France Marseille

Marseille Sightseeing

La Vielle Charité

La Vielle Charité was built as an almshouse for the poor between 1671 and 1749. There are four ranges of arcaded galleries at a height of 3 storeys that face an interior courtyard and a chapel fronted by a portico with classic columns. It’s built in the Baroque style out of pink and yellow sandstone. Today, La Vielle Charité is the home of a couple of museums, a research library of archeological documents, a school of advanced studies in the social sciences, offices, and temporary exhibit space.

I didn’t explore any of the museums but instead enjoyed walking around the site, taking pictures of its impressive architecture.

Cathedrale de la Major

Le Cathedrale de la Major was built from 1852-1896. Its foundation stone was laid by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleon III). The site that the church was built on has been the the site of Marseille cathedrals since the 5th century. In fact the remains of an older and much smaller cathedral, one dating to the 12th century, still stands beside the newer one. They are referred to as the “New Major” and the “Old Major.”

The beautiful exterior of the church is a highlight.

A lovely doorway.

There were some interesting flags to examine.

There were a few beautiful stained glass panels inside the church that I enjoyed seeing.

A view of the church from the water.

The old chapel.

Palais du Pharo

The Palais du Pharo was built under the orders of Napoleon III for his wife, Empress Eugénie de Montijo. It’s a beautiful palace with a sweet piece of real estate – it’s located at the foot of the harbour entrance, just beyond Fort Saint Nicolas, and has one of the best views of the sunset in the city.

As is the case with many stories of impressive palaces built for kings and emperors, Napoleon III never actually stayed here. After his death Empress Eugénie gave the Palais to the city of Marseille. It then became a school of medicine in 1904.

Neil and I went up to the Palais du Pharo to watch the sunset one night, and I took some pictures of the building and the surrounding cityscape while it was magically lit up by the fading sun.

Fort Saint Nicolas with Le MUCEM and Cathedrale de la Grande.

Vieux Port.

Abbey of Saint Victor

The Abbey of Saint Victor is one of the oldest sites in Marseille. Saint Victor was a Roman soldier turned martyr, executed in this location by the Romans in 290 or 302. A monastery was founded here in the early 5th century, and the first church was built in 440. The monastery was destroyed by invaders in the early 11th century but then rebuilt. When its abbot, Guillaceme Grimoard, became pope in 1361, he enlarged the church and built high walls around it – which is the building that remains today.

The Abbey became one of the most prestigious and powerful religious centres in the south of France until it began to decline in importance in the 16th century.

During the French Revolution the treasures were stripped from the church, the relics burned, and the church became a warehouse, a prison, and a barracks.

Saint Paul and the dragon greets you over the entrance. (Although it does look more lizard-like here).

Today, the church is beautiful because of its simplicity. When you’re inside, you can almost imagine what it would have felt like to be a worshipper in the medieval ages.

The ceilings are tall, the church is dark and sombre, and it smells a little earthy. That might have been because it was pouring rain outside.

One of my favourite parts of the Abbey was the Apocalypse Tapestry.

I don’t know what it says to me that my favourite part of visiting an ancient church is the depictions of hellfire, but there you go.

Some relics held in the museum. (I think relics are a little creepy).

There’s an impressive crypt to explore in the lower levels.

The Black Madonna is stored in the crypt.

The Abbey looks very much the same today as it did in medieval times.

History Museum of Marseille

I spent hours at the amazing city museum. Here are a few of the highlights.

The museum has the remains of a few ancient shipwrecks, including that of this Greek boat that dates from the 6th century B.C.E., the same time that Marseille was founded by the ancient Greeks.


A fragment of ancient Greek pottery from the same period.

Also, it’s good to know that the tradition of graffiti artwork in Marseille has a long history. This also dates to the 6th century B.C.E.

I’m jumping through several exhibits and periods of time here to the Marseille plague of 1720. Check out these costumes that the doctors wore!

Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France, the eldest daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, drank from this glass. She married the Duke of Angoulème, hence her title of Duchess. I didn’t know this at the time I took the picture (exploring museum exhibits in another language can be tough), I just thought the case for the glass was pretty. My love of history takes me to some strange places!

This is a “circle repeater” from 1787. The information at the museum read that “this exceptional instrument, conceived by Jean-Charles de Borda and realized by Lenoir. In 1790, the Assembly decided to create a universal measurement, the metre, defined as the ten millionths of a quarter of a meridian. The measurement of the meridian is entrusted to two astronomers, Delambre and Mechain. Between 1792 and 1799 they measure the arc of the meridian between Dunkirk and Barcelona. They perform this measurement by triangulation, thanks to this repeating circle. by extrapolating the results of their measurements. they can calculate the length of one. Of the four instruments used during this expedition, only this copy has survived.”

