Sunday, May 27, 2012

Visit to Marseille and Le Panier

Shirley and I make a conscious effort to visit new towns or villages so we learn more about Provence and get new material for the blog. Cousin Annick who lives near Aix-en-Provence is usually very happy to join us on these outings. She knows her way around Provence, she is a great tour guide and is fearless about parking.

A few weeks back I called Annick to see if she wanted to go touring with us to Sanary-sur-Mer and Bandol, two towns on my list of places I want to visit. She replied yes but that we should go instead to visit Marseille and then drive along the Côte Bleue, the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, between Marseilles and Étang de Berre.

I have wanted to visit Marseille but held back because on my only visit, my rental car was broken into and three suitcases removed. I had arrived at Marseille Provence Airport a few hours earlier and a thief cleaned out my car and took my clothes, a lap top computer, two cell phones and stuff for the house while I was in a restaurant.

I quickly agreed with Annick's suggestion as I thought it would be perfect to visit Marseille with someone who has lived there and knows their way around the town. To top it off, Annick offered to drive so I wouldn't have to worry about getting around Marseille or having our car stolen or dinged up while we were parked in Marseille. Perfect, so off we went.

Marseille is the oldest city in France, founded 2600 years ago when the Phocaeans (Greeks from Asia Minor) came ashore in 600 B.C. and set up a trading post called Massalia on the site of today's old port. Marseille is France's second most populated city.

Our first stop was the Seventh-day Adventist church on Boulevard Longchamp. This is not a must-see historical monument for most visitors to Marseille but it is an important part of our family history. My father Daniel and his family lived in one of the apartments above the church during the time his father was pastor of the church. Later my uncle Paul who is Annick's grandfather, and uncles Elie and Ivan were pastors of this church as well. Yes, we come from a family of preachers.

I wanted to see where my father lived for a few years and Annick found the church and a place to park without any problem. I thought we were just doing a drive-by but Annick said we should go into the church. It was Saturday morning and services were underway. The current pastor greeted us and after introducing ourselves, he offered to show us the apartment where my father lived. It was very nice of him to do that but we declined and went on our way to Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde is an ornate Neo-Byzantine church situated at the highest natural point in Marseille, a 532 foot (162 meters) limestone outcrop on the south side of the Old Port. Designed by Henri-Jacques Espérandieu, the church was built between 1853 and 1864 on the site of a 1214 chapel.

It is topped by a 33-foot-high (10 meters) gilded bronze statue of the Madonna and child who keeps a watchful eye over the fishermen headed out to sea. There is a walkway which encircles the entire building and provides a 360-degree panorama overlooking Marseille, the hills behind and the islands offshore.

A statue depicting the passion of Christ in front of the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

A statue of Christ along the walkway which encircles the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

A statue depicting Christ on the cross in front of the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

One of the views from the walkway which surrounds the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Another view from Notre-Dame de la Garde out toward the Château d'If located on the island of If, the smallest island in the Frioul Archipelago about a mile offshore in the Bay of Marseille. The Château was built between 1524 and 1531 on the orders of King Francis I as a defense against attacks from the sea.

The isolated location and dangerous offshore currents made Château d'If an ideal escape-proof prison, much like the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay in more modern times. Its use as a dumping ground for political and religious detainees soon made it one of the most feared and notorious jails in France. Over 3,500 Huguenots (French Protestants) were sent to If.

Alexandre Dumas brought fame to the prison in his 1844 novel, the Count of Monte Cristo. In the book, Edmond Dantès (a commoner who later purchases the noble title of Count) and his mentor, Abbé Faria, are both imprisoned at Château d'If. After fourteen years, Dantès escapes from the castle, becoming the first person ever to do so and survive. In reality, no one is known to have done this.

A view from the walkway which surrounds the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. The church in the middle of the picture is Cathédrale de la Major, a Catholic cathedral built between 1852 and 1893 on the site of an earlier cathedral and ruins of a Temple of Diana.

