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Travel stories > Marseilles

Having left Paris at 9.40 a.m., we reached Marseille at nearly midnight and were glad to get to the Terminus Hotel, which is comfortably close to the station.
Here is indeed a change of climate; one begins to realize at last the fact of being in the “sunny south.” Although it is mid-winter, and but a few hours before we were shivering in Paris, here the heat of the sun is as great as an English June. Overhead a sky of such a blue as we seldom see in our island home, and which is only matched by the azure waters of the glorious Mediterranean.

But unfortunately, on the Sunday morning following our arrival, there was a disagreeable dry parching wind blowing from the north-west called mistral; the Italians call it maestro, meaning “the masterful.” It is very prevalent along the south coast of Europe at certain times of the year, drying up the soil, and doing much damage to the fruit trees. The dust, like sand in the desert, is almost blinding; on one side you have a cold cutting wind, on the other perhaps scorching heat—altogether very far from pleasant.

Marseille, enclosed by a succession of rocky hills, and magnificently situated on the sea, is almost the greatest port of the Mediterranean. It is a very ancient town, having been founded in 600 B.C. by the Phoceans, under the name of Massilia. When ultimately conquered by the Romans, it was for its refinement and culture treated with considerable respect, and allowed to retain its original aristocratic constitution. After the fall of Rome, it fell into the hands of the Franks and other wild northern tribes; and was subsequently destroyed by the Saracens, but was restored in the tenth century. In 1481 it was united to France, to which it has ever since been subject. In 1720 it was ravaged by the plague, which was memorable not only on account of its wide-wasting devastation, but also for the heroism of Xavier de Belzunce, Bishop of Marseilles, whose zeal and charity for the poor sufferers commands our respect and admiration. Pope, in his “Essay on Man,” says— “Why drew Marseilles'

In 1792, hordes of galley-slaves were sent hence to Paris. It was about this time that the celebrated revolutionary song, “Allons enfants de la Patrie,” with its thrilling and fiery chorus, “Aux armes! Aux armes!” was introduced, and it has ever since been known as the Marseillaise Hymn; but it was in reality written by an officer of engineers, Rouget de Lisle, to celebrate the departure of volunteers from Strasburg. Both verse and music were composed in one night.

Marseilles is often called the Liverpool of France. The great docks, wonderfully constructed and sheltered, were much improved and enlarged by Napoleon III.: some of the finest basins are cut out of the solid rock.

We next ascend the Cordiere Gardens, commanding beautiful views of the city as we wind round and upwards. The sea, running eastward into the heart of the town, forms the harbour; the older part of the town, with somewhat narrow streets and massive but irregular houses, occupies a triangular point to the north; while the new town—much the largest, consists of wide, handsome streets and many fine public buildings and institutions. It is, I think, an excellent plan, when visiting a place, to ascend some commanding height as soon as possible. The fine harbour and docks, with the shimmering blue sea below, and the grand amphitheatre of sun-bleached hills rearing their rocky summits to the skies as a noble background, form a truly magnificent and impressive bird's-eye view.

On gaining the summit of these windy heights, we stand charmed with the pure beauty of the blue sky and sea. Away some few miles to the southeast are several small islands of a deeper blue than the waters that surround them. On one of these islands is the celebrated Chateau d'If, immortalized by Alexandre Dumas the elder, in his extraordinary romance of “Monte Christo.”

After gazing for some time at the lovely view, we turn our attention to the very interesting church of Notre Dame de la Garde. On the highest pinnacle is a colossal gilt figure of the Virgin Mary. This ancient beacon-like church was rebuilt from designs by Esperandieu. It is prettily decorated inside by delicately stained windows, and has a small but fine organ.

After passing through the public gardens, and crossing the dock basin in a small ferry-boat, we walked to the church of St. Nazaire, which stands on high ground almost immediately opposite to Notre Dame de la Garde. It is a finely restored Byzantine church; a copy on a large scale of the little mosque-like temple at its side, which latter was once the Cathedral church of the town. It is built of alternate blocks of black and white marble, and the interior is something after the style of Notre Dame at Paris.

The little Moorish temple under its lee has a low dome, square facade with small cupolas, and circular chancel. We ascended some steps to its low doorway; its quaint arched dome, little galleries, altar, crypts, and organ all within the compact compass of a circle of a Maltese cross—tiny aisles forming the sides of the cross, where there were shrines and tombs. The dome and aisles are supported by wonderfully strong Byzantine arches and arcades. The date of this unique little church is said to be very ancient, and probably stands on the site of the temples of Diana.

In the early part of the evening we sallied forth to visit the Exchange and Bourse at the end of the principal street near the harbour, receiving yet another impression as to the commercial greatness of Marseilles by a careful survey of this building, which is well worthy of a great city.

The main streets and boulevards are very handsome, with elegant fountains which relieve the somewhat monotonous regularity. Some of the squares are of immense size. There is a very large lazaretto, which is said to be one of the best managed in the world. The cafes are like small palaces, and the shops rival the finest in Paris.

Here, as in most French cities, no expense is spared in making the streets gay and brilliant at night. The French people dearly love their cafes, spending many of their evening hours there instead of chez eux. It was Sunday when we were there, and the town teemed with holiday life. Up to noon it was comparatively quiet but after that what a change! The whole place was like a great fair, every one bent on fun and pleasure: hucksters' stalls, marionettes, bazaars, rifle-galleries, concerts, theatres, and crowded cafes, the latter resounding with the click of dominoes and billiard balls; the more quiet folk reading their beloved Figaro.


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