Ancient Marseille: The Labyrinthine Le Panier

July 2nd, 2015

After navigating the hectic narrow streets of downtown, paying an obscene amount of euros to park the rental car for two nights, and checking into our hotel we had finally arrived in France’s Mediterranean capital of Marseille. France’s leading coastal city and 2013’s European Capital of Culture boasts a fascinatingly rich blend of Gallic and Arabic culture and maritime history that we couldn’t wait to rush headlong into.

Settled by Phoenician settlers in 600BC, making it France’s oldest city, the busy trading port then known as Massalia to the early Greeks has seen successive waves of North African immigration over its history lending to its Arabic character, giving it a distinctively different feel and energy than the other sleepier more Provencal cities and villages we had explored thus far on our holiday.

Among the bustling gritty urban avenues and souklike markets lie tucked away tranquil squares and hilly cobblestoned streets. The original part of the city lies on the north side of the boat-lined vibrant Vieux Port on Quai du Port and upon first glance of the harbor I have to admit I was a bit disappointed in the humdrum modern appearance of the waterfront buildings. Where was all the rich history and culture so usually reflected in a city’s architecture?

I later discovered that German occupying forces in 1943 had destroyed much of the pre-war waterfront district aside from the L’Hotel de Ville constructed in 1653. Well that explains that!

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After hiding away from the heat for most of the afternoon with our books in a cafe along La Canebière, the main thoroughfare running east from the waterfront, we ventured back out into the waning daylight to explore the ambiance and creative energy of Le Panier, Marseille’s hilly ‘quartier’ and the oldest district of France’s oldest city. Le Panier, or ‘basket’, refers to the market that once thrived among the district’s streets 2,500 years ago when the ancient Greeks had inhabited the area.

As we wandered the cluttered maze of narrow, winding uphill labyrinthine streets, we passed both locals and visitors alike enjoying a bottle of wine with friends in the cool twilight out on their front steps or filling the outdoor tables that tumbled out of small pocket cafes, likely enjoying a bowl of Marseille’s signature dish, bouillabaisse. With such humble origins as a stew that was meant to use up the rejects of a fisherman’s catch, an authentic dish should set you back now a pretty €50 a person and include at least four types of fish and a separate broth. Dan and I aren’t much into seafood, so we saved our €50 for a bottle of refreshing bubbly Veuve instead.

Once condemned as an ‘overpopulated underworld’ overrun with such illicit activities ranging from a red-light district to a drug ghetto, recent years have seen a creative spirit revitalize the district; with artists, craftspeople, and designers taking up residence among the 17th century buildings. Seems all vibrant, historically rich cities have a lurid past!

The labyrinthine warren was a haven for Resistance fighters, refugees, criminals, prostitutes, Jews and Communists during the Second World War and large areas of Le Panier were destroyed when the occupying Nazis simply found it easier to dynamite sections of the streets in an attempt to eradicate the threat to their ideology than to conduct door to door searches. Fortunately, much of the gritty charm and intrigue still seems to remain.

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Sounds of acoustic guitar riffs reached our ears as we winded our way towards Cathedrale La Major and as we turned the corner of Rue Sainte Francoise we came upon Le Bar des 13 Coins, where a young musician was serenading the tables that spilled out onto the small adjacent tree-covered square. Strings of lights hung overhead from the tree branches and a hand-scrawled chalkboard sign announced freshly muddled mojitos with hand cranked ice for only €5 so Dan and I pulled up a chair and lingered for a spell over our minty libations.

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Now properly abuzz and soaking up the ambiance of Le Panier we continued our stroll through the maze-like streets before stumbling upon Place de Lenche, a lively picturesque inclined square flanked by restarants and colorful 17th century buildings with charming wooden shutters. We stopped here to enjoy a delicious dinner alfresco of warm chèvre salad drizzled with the most amazing olive oil and roasted lamb.

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As we dined at our hillside table, gravity would aid in the first of two times Dan would spill a glass of wine all over me on this holiday. He felt so bad but not too long after, another nearby table had an almost full wine bottle roll away from them down the square after a diner misjudged the space on the table so it seems its not too uncommon an occurrence!

As we slowly meandered our way back along the harbor to our hotel for the evening, the moonlight competed with the illuminated restaurants and store fronts to light up the lively quayside buzzing with late night diners and fellow strollers.

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Le Panier has such a creative energy and history that easily drew us in and as our heads hit the pillow that night a pulsing, delightful feeling tucked us in as we said goodnight to Marseille.

*Check out my handy printable travel guide here to plan your own Provence roadtrip getaway! 

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