for worship in 1807. Perhaps this was done as fulfillment of the ultimate ex-voto? Saving the church and reopening it to the public is definitely a great way to show your gratitude.

Escarmagne also purchased the “Virgin of the Bouquet” statue and donated it to the church. Today, it can be found in the crypt.

In 1853, the construction of a new church (the present building) began. It doubled the size of the previous chapel. The military fort was almost entirely integrated into the foundations of the church. The church was consecrated in 1864.

In 1934, the fort was demilitarized, ending 400 years of military presence and function. Ironically, not even a decade would pass before German soldiers occupied the basilica after Marseille fell to Nazi rule in 1942.

The Battle for the Liberation of Marseille took place between August 21-28, 1944. The church still bears some of its scars from the gunfire and shrapnel set off during the fighting.

A fierce battle for the hill and the chapel happened on August 25. Tanks from the 1st armoured division led the assault on the hill under the command of General J. de Goislard de Monsabert. Members of the French Resistance led soldiers from the 2nd and 7th Algerian Tirailleurs up the hill. A tank, Jeanne d’Arc, had nearly reached the base of the basilica when it was hit by a shell. Three occupants were killed. The tank has been restored and now sits near where it was hit.

It was a tough climb to the top of the hill under German rifle fire. The Germans had set up blockhouses to help defend their position. Thankfully, a French soldier familiar with the neighbourhood knew that inside a nearby building there was a hallway that led to a set of stairs that ran up the hill, an access point unknown to the German soldiers.

A plaque adorns the otherwise unassuming door where the Algerian soldiers entered the building at No. 26 Cherchel Street. (Now called Rue Joules-Moulet).

At 3:30 pm, the basilica was successfully, if only briefly, liberated. The French flag was hoisted atop the bell tower. However, German fire from the guns of still-occupied Fort Saint Nicolas forced their retreat. This defeat was temporary as Marseille was successfully liberated on August 28, 1944.

To recognize the efforts of the Algerian Infantry, the Pennant of the General de Monsabert hangs in the basilica.

As the website for the basilica notes, “it is Muslims who liberated Our Lady, and their symbol, the crescent moon is, very appropriately, one of the most important attributes of the Virgin Mary.”

In addition to this remarkable history, Notre-Dame de la Garde offers spectacular views of Marseille and the Mediterranean from its terraces.

Vieux Port and Fort Saint Jean can be seen below.

The quintessential Mediterranean photo.

The remains of a quarry are on the left.

The rest of the city with its massive football stadium, the Velodrome, in the upper right.


France Marseille

Le Panier

Le Panier was the site of the ancient marketplace in Greek Massalia. It was the area they first settled in 600 B.C.E. The area was expanded in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century by rich traders. The neighbourhood’s name comes from a 17th century inn, “Le Logis du Panier.” “Le Panier” translates into English as “The Basket.”

The mural below reads: “Wonderful city, anchored on the Mediterranean, reefs surround it, sun heats it.”

Le Panier has steep cobblestone streets, apartment buildings with weathered shutters, funky coloured doors, laundry hanging on a line outside the windows, graffiti down every alley, as well as plaza squares with a great selection of restaurants, cafes, artist galleries, and cute shops. The area has a rich history, and there is something interesting to see and learn about around each new corner.

Steep cobblestone streets.

Apartment buildings with weathered shutters.

Some with a fresh coat of paint.

Beautiful brick facade paired with the shutters I’m in love with.

Funky coloured doors.

Laundry fresh from the line.


When the graffiti is almost as beautiful as the nature it represents.

Plaza squares with restaurants, cafes, artist galleries, and cute shops.

A fun, irreverent, and artistic energy.

Paint your chairs and table purple, I will sit there.

Cute shops, like this one for soap down our street.

Soap in the shape of sardines, strung on a line. Cute!

Real sponges from the Mediterranean Sea!

It also sells local beer and wine, for those not as into soap.



I agree!

The street we are on, Montee des Accoules, used to be known as the “Climb of the Observatory.”

Up, through the atmosphere!

At the top of the hill there was an observatory, originally opened by the Jesuits in 1702. Astronomers there discovered dozens of meteorites, comets, and made observations about the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter. In 1868 the observatory was moved elsewhere, and the building is now a children’s museum.

This is what it used to look like:

The building is not much to look at now, but still interesting to think about.

A nearby placard (the top brown one in the picture below) reads: “Ancient Observatory of Marseille, 1702-1861. Where Jean-Louis Pons discovered, during the summer of 1801, his first planet and 17 others as of the date 1819.” Although the placard reads “planete”, Jean-Louis Pons was known for discovering 37 comets – more than any other person in history. Another fun fact, a crater on the moon is named after him.

