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Marseille has several ports lined along its long Mediterranean coastline. However, when one referred to 'the port' in Marseille, it was likely that was in reference to her wonderful Old Port, Le Vieux Porte. Jutting into the heart of the Marseille's old city, Le Vieux Porte was a kilometer-long by kilometer-wide artificial waterway crammed with boats of all shapes and sizes. Lined around the port were several dozen large restaurants, catering to the massive volume of residents and visitors descending on the area any given day. On the Saturday I visited, a hot July day, this area was flooded with people trying to get near the water... or onto it, as the Old Port was also where one could hop ferry rides out to the nearby island destinations of Isle d'If and Isles du Frioul.
After touring the City first, I went to the Port and gave it a fairly thorough look. Then, after hopping a ferry to the islands, I returned to the Port for dinner and drink before departing. Quite a lot actually changed from morning to evening.
My first good look at the Porte came as I followed the ridgeline above near the Abbaye St. Victor. That view is in the first photograph. In the foreground was a quay leading out to a huge pool where the boats can maneuver for entry and exit out to sea. The quay, as the photograph shows, was incredibly crowded with huge boats, much like just about every other Cote d'Azur harbor I visited in France.
But what was different about this port was the way the port entrance was built up with old forts and other historic structures, although these appeared to have been touched up enough to keep them standing. For example, the round tower in the distance was the watch tower of the old Fort St. Jean, shown in close up in the second photograph. This Fort was erected as part of the first lines of defense for the city, and certainly must have been a foreboding presence for any attacker. Across from St. Jean at far left in the first photograph (sporting what appeared to be a glass roof) was the Portillon, a massive stone structure that also protected the entrance. As the second photograph shows, there was a walkway that followed along the base of these structure, allowing for a wonderful waterside view. I was on the ferry when I took that shot, but got some other wonderful pics from the Fort itself.
Drawing a line straight back from the port entrance through the main quay led one to the Old Port's strand. This strand was very, very wide, providing plenty of room for the commercial tourist ferries to operate and for the traditional marketeers to host their Saturday fish market, shown in the third photograph. Although the umbrellas were modern, everything else about the market was Old World. There were many different varieties of fish and seafood available, and the place was filled with the fishy aroma one might have expected. The crowd was big and mostly locals shopping for that night's dinner, while the tourists stood in line at the ferries with their noses wrinkled. Beyond the strand was the main road that looped around the Old Port, and then there was an old church in the center, although that church was unremarkable compared to my next destination...
This is shown in the fourth and fifth photographs, the Notre Dame de la Garde. This dominating structure sat atop a long ridgeline to the south of the Old Port and was clearly visible from just about anywhere in the city. In fact, one can make it out in the far background of the fourth photograph in the Isle d'If chapter. Climbing from the Old Port was a challenge, as the roads were incredibly steep, and reaching the tops of the building meant I still wasn't halfway there. It was from about that point where the fourth photo was shot. The grounds around the church provided some fantastic views of both the city and the sea, but none were better than at the Jesus and Mary sculpture shown in the fifth photograph. The inscription on the base read "Aus missionaires partis de ce haut-lieu pour announcer la bonne nouvelle de Jesus Christ. A nos freres des hommes du monde entrer," which honors all the missionaries around the world who perished spreading the news of Jesus Christ. Although the picture doesn't show so much of the city in the background, you can imagine how beautiful it was. At another part of the grounds, a huge black wooden cross stood facing the Old Port. I was amused by the fact that atop the cross was a seagull, staring down at the old city. Cute.
The interior of the Notre Dame was fantastic. The interior was striped white and red by layering different colored marble bricks. The decor had a lot of gold and reminded me more of the interiors of Orthodox churches rather than Catholic (perhaps a testament to the faith's original eastern origins). One whole marble wall was dedicated to the war dead, complete with huge arrays of military medals and inscriptions of the honored dead.
I returned to the Old Port to take the ferry. On my way back in the late afternoon, I made a point of capturing a few shots of the palace shown in the sixth photo, the Palais Pharo. The picture seemed out of place from the rest of the scene -- a yellow palace on a bed of bright green grass amidst a whole city of ehite stone buildings and white rocky cliffs with little vegetation save for the occasional desert tree. The Palace was located outside the Portillon along the coastline, and had become just a museum with the grassy area serving as a public park.
Upon my return, I decided that I was going to have myself a dinner of bouillabaisse from among the many restaurants around the Old Port. Some may be familiar with this southern French delicacy, a fish soup made with local ingredients. Nearly every restaurant offered it, and its presentation was special. The waiter brought all the ingredients and the broth to the table and assembled it in front of the patron. This included taking a fully broiled fish, peeling away the skin, and pulling the flesh off one-handed with two spoons and placing it in the bowl. However, I ultimately decided against it after realizing how expensive it was. Eating the same fish without the soup was considerably cheaper, and I got the show by watching other patrons get their soup. Maybe next time I would go for it, but back then I was on a shoestring budget.
The Old Port area was wonderful, particularly with the ferry rides and the terrific atmosphere. There was plenty enough to see and do without having to spend much time elsewhere in the city -- but as the other chapters in this travelogue show, the rest of the city was not to be missed.
Trip taken 28 July 2001 -- Page Last Updated 26 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin
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