I don’t really understand this, but it sounds pretty cool. And I’m sure Neil and his friend Michael will find it fascinating. This is for you, guys! I thought it was just a cool old telescope.

Astronomical lenses from the 17th and 18th century. They were used at the observatory in Le Panier, close to where our apartment was located!

The white flag of the German surrender. “This flag was handed over to the city of Marseille by the Allied military authorities on September 4, 1944. The panel on which it is displayed was made from the wood of a German vessel.”

A coat from 1920 that I would totally wear today.

Mostly so I could pair it with these shoes.

This fellow and his fancy pantalons amused me.

There was so much to see in this museum. Definitely check it out if you’re in the area.

Musée du Savon

Marseille takes its soap seriously, so I decided to learn more about it by coming to the Museum of Soap!

My French is terrible, but I know enough that I can buy a ticket and half translate some of the exhibit descriptions. I wasn’t able to keep up with the French instructions for how to work this machine, as demonstrated by the woman working there, but that’s okay. I try to be polite and respectful, as I think one should be whether or not you know the local language.

At this point the woman went to deal with an English-speaking customer. She asked him, in French, if he would like to buy a ticket for the museum. “TRY to speak English,” he replied snarkily. As if it was on her, the French woman, to speak his language, even though he was the visitor. I couldn’t believe it. No attempt at even cursory politeness. His tone seemed to imply that she was inferior because she didn’t speak English. I wish I had turned to him and said, either in French of English, “TRY not to be a dick” but, unfortunately, these great comebacks only come to me later. I was too shocked in the moment by his rudeness to stick up for her, and I regret that. Hopefully I’ll be quicker and wittier next time.

The customer service people in France have been nothing but kind and polite to me, even when I struggle with their language. There is a myth that French people are rude to English speakers, but I didn’t see that. What I saw, instead, was why English-speaking tourists get the reputation they do.

Neil and I saw this later in Germany when we went on a German tour in Nuremberg. The other English-only speakers took their audioguides and buggered off on their own throughout the rest of the site, leaving our guide somewhat exasperated – she didn’t want them being on their own in case they got hurt, or in case they broke something. Neil and I were the only English-speakers who stayed with the group. I think that even if you don’t know the language and you have your own audio guide, it’s common courtesy to stick with the rest of the group and go at the pace that the guide wants to lead you on. But anyway, I digress. Let’s focus instead on the colourful Marseille soap!

It all smelled really nice, too!

Soap… for cats?

I guess it could be a thing?

An 18th century bathtub.

Not sure I’d want to sit in that.

An 18th century washing machine.

Le Palais de Justice

Neil and I came across the Marseille courthouse while looking for an art store.

Fish and Boats

The Fish Market in Vieux Port happens every day, but Friday morning is the best day to go see it. The fish are so fresh, some of them are still slapping around on the tables.


It’s also fun to walk by the marina at night, to see the boats all lit up.

All right, this concludes my Marseille posts. I think I can safely say that I have blogged more about Marseille than any other blogger out there.

France Landmarks Marseille

Tilting at Windmills

Le Place des Moulins is an old neighbourhood of Le Panier that used to be covered in windmills. In the 16th century, there were 15. The windmills began to disappear as alternate sources of power took over. By the 19th century, there were only 3 remaining. The remains of 2 windmills can still be seen in the square.

The first one I found was super cute, it was exactly what I was hoping to photograph!

I think this was the second one? I couldn’t find anything else… but it’s looking like it’s been heavily modernized.

There were a couple of other buildings in the area that struck me as being windmillesque.

I am also using this as an excuse to post a few pictures I snapped at the Marseille City History Museum, because there are some old illustrations of Marseille that show windmills in the area.

Marseille around 1600. Look, windmills!

Marseille around 1596 by J. Tortorel et J.-J. Perrissin. Le Panier is in the foreground and Vieux Port in the background, so the image is a different view from what is usually shown of Marseille. On the bottom left are the windmills! This picture also shows the medieval city walls. The troops of the Duke of Guise are entering the city (another battle this city with a long history has seen).

Marseille around 1650, by Louis Cundier “d’après Jacques Maretz.” You might want to click on the image and go “command +” to zoom in to see the windmills. Also, this picture includes city walls, a chain strung in the water across the entrance to the Vieux Port, and tall ships docked in the harbour. (I love old photos/illustrations!)