This is one of the largest cathedrals (450 feet/137 meters long and the main dome rises 210 feet/64 meters high) built in France since the middle ages complete with domes and cupolas that look more Turkish than French.

Another view from the walkway around the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde.

From the the Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde we headed to Le Panier quarter - the bread basket. One of Marseille's oldest sections, Le Panier is only a small part of what used to exist before the Germans dynamited it during World War II to flush out the Jews and Resistance fighters hiding there.

Up until the 1970s, the Le Panier quarter was the center for purification of heroin that passed through Marseille to Europe and the United States, hence the "French Connection" depicted in the 1971 movie starring Gene Hackman. Today ancient buildings line narrow back streets - kids playing, laundry flapping and people chatting in the squares.

Annick knows that I love food and I like to try locally produced products so we headed off to find La Chocolatière du Panier, a tiny renown shop that draws long lines during the holidays. This chocolatière is owned by the Le Ray family.

The house specialty is called La Barre Marseillaise, and consists of dark chocolate melted in large plaques, and stuffed with dried fruits, candied fruit or nuts. They are made daily, broken into roughly triangular chunks, and sold by the weight.

Shirley loves dark chocolate with orange so we bought several pieces of chocolates to share including a chunk of chocolat aux écorces d'orange (chocolate with candied orange rind), which was as delicious as Annick had promised.

A colorful billboard on a wall we came across as we wandered through the streets of Le Panier.

A café on a Le Panier square full of people enjoying the sun on that spring day.

A view of Cathédrale de la Major through the trees from Le Panier.

When I think of Marseille, I think of Bouillabaisse. But that day for lunch we decided to eat at Pizzaria Etienne, a Le Panier hole-in-the-wall. The restaurant was once famous for announcing the price of the meal only after they'd had the chance to look you over. Remarkably little has changed over the years, except there is now a posted menu (with prices).

Pizzaria Etienne is owned by the Cassaro family who originates from Sicily. Opened in 1943, the restaurant does not have a telephone nor do they accept credit cards. The pizza was excellent and we would happily return on a future visit to Marseille.

Colorful laundry hanging outside an upper window in Le Panier.

A shop selling souvenirs from Provence in Le Panier.

A small hotel in Le Panier quarter.

Colorful door and shutters on a home in Le Panier quarter.

I like the pretty shutters and the flowers around the windows on the upper floor.

A view towards Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde across the old port.

From Le Panier we headed out along the Côte Bleue. We didn't take many pictures except for this one of Shirley and me along the Mediterranean Sea.

We were very happy we went to Marseille with Annick and we will return. I encourage you to go, but be smart and don't leave valuables in your car or trunk you don't want to lose.

Bonne journée et a très bientôt.


  1. I will not admit to how many years it is since I last saw Marseille!!! Thanks for this update of how it looks now, time we took a drive in that direction. Problem is if I get in that chocolatiere I will never get out. Take care Diane

  2. Beautiful post Michel - you really show Marseille in all its glory!

  3. I know that church! We live right by there! Well, okay, several tram stops away.

    I am not a big fan of the Panier district, but it looks like you had a good visit.

  4. Ah now you are getting close to the places that we know well! Marseille is a really interesting place but we do love Sanary and Bandol!! Great pics, Michel! Thanks!

  5. Diane - I was surprised how much I liked Marseille. The chocolate was very good and worth the visit to Le Panier.

    Barbara - Thank you so much! I hope you guys are well.

    Megan - Small world that you live close by. Do you have any suggestions for our next visit to Marseille?

    Claudia - Thanks for the nice feedback. I still want to go to Sanary and Bandol as soon as we can.

  6. Lovely post! Glad you got to take this sidetrip to Marseille Michel, it looks well worth the detour... and I had read before about La Chocolatière du Panier, but we missed it on our last visit. Thanks for reminding me, and also for more of the history of Le Panier. We will be returning in July, so I will use your post as a reference, merci!

  7. Tuula - Thanks so much! I am happy we made it to Marseille but still looking forward to making it to Bandol and Sanary-Sur-Mer. Thanks so much for sharing the post on your facebook page.