Oldest city in France: Marseille

Oldest city in France: Marseille

Marseille, Mediterranean port-city

The city of Marseille was created in the 6th century BC when Greek explorers met with the local tribes, in the north bank of today´s Vieux port, and decided to settle taking advantage of the natural conditions to stablish a port. The colonist from Phocaea named the new town Massalia. Later on, in the year 49 BC, Caesar conquered the city in the expansion of the roman empire. The name changed to Massilia and the economic activities focused on the port continued to expand.

Mediterranean sea in ancient Greece. Source: http://www.usu.edu
Mediterranean sea in ancient Greece.
Source: http://www.usu.edu

Few centuries after the conquer of Marseille the Roman empire started to decline. At the same time Christianity spread along the roman territories including this city. This change left several new buildings in the urban tissue, like the old cathedral or the St. Victor basilica.

During the first centuries of the first millennium, while the roman empire was collapsing, the city suffered several invasions, from tribes like the Visigoths, Burgundians, Ostrogoths and Franks. This instability affected the trade and consequently the port. Only under Charlemagne and its successor, in the 8th and 9th century a certain stability was regain. During this period it became part of the Kingdom of Provence . At the same time the Muslim invasion of certain territories, particularly the Iberian peninsula, did not allowed the maritime commerce to fully recover until the 11th century. Marseille regained an important role as port for the crusades and stablish itself as the door for the east Mediterranean.

The city continued to expand and the maritime activities had an even greater impact in the urban core. During the 15th century it was the main port of the Mediterranean Sea. Within its infrastructure we could find an important arsenal, but also shipyards. Along the middle ages and the renaissance, Marseille kept a certain autonomy although integrated in the kingdom of Provence. It condition of port city gave a certain power and rebellious identity. During this time, until the 17th century, the city was involved in several conflicts and suffered aggressions from different enemies. At the same time, and also associated with its port-city condition, it suffered outbreaks of plague that decimated the population.

The resistance of Marseille to obeying to a centralized power in France took the King Sun, Luis XIV, to come from Paris to lead its army and submit the city to his command. In order to stablish a permanent control, new fortress were built in the mouth of the port. More specifically the fort St. Jean and fort St. Nicholas. Simultaneously the new arsenal was built in the south part of the current Vieux-port. Another important urban changes were taking place during this period, the 17th century, for example the city expansion was being planned. This project implied the creation of a new north-south axis, including Cours de Belsunce and Curse Saint-Louis. This plan would start the urban expansion of the city away from the cost. Later on we could see this axis expand from Place Jules Guesde to Place Castellane, and further on to Avenue du Prado in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Expansion plan for Marseille in 17th century Source: <http://desinroc.free.fr/chrono2/LouisXIV.html
Expansion plan for Marseille in 17th century
Source: <http://desinroc.free.fr/chrono2/LouisXIV.html

At the French revolution the battalion from Marseille sang the “Marseillaise” for the first time, this song would later become the national anthem. The city and port started growing again after the 2nd quarter of the 19th century, when two important processes began, the industrial revolution and the rise of the French colonial empire. Along this century, as it happened in many other port-cities, the new technologies accelerated the rhythm in the port and increased the size of the ships. Simultaneously the second empire, as the French colonies were also known, meant more traffic for the city. The new activities and technologies demanded the expansion of the port. Between 1855 and 1863 we see the first port areas in the north side of the city, what is known as La Joliette and Le Lazaret.

The port would grew until becoming the 4th port in the world and one of the main industrial areas in France. At the beginning of the 20th century the famous transporter bridge in the mouth of the vieux port was built. Unfortunately it was destroyed during the WWII. In this period we see the rapid expansion of the port until L´Estaque, the natural limit of the basin. Before the WWI, took place the first discussions regarding the creation of a port outside the city area, to allow better expansion when necessary. The plans would be postponed due to the WWI and WWII that seriously affected the city and the its infrastructure. Particularly damaged was the vieux-port area, where the Nazis destroyed several blocks, up to 1500 buildings, for considering it a criminal neighborhood.

Pont Transbordeur Source:http://visite.marseille.fr/promenade_historique/le_pont_transbordeur.php
Pont Transbordeur
Source:http://visite.marseille.fr/promenade_historique/le_pont_transbordeur.php

In 1964 we finally see the expansion in Fos-sur-Mer. This new territory would initially host mainly the petro-chemicals plants. Only later on would we see the container terminals and other activities.