Windmills! Marseille by Joannes Orlandi “d’apres Georg Braun”, 1602.

Also, just for fun, the same picture but with a close up of Fort Saint Nicolas and the Fortress/Chapel Notre Dame de la Garde.

And the Chateau d’If.

This picture has the windmills as well, if you zoom in. It also shows how the harbour used to extend further into the city.

Okay, I think “tilting at windmills” for me is obsessing over historic details, such as depictions of windmills in old pictures.

In the same vein, there was a bookshop in Marseille that I could have spent hours in. See below.

In addition to old books, this room had files and files of historic prints available for sale. I wanted to stay there and look at them all.

Below is a print of Marseille’s “Transporter Bridge.” This bridge connected the two shores of Vieux Port and was inaugurated on December 24, 1905. This “Eiffel Tower of Marseillais” carried out 250 crossings per day on a suspended basket. It was 53 metres high, and a panoramic restaurant was located on top. It fell out of use by the 1930s due to a lack of funds to maintain it. The German military blew up the bridge during the liberation of Marseille on August 22, 1944 in an attempt to block the port, but only the north tower fell. The rest of the bridge was destroyed in September 1945.

When we were in Marseille I wanted to look into this bridge a little more because it fascinated me. Too many rabbit holes, too few rabbits (me).

Here is a picture of the bridge from Wikipedia, which shows its placement in Vieux Port a little better.

A large bookshelf of old books.

I desperately wanted to find pink antique books while in Paris, and wasn’t successful. Found some here!

Old editions of Alexandre Dumas’ novels, including Le Comte de Monte Cristo.

A funky statue located in the square outside the bookstore.

All right, I better go tilt some dinner.

France Marseille

The Streets of Marseille

I became a little obsessed with taking photographs around Marseille. Art is everywhere whether it’s in the form of graffiti, rickety window shutters, boldly painted doors, or a beautiful old building. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, and I am going to share a few of my favourites with you in this post.

Most of these were taken in Le Panier.


France Landmarks Marseille

The Château d’If and the Count of Monte Cristo

The Château d’If is located on the island of If, which is one of four islands that make up the Frioul archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea off of the coast of Marseille. The island of If is 1.5 km offshore of the Bay of Marseille, and 3.5 km from Vieux Port.

The Château d’If was built from 1524-31 under the order of Francis I. It is a square building, 3 storeys high, and features 3 towers equipped with guns. The construction of the fortress at Notre Dame de la Garde took place at the same time. The two structures were created to protect maritime access to Marseille, but the Château d’If never ended up having to fend off an attack.

Here are some picturess taken from the ferry dock, looking up at the ramparts. The island of If measures 3 hectares (0.03 km) and the fortress, a lighthouse, the ferry dock, the defensive walls, and a couple of other buildings associated with it are the only things located on it.

Views from the towers and top level of the fortress.

Looking towards the other islands of the Frioul archipelago.

Looking towards the open sea.

View of Marseille with the lighthouse in the foreground. Looks like a short, easy swim, right? Sure, it is.

Inside the fortress. Top floor.

Middle floor.

Ground floor.

The well.

The Château became a state prison in 1580. Its isolation and the strong currents around the island made it impossible to escape from. It housed many political and religious prisoners until 1913. Over 3,500 French Huguenots were sent to the Château, mostly between 1599 and 1613. Gaston Crémieux, a leader of the Paris Commune of 1871, was imprisoned and executed at the prison.

Below is a memorial plaque commemorating the religious Protestant prisoners from 1545-1750. Some of them were kept in this fortress, as well as Fort St. Jean and Fort St. Nicolas. The plaque reads that the prisoners “preferred the chains of imprisonment to the death of abjuration.”

Prisoners were kept in different conditions based on their economic class.  The poorest were kept in windowless dungeons that were dug out beneath the towers, at barely a man’s standing height, and with only a grate to cover them. These prisoners were kept in horrid conditions where their life expectancy was only 8 months. Wealthier prisoners were able to pay for private cells in the upper levels of the castle with windows, fireplaces, and even the ability to take walks outside on the terraces that connected the towers.

Below is a windowless cell playing a French tape of The Man in the Iron Mask for some reason. Amusingly, a hole has been dug between this cell and the next to align it with the plot line in The Count of Monte Cristo. The Château really leans into its assocation with Dumas’ famous novels. (More on that below).

The locks on these doors weren’t messing around.

Note the prisoner graffiti next to the entrance to the cell below.

This fireplace didn’t come cheap.

A cell with high ceilings would be nice, as far as prison cells go. Probably no wi-fi, though.

