Map of Old city of Marseille
Two fortresses guard the harbour entrance. St-Jean, on the north side, dates from the Middle Ages when Marseille was an independent republic, and is now only open when hosting exhibitions. Its enlargement in 1660, and the construction of St-Nicolas, on the south side of the port, represent the city's final defeat as a separate entity. Louis XIV ordered the new fort to keep an eye on the city after he had sent in an army, suppressed the city's council, fined it, arrested all opposition and in an early example of rate-capping set ludicrously low limits on Marseille's subsequent expenditure and borrowing. The best view of the Vieux Port is from the Palais du Pharo, on the headland beyond Fort St-Nicolas, or, for a wider angle, from Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (daily: JuneSept 7am9pm; OctMay 7am7.30pm; bus #60), the city's Second Empire landmark atop the hill south of the harbour. Crowned by a monumental gold Virgin that gleams to ships far out at sea, it's a curious combination of drawbridged fortification and church. Most curious are the paintings and drawings which line the chapels: dating from the eighteenth century to the present, they depict the often gory deaths or miraculous survivals of loved ones.
A short way inland from the Fort St-Nicolas, above the Bassin de Carénage, is Marseille's oldest church, the Basilique St-Victor (daily 8am7.15pm; €1.50 entry for crypt). Originally part of a monastery founded in the fifth century on the burial site of various martyrs, the church was built, enlarged and fortified a vital requirement given its position outside the city walls over a period of 200 years from the middle of the tenth century. It looks and feels like a fortress, with some of the walls almost 3m thick, and it's no ecclesiastical beauty. You can descend to the crypt and catacombs, a warren of chapels and passages where the weight of stone and age not to mention the photographs of skeletons exhumed create an appropriate atmosphere in which to recall the sufferings of early Christians; St Victor himself, a Roman soldier, was slowly ground to death between two millstones.
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