During the second half of the 20th century Marseille would go through several difficult situations. Particularly complicated was the fall of the empire, that would bring to the city many immigrants. The city is well known for its multicultural society but in certain moments of its history it has also seen social conflict regarding the coexistence among people with different backgrounds. At the same time Marseille gained a reputation of dangerous and degraded city. During the last two decades we have assisted to several initiatives to change this situation.

Nowadays the city of Marseille is the second urban agglomeration in France, after Paris. It has a population of 850 000 inhabitants and almost 1,8 million in the metropolitan area. The port still plays an important role in the economy and the labor market. The city has stablish itself as an important tourism destination and is integrated in the PACA region (Provence, Alpes and Cote d´Azur) which is one of the most attractive regions for tourism and leisure activities. The physical geography is typical from this part of the Mediterranean, with an accidental topography, including mountains entering directly into the water with very few flat area.

View of Marseille Author: José M P Sánchez
View of Marseille
Author: José M P Sánchez

The Port

The GPMM (Grand Port Maritime de Marseille) is the 5th port in Europe and main port on France regarding tonnage. Also, if we consider containers, is competing with Le Havre regarding this sort of traffic. More specifically last year it had a traffic of 78,5 million tons and 1.2 million containers. One of the main characteristics of this port is the fact that the liquid bulk, mainly oil and related products, take a large share of the traffic, almost 70% in 2012. The GPMM also has a strong passenger traffic, both in regular lines and in the cruise industry. In 2014 it had a combined traffic of 2,5 million passenger, of which 1,2 million were from the cruise sector.

The port has its territory divided in two main areas, east basin in Marseille and West basin in Fos. In the section placed in the city we will find all the activities related with passengers, also ro-ro, container and short-sea shipping terminals. In this area we can also see the fishing port and the shipyards. In the west basin, 50 km away, is where the port has the majority of its land (95% of over 10 000 Ha). There we can find the petro-chemical refineries and a major container terminal, besides other industries related with this sectors.

Regarding jobs, the port of Marseille-Fos creates over 40 000 direct and indirect jobs. In 2012 the port had an direct and indirect impact of 3% of the GDP in the PACA region. From these figures we can see that the GPMM still has a notorious presence not just physically in the city, but also in the economy.

Port of Fos Source: http://www.marseille-port.fr
Port of Fos
Source: http://www.marseille-port.fr

Two of the main projects that we have seen in recent times related with the port are the Marseille-Fos 2XL and the Euroméditarrenée. The first one was the expansion of the container terminal in Fos. It started operating in 2012 after 5 years of construction period, and a cost of 400 mill. €. The future 3XL and 4XL are in consideration, but on the long term plan. The Euroméditerranée project took place in Marseille and it affected the port mainly in the south part of the east basin, changing the physical configuration of this area and the activities related with the ferries.

The waterfront  

The coast of Marseille has evolved considerably along its history. As we have seen the city was born near the current vieux-port and later expanded occupying a considerable territory. The first improvements in this part of the city we could see them in the reconstruction after the WWII. The vieux-port was the most affected area and the regeneration was urgent. Nowadays we can find here one of the main recreational marinas and mostly tertiary activities, such as leisure, offices and tourism. We can also find several housing areas, many from the reconstruction period. The typical image of Marseille is from this part of the city, with the different fortress creating a strong character that has also been used as attraction for the many tourist that visit the city. For the European capital of culture event, in 2013, there were several improvements in order to rearrange the traffic and create more pedestrian areas. Different facilities were created, such as the shading structure from Sir Norman Foster that has become a major attraction. The regeneration process should continue until 2020.

View of the Vieux-Port Author: José M P Sánchez
View of the Vieux-Port
Author: José M P Sánchez

The main second urban regeneration project that also affected the waterfront and the port is the Euroméditerranée. This project is very particular for several reasons. First of all the leading role is taken by the state, instead of the municipal authorities as we have seen in other cases. Second, the project is not limited to the waterfront area, but comprises a significant part of the city center. The main goal is its regeneration and the improvement of the image of the city. Included in the plan were for example the train station or industrial brownfields, unrelated with the port. Another important feature of this intervention is the fact that in some port territories the port activities coexist with the urban ones. Therefore the port still is part of the city and the strategies developed could be an example for other cases looking for new synergies.

During the next week we will interview several key actors of the process, we will get to know how it developed and what is expected for its expansion, the 2nd act.


When this post was being written the terrible attacks in Paris on the 13th of November were taking place. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and French friends. Together we shall rise and overcome the tragedy.

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