High ceilings and windows.

More than 90 examples of prisoner graffiti, inscriptions formed by carvings made into the prison walls, can be found around the Château. They were made by Marseille workers who were imprisoned following an uprising on June 22 and 23, 1848.


The Château is more famous, however, as being the island prison where the main character of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, was imprisoned. In the novel, Edmond Dantès, who has crossed paths with Napoleon, is accused of espionage by two of his rivals on the day of his engagement to his beloved Mercedes. He is imprisoned in the Château d’If for 14 years. 7 years into his term, he meets the occupant of a neighbouring cell, the priest Abbé Faria, who has dug a hole between their cells. The men become friends and together they plot an escape. Faria tells Dantès about a treasure he has hidden on the island of Monte Cristo. Unfortunately, the old priest dies before the men can escape together. Dantès hides himself in the canvas shroud meant for the priest’s body, and is then thrown into the sea. He escapes the shroud, swims to shore, and finds the priest’s hidden treasure. He now has the means to create a fake identity (or three) and goes to Paris to exact revenge on his accusers. The fictional Edmond Dantès is the first prisoner to ever escape the Chateau d’If and survive. In reality, no one is known to have actually achieved this.

Here is an appropriate time to introduce my photographic theme of imprisonment and pictures of hallways.

Marseille. So close and, yet, so far.

The sweet blue colour of longing (for freedom).

An exhibit on Alexandre Dumas’ life and literary works is featured at the Château, and contained some very interesting details.¹ Alexandre Dumas’ paternal ancestors came from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. They were part of a long line of wealthy planters known as the “La Pailletterie” family, and had settled along the coastline where Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, in Monte Cristo Bay. Alexandre Dumas’ grandfather, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Palleterie, fathered four children with one of the black slaves on his property, Marie-Cessette, nicknamed “Du Mas” (“from the farmhouse”). In 1772, Alexandre Antoine was in a state of financial ruin and was forced to sell his children and their mother to fund his return voyage to France.² However, he did have a repurchase clause for his son, Thomas Alexander. Four years later, Alexandre Antoine was able to buy Thomas back and recognized him as his natural son. This boy of mixed race, Thomas Alexandre, bore his mother’s name of “Dumas” and, as a man, was a general under Napoleon. Thomas Alexandre and his wife became the parents of the writer, Alexandre Dumas, in 1802.

A fellow General of Napoleon’s, Jean-Baptiste Kléber, was assassinated in 1800. Napoleon worried that Kléber’s tomb might become a symbol of Republicanism, and so ordered that Kléber’s body be held at the Chateau d’If. Alexandre Dumas would have heard about this as a story told by his father as he was growing up. Dumas visited the island of If for the first time in 1834 while on a journey of the Mediterranean and decided to set the early part of his plot in Marseille.

When Alexandre Dumas was working as a clerk at the police archives in Paris, he stumbled across a true story about a shoemaker from Nîmes, François Picaud, who in 1807 was about to marry a beautiful woman named Marguerite. A jealous man named Louplan informed the district commissioner that he suspected Picaud of being in league with the English. Picaud was arrested and spent seven years in prison. He befriended another prisoner, a wealthy Milanese priest, who made Picaud a benefactor of his will. The priest passes away, Picaud is released from prison in 1814, and uses his newfound wealth to return to Paris with a false identity to seek revenge. The storyline of Dumas’ novel was practically given to him on a silver plate.

A young Alexandre Dumas.

An older Alexandre Dumas.

So the moral, folks, is that sometimes the menial jobs you take to help support yourself while you write, paint, and/or practice music pay off. And that truth is really stranger than fiction. Maybe this is why I’m so fascinated with learning the history of a place when we travel. I’m always looking for stories, and trying to understand how local events shape their people.

And, in some cases, learning how fiction can shape the people…

Edmond Dantès’ fictional escapade of swimming from the fortress of the Chateau d’If to the shore is the inspiration behind the annual “Monte Cristo Challenge” swimming race. Since 1999, thousands of swimmers gather at the end of June for a 5 km race stretch that begins on the northern shore of If island and ends at the Prado beach park south of Marseille, where a pop-up “Monte Cristo Village” caters to spectators witnessing the event. The first-place finisher for the men and for the women each win €3,000. A 14 kg crystal trophy was made for this race to represent the fortune that Dantès recovered after he escaped the island fortress. A small reproduction trophy is given to the race winners each year.

The Château serves as a fun half day excursion from Marseille. You can catch the passenger ferry between Vieux Port and the Chateau and the other Frioul islands for a very reasonable price. The ferry reminded me of the service that runs between Vancouver Island and the other smaller islands located off of it, like Quadra.