Unfortunately, a large portion of the Le Panier neighbourhood was destroyed during WWII. Marseille came under Nazi occupation on November 12, 1942. The Nazis targeted the Old Town of Marseille, including Le Panier, in an effort to route out their declared enemies: Resistance fighters, refugees, Jews, communists, as well as so-called criminals and sex workers. Le Panier had a seedy reputation, but it was mostly inhabited by modest families. Nonetheless, on January 30, 1943 the Nazis forced 30,000 inhabitants out of their homes – 2,000 of them would be sent to concentration camps –  and dynamited 1,500 buildings. French authorities managed to get the Nazis to spare some historic buildings. But this, in addition to bombing by Allied forces in May 1944, is why Le Panier doesn’t run all the way down to Vieux Port anymore.

Below: Buildings of post-WWII origin lying between Le Panier and Vieux Port.

Some points of interest in Le Panier include the Accoules Church, the Vieille Charitee, the Maison Diamantee, the Hotel Cabre, the Hotel Dieu, and the Hotel de Ville (City Hall). It is a short walk from Le Panier to Vieux Port, Fort St. Jean, Le Mucem, and Le Cathedrale de la Major (shown in the feature picture).

The bell tower of Accoules Church can be seen as we leave our apartment. It rings merrily throughout the day.

A nearby sign reads, of the Accoules church: “This 11th century church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is the most significant parish building in Marseille dating from the Middle Ages. The Sauveterre tower, a later addition, housed the bells that sounded the alert for the town. The church was destroyed during the French Revolution. Only the medieval bell tower, with its pyramidal arrow (18th century) remains.”

I liked the Maison Diamantee because of the cool stone work on its facade. It was built between 1590 and 1620 and is the second-oldest civil building in Marseille. Happily, it escaped the Nazi dynamite.

The Hotel Cabre was also spared. Dating back to 1535, it is the most ancient preserved house in Marseille.

For over 800 years, this spot was the site of the main hospital of Marseille. Patients with the bubonic plague in 1348 were treated here, and advances in cataract surgery were made by ophthamologist Jacques Daviel in 1747. The current building went up in 1788, and was rebuilt/renovated between 1860-1866. In 1993 the building became a teaching hospital until it was closed in 2006. It opened in 2013 as a five-star hotel.

Posts on Vieux Port, Fort St. Jean, Le MUCEM, Le Vieille Charitee, and Le Cathedrale Grande Major to follow.

Blog France Marseille

Arriving in Marseille

We’re here! We made it to Marseille – the first stop on our year-long European adventure!

After landing at the airport, we took a coach shuttle bus to the Gare St. Charles near the city centre of Marseille. The trip took about 25 minutes and was a convenient and affordable way to get downtown. As we left the station, we passed several ornate Romanesque statues and buildings. It was our first taste of a beautiful old city that is part French, part Latin, and is entirely different from what we’ve ever seen before.

As an ancient port city, the monuments and buildings contain a lot of ship imagery.

Marseille is the oldest and the second-largest city in France. It is located on France’s southern coast along the Mediterranean Sea, and is part of the French Riviera. The city was founded in 600 B.C.E. by Greek settlers in a location known now as the Vieux (Old) Port. The city was known to the Ancient Greeks and Massalia and Romans as Massilia.

The streets are narrow and the coloured shutters on the buildings are a little weathered. Graffiti peppers the alleyways. Every time you turn a corner, there is another beautiful old church or grand stone building. It’s fair to say that Marseille looks a little grittier than Paris, but it is definitely quieter and more relaxed.

Like Paris, the Republique neighbourhood of Marseille has several Haussman-style apartments (shown below).

They are intermixed with other Mediterranean-style buildings the colour of sand. Many of the buildings have orange terracotta roof tiles.

Also like Paris, Marseille even has its own Arc De Triomphe! The arch below is known as the Porte d’Aix and marks the old entry point into the city on the road from Aix-en-Provence. The arch was first proposed in 1784 with the intention of glorifying Louis XIV (the Sun King) and the Peace of Paris, in which representatives from Great Britain and the United States signed a treaty that ended the American War of Independence. (If there’s one thing I learned from Paris and all of the miniature Statues of Liberty we found around the city, it’s that France felt it had a bit of a personal stake in the success of that war). A few minor delays (such as the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, the re-establishment of the monarchy) prevented the first stone from being laid until 1825, and the project was finally finished in 1839. However, the intervening political circumstances between conception and completion of the monument meant that the arch could no longer celebrate a specific political campaign or figure. (Sorry Louis). As a result, the Porte d’Aix is representative of a more general theme of French victory.

History lesson complete, we then found our way to Le Panier, the neighbourhood our apartment is located in. Like Le Marais, where we stayed in Paris, Le Panier is an older residential area that hosts some of the city’s oldest buildings. We can see the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde (Our Lady of the Guard) from our windows.

After nearly 24 hours of travel, we were (well, more like just Leah was) too tired to do little more than make it up the stairs of our five-storey walk-up. Neil picked up some groceries and made dinner while Leah tried to remember what it’s like to feel human. The night became velvet, we blew a breaker when we tried to plug in a cheap power bar, and we settled in for a dark night’s rest.

Not too bad for our first day – we are definitely excited to see more of the city in the next two weeks.

Neil made a video that documents the beginning of our adventure. Check it out below, and subscribe to our channel on YouTube!