This is the main railway station for Marseille, Gare Saint Charles. In a typical hour, trains arrive from Avignon, Brussels, Le Havre, Paris, Toulon, Bordeaux, Lyon, Aix-en-Provence and Hyeres. And once a day there is even a direct train from Frankfurt am Main.
As you can see from the first photo, the station is up on a hill or plateau. To get up there you can climb the grand staircase and feel suitably awed, or you can make a slight detour around to the left where there is a more prosaic entrance with escalators.
The architect of the staircase was a man named Eugène Senès (1875-1960), who won an architectural competition in 1911 but didn’t actually get to construct the staircase until the 1920s. On the staircase there are various sculptures intended to symbolize “The Colonies of Africa” and “The Colonies of Asia” as well as “Marseille as the Gateway to the Orient”. (These sculptures did not impress me particularly, so I neglected to take pictures of them, but perhaps I should have done so out of historical interest. Maybe next time.)
The staircase was finished in 1926 and was intended to glorify the French colonial empire, since Marseille was where people came by train to board their Messageries Maritimes steamships for the Far East or wherever. So this was the gateway to the colonies, so to speak, and was meant to be monumental. Presumably they had porters to carry their luggage.
If you have ever seen the film L’Amant by Jean-Jacques Annaud, based on the novel by Marguerite Duras, you may recall that the film ends with an old Messageries Maritimes steam ship leaving the harbor at Saigon to begin the long voyage to Marseille, with the tearful heroine on board.
In March 2012 the German and French railways inaugurated a direct high-speed train connection between Frankfurt am Main and Marseille via Mannheim, Karlsruhe, Strasbourg, Mulhouse, Belfort, Besançon, Chalon sur Saône, Lyon, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. For the time being there is only one such train per day — but that’s much better than none! My first trip on this new train was to Marseille, but I have since also taken it to Avignon, Besançon and Belfort.
Their original intention was to use a new version of the German ICE (InterCityExpress) for this run, but as usual the ICE had technical difficulties so service is currently provided by a double-decker French TGV train (“Train of Great Speed”) which leaves Frankfurt each afternoon at around 14:00. The journey to Marseille takes seven hours and forty-five minutes, so the train arrives at Saint Charles station in Marseille at around quarter to ten in the evening.
The return train leaves Marseille at around 8 in the morning. It reaches Frankfurt in mid-afternoon.
The full price (which few people actually pay) for a one-way ticket from Frankfurt to Marseille is currently € 152.00 (as of 2017), but I booked on the German railways website and got one of their “Europa-Spezial” tickets for € 69.00.
For the return trip I wasn’t as lucky. Since the French railways require reservations — and do not sell more tickets than they have seats — it can happen that the train is sold out well in advance. I originally wanted to return on a Sunday, but since no more tickets were available I stayed on an extra day in Marseille and returned on Monday. The return trip cost me € 98.40 Euros because there were no “Europa-Spezial” tickets available on that day, but I did get a reduction with my German rail card (BahnCard 50).
There is no dining car on the TGV trains, but otherwise I found the journey quite pleasant and comfortable. Refreshments are available at the TGV bar in the middle of the train.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2017.
See also: By train to Avignon.