The Marseille Office of Tourism offers a variety of guided walking tours of various parts of the city. The exact dates and times are listed on their website www.marseille-tourisme.com and in the folders that they publish six times a year. The price per person is ten Euros (as of 2018). Places can be reserved online or by phoning 0826 500 500 — and you should definitely book ahead because numbers are limited.
The tour I took was called Vieux Marseille – quartier du Panier (Old Marseille – the Panier district). It was announced as a two-hour bilingual tour, in French and English, but fortunately nobody needed the English translations and nobody was in a hurry to leave after two hours, so in fact it was only in French and lasted nearly four hours.
Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, friendly and enthusiastic. She had so much to tell us that I don’t know how she could have fit in the English translations and done the tour in only two hours.
Here she is telling us about the history of the Panier and Old Port districts, and especially about the evacuation and destruction of 1500 buildings by the Nazis in 1943. Apparently large numbers of Resistance fighters, Jews, Communists and anti-Nazi Germans had taken refuge in this neighborhood during the Second World War, at least that was the justification given for evacuating thirty thousand inhabitants and sending two thousand of them to concentration camps.
The Hôtel de Cabre (or Maison de l’Échevin de Cabre) was one of the few buildings that remained after the Nazis evacuated and destroyed much of the Old Port area on January 23, 1943.
The historical sign on the left shows how the Hôtel de Cabre was jacked up and rotated ninety degrees after the war. The reason for this was to widen the street called Grand Rue, to make room for more and faster cars. This sounded all too familiar to me because earlier in the same week I had taken a similar guided walking tour in Toulon, where we were shown a large gate and historic façade that had been jacked up, rotated ninety degrees and moved to a new location for the same purpose — to make room for cars.
This plaque commemorates the victims of the evacuation and destruction of the Old Port area on January 23, 1943. For details of anti-Nazi Resistance activities in Marseille during the Second World War, see this account compiled by the Alliance Française in London.
Location, aerial view and photo of Hôtel de Cabre on monumentum.fr.
Our next stop on our guided walking tour of the Panier district was at the site of the old Church of the Accoules. This was one of the oldest churches in Marseille, built at the beginning of the eleventh century, but it was destroyed in 1794 because it had been used for political meetings during the French Revolution. Nothing remains except the bell tower and a crucifix that has been mounted on one of the old walls.
Location, aerial view and photo of the Église des Accoules on monumentum.fr.
Some of the buildings we saw in the Panier district were in serious need of repair. Generations of poor people have lived here, especially immigrants. Generations of unscrupulous landlords have charged inflated prices for small apartments in crumbling buildings.
Now the city is attempting to upgrade the district without destroying its character, but inevitably this involves a certain amount of gentrification. The traditional poor inhabitants are gradually moving to other poor neighborhoods a bit further north. They are being replaced by artists and affluent couples who can afford to buy or rent modernized flats in some of these old buildings.
When you look at a harmonious architectural ensemble like the Vieille Charité and hear that it was built as an almshouse starting in the seventeenth century, you might get the impression that the French really used to take good care of their poor people back then.
Well, they didn’t. The purpose of this lovely building, as declared by the city council in 1640, was to “lock up the poor inhabitants of Marseille in a selected clean place” to comply with the king’s policy of “enclosing the poor”.
The inner courtyard looks open and airy but the outer walls of the complex have no openings except for the entrance at the front. This arrangement reminded me of the Hôpital Saint-Louis in Paris — another beautiful piece of architecture, but intended to function very much like a prison.
Today the Vieille Charité is home to a number of cultural institutions, including an international poetry center and library, a bookshop called the Librairie Regards, a municipal cinema called Le Miroir (The Mirror) and the municipal museums of Mediterranean Archeology, African Art, Oceanic Art and Amerindian Art.
I’m sure it hasn’t happened very often that an architect gets a commission to build a major complex of buildings in his own home neighborhood, right around the corner from where he was born. But that was what happened to the architect Pierre Paul Puget (1620-1694), who was born in the Panier district in a street called Rue du Petit Puits (Street of the Small Well).
In the center of the courtyard of the Vieille Charité, Puget designed and started building a striking baroque chapel with an egg-shaped dome. After Pierre Puget’s death in 1694, the construction of the chapel was supervised by his son François Puget (1651-1707) until it was finally finished and consecrated in 1707, the year of François Puget’s death.
As you can see from the photo on this history sign, the chapel was in very poor condition — nearly the entire roof was missing — until it was restored and renovated in the second half of the twentieth century. The restauration began in 1961. It was finished in 1981 for the chapel and in 1986 for the rest of the buildings.
Location, aerial view and photo of the Vieille Charité on monumentum.fr.
When I first saw the whimsical façade of the Association de Bien-Fêteurs in Marseille’s Panier district I thought it was some sort of joke or party club, like the Institute of Clavological Sciences in the Old Town of Lyon.
But it turns out that this association has a more serious purpose. It was founded in 2008 to provide “creative support for Liberia” and particularly to help young people who were victims of the long drawn-out Liberian civil war.
One of the stops on our walking tour of the Panier district was at a traditional specialty chocolate shop called La Chocolatière du Panier, which has been run by the same family for three generations.
This photo shows just a few of their three hundred different chocolate variations. They say that 180 of these are based on “ancestral recipes of the Le Ray family.” In addition, the current generation likes to experiment by adding such ingredients as olive oil and onions to their chocolates.
Like the Old Town of Lyon, the Panier district in Marseille is becoming a quite artistic neighborhood. As an example of this, one of the stops on our guided walking tour was at the Atelier Celadon at 45 Rue du Petit Puits (the street where the architect Pierre Paul Puget was born in 1620).
According to their website, the Atelier Celadon is an “artistic place of 200 square metres” which includes “two show-rooms and four workshops in which each artist works and teaches his art in an original and personalized space of creativity.”
This atelier belongs to the Espace Celadon Association, which was created in February 2000 as a “partnership of artists” to organize “courses and artistic sessions for children and adults” and to set up exhibitions to help young artists promote their creations.
This unusual cathedral was built in the nineteenth century in Romano-Byzantine style. They say it is the only one of its kind in France. Construction of this cathedral took forty-one years, from 1852 to 1893. (So I suppose we shouldn’t be too impatient with some of the big construction projects in Germany that are only ten or twelve years behind schedule.)
Location, aerial view and photo of the cathedral on monumentum.fr.
The last stop on our guided walking tour of the Panier district was Fort Saint-Jean, one of two forts built at the entrance to the harbor starting in 1660 on orders of King Louis XIV.
The alleged purpose of these forts was to defend the city against foreign invaders, but in fact most of the cannons were pointed inwards in hopes of intimidating the citizens of Marseille, who had been in revolt against the authority of the king.
The fort was used as a prison during the French Revolution.
During the Nazi occupation of Marseille in World War II Fort Saint-Jean was used to store munitions, some of which exploded in 1944. This caused large amounts of destruction to the fort. The damaged parts were eventually reconstructed, but not until 1967-1971.
Location, aerial view and photo of Fort Saint-Jean on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.