In 1516 a ship carrying an Asian rhinoceros was forced to anchor off of If on its way to Rome due to bad weather. Albrecht Dürer, an artist we would learn more about it Nuremberg, drew this from a sketch sent to him of the animal.

We caught the ferry from the Chateau d’If to Frioul. Here, you have the option to disembark and explore the town. We were eager to get back to Marseille, though, so perhaps another time.

We passed the Château again on our way back to Marseille.

This picture is here for no reason other than that we both liked the design the organization that manages these historic monuments uses.

¹All information gathered from the exhibit.

² This seems like a dick move. Yay, imperialism!

France Landmarks Marseille

Les Calanques

The Calanques are located south east of Marseille along a stretch of Mediterranean seaside cliffs. The Calanques (translated as “the Creeks” in English) are a series of narrow ocean inlets that wind their way in through the rocky coastline. The inlets feature small protected bays, beaches, and excellent hiking trails. Many of them are accessible only by boat or on foot. They are popular recreational spaces, and are protected as part of the Parc national des Calanques. The Calanques stretch out over 20 km of coastline between the cities of Marseille and Cassis.

Below is a good image that shows what the Calanques look like from the ocean as you’re going by on a boat.

Neil and I set out on a boat tour of the Calanques on a beautiful Sunday morning.

Here he is!

We were excited to see the docked boats from the inside of the harbour! Notre Dame de la Garde can be seen in the distance as we are leaving Vieux Port.

In the picture below, the steeple of the white church located at the end of our street in Le Panier can be seen.

Fort Saint-Jean.

Wind, rain, and glaciers carved the white limestone rock of this area into coastline valleys and caves. During the last glacial period 19,000 years ago, sea levels were 135 metres lower. As the planet’s temperature rose, so did the sea levels. Water flooded the deep valleys and thus the Calanques were formed.

The very hard white limestone is referred to as the “pierre de Cassis” (Cassis rocks). They are made from the buildup of seashells over millions of years at the bottom of the ocean. Cassis stone has featured in such construction projects as the quarries of Marseille and Algiers, the Suez Canal, and the base of the Statue of Liberty (quarried from Port Miou). The brown rock, ochre, is a softer sedimentary limestone and was used in the building of Fort Saint Nicolas and Fort Saint Jean.

Looking towards Pointe du Vaisseau.

Nearing the approach to the Calanque de Sormiou.

Entering the Calanque de Sormiou. Lots of beautiful scenery to take pictures of in here!

Looking back out towards the open ocean.

I loved the rich blue (and occasionally green) colour of the water.

Now entering the Calanque d’En Vau with its beautiful cliffs covered in pine trees.

This is at the Pointe d’En Vau. We’re leaving the Calanque d’En Vau and are now headed towards the Calanque de Port Pin.

Below is the entrance to the Calanque de Port Pin. It is named after (more of)  the beautiful pine trees on the cliffside.

Below is a good picture to show how the inlet narrows the further you go in.

All right, time for us to turn around and head back to Marseille.

I wasn’t sure at first why one of the tour guides moved everybody seated in the back of the boat inside. This would soon become apparent as we gathered speed.


Now that’s a big wave!


Zipping by the Chateau d’If.

Want to race?


All right, I’m feeling a little relieved to be getting back into the calmer waters of Vieux Port.

Although we didn’t see it on this tour, there is a spot along the Calanques of particular historic note. The Cosquer Cave, located in the Calanque de Morgiou, contains prehistoric cave art dating back to 27,000 B.C.E. including outlines of human hands and paintings of animals. There were even drawings of penguins from 19,000 years ago, when the climate was much cooler. The cave was inhabited during the Paleolithic period (known less formally as the Stone Age) when sea levels were much lower. The entrance to the cave is now located 37 metres (121 feet) underwater, and then requires a further trek through a 175 metre ( 574 feet) tunnel, so visiting it was out of the question. But it was interesting to learn about, and the city museum had a good audiovisual feature on it, if you’re in the area and want to find out more.

Below are a couple of images I found on Wikipedia to provide some more information about the Cosquer Cave. The first is a depiction of the entrance to the cave. The second is an example of the cave art, in this instance, the outline of a human hand.

It’s interesting to consider all of this history, prehistoric, ancient Greek, and Roman, as you are touring the Marseille coastline. It was fun to actually get on a boat and tour the area by sea, as has already been done by humans for thousands of years. I don’t think you can really appreciate a port city until you get on the water. This tour was a great way to do that.

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!