Old Port of Marseille, (Provence), France | CruiseBe
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Old Port of Marseille

Natural sights
port, harbour, nature

The Old Port of Marseille (French : Vieux-Port) is located at the end of the Canebière. It has been the natural harbour of Marseille since antiquity and is now the main popular place in Marseille, mainly pedestrian since 2013.



In 600 BC, Greek settlers from Phocaea landed in the Lacydon, a rocky Mediterranean cove, now the site of the Old Port of Marseille. They set up a trading post or emporion in the hills on the northern shore. Until the nineteenth century the Old Port remained the centre of maritime activity in Marseille. In the Middle Ages the land at the far end of the port was used to cultivate hemp for the local manufacture of rope for mariners, which is the origin of the name of the main thoroughfare of Marseille, the Canebière.

The great St. Victor's Abbey was gradually built between the third and ninth centuries on the hills to the south of the Old Port, on the site of an Hellenic burial ground.

Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, quays were constructed under Louis XII and Louis XIII and an important shipyard for galleons put in place. Following a revolt against their governor by the citizens of Marseille, Louis XIV ordered the erection of the forts of St Jean and St Nicolas at the entrance to the harbour and established an arsenal and fleet in the Old Port itself. The notorious "arsenal des galères" was situated on the left side of the Old Port between the Cours Jean-Balard and the Cours Estienne-d'Orves: those condemned to be galley slaves in the royal war fleet were branded with the letters GAL.

According to John Murray, in 1854 the Old Port had a capacity of between 1,000 and 1,200 ships. Roughly 18,000 merchant ships passed through the port each year, carrying about 20 million barrels worth of freight; this represented a quarter of the trade in Liverpool at the time. The 6 metre depth of the harbour, however, proved problematic for steamships later in the century; much deeper docks had to be constructed at La Joliette. In World War II the Old Port was left in complete ruins. According to eye-witness accounts, in January 1943, the Nazis, aided by the French police, dynamited much of the historic old town and demolished the gigantic aerial ferry or "transbordeur", an engineering tour de force that had become a major landmark of Marseille, comparable to the Eiffel tower in Paris. This became known as the "Battle of Marseille". In 1948 Fernand Pouillon was put in charge of the reconstruction of the devastated old quarter.

Over time many port activities were moved out of the Old Port, when beginning in the 1840s new harbour moles, quays and the Docks were build along the quartier La Joliette, north-west to the Old Port. Over time new harbour installations were build further north-west along the coast, resulting in what is today the Grand Port Maritime de Marseille: continuous harbour installation as far as L'Estaque and the southern entrance to the Rove Tunnel, and "satellite" extensions around Fos-sur-Mer and along the shore of the Étang de Berre. The Old Port is used today as a marina, as a terminal for local boat trips and hosts a local fish market. Since 2013, for the European Capital of Culture, the Old Port is mainly destinated to pedestrians, it has been renewed as a large mineral public square following an international concourse won by Michel Desvigne Paysagistes, with Foster and Partners. The project also consists in a second phase with parks around the port, which will be realized in 2020 for a sum of €64 million.

The Old Port in popular culture

  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas is set in the Old Port and on the Château d'If.
  • Marius, Fanny and César, by Marcel Pagnol.
  • Love Actually was partly filmed in the Bar de la Marine on the Old Port.
  • Many of the bars and cafés around the Old Port are mentioned in the detective novels of Jean-Claude Izzo.
  • Ian Fleming sets scenes in his James Bond novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service in and near Vieux Port.

Points of interest around the Old Port

  • St. Victor's Abbey, on the south side of the Old Port, one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in France.
  • the Phare de Sainte Marie, a lighthouse.
  • the Canebière, situated at the far end of the Old Port on the Quai des Belges.
  • the Hôtel de Ville (town hall).
  • the historic ferry, plying between opposite sides of the Old Port.
  • the Roman Dock Museum.
  • the Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée, MUCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean civilizations)


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