On The Road Travel Essays

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Marseilles (the ancient Massilia) was founded about 600 B.C. by Greek trader-sailors in search of fortunes made by trading with the inhabitants of the district.

According to legend, their leader, Protis, visited the Ligurian tribe after landing at what is now Marseilles. The Ligurians had settled a long time ago in this area. It was the very day on which their King was giving a great feast for the warriors who were seeking the hand of his daughter, Gyptis. According to the Ligurian custom, at the end of the meal, the young girl was to enter with a goblet brimming with wine, which she would present to the man of her choice (vive women's lib). Protis, invited to the feast, mixed with the crowd of suitors: Gyptis entered. She stopped in front of the handsome Greek and offered him the ritual goblet. The marriage was celebrated and the young woman brought the hill as her dowry on which Our Lady of La Garde now stands and the land around it. Soon a little town grew up. This was Massilia, the mother of Marseilles.

25 centuries of history make Marseilles the oldest of the great cities of France, and the number of its inhabitants makes it now the second French city after Paris.

The Greeks were of course expert traders, and quickly made Massilia prosperous. It was administered as a republic famous for the wisdom of its laws. The excavations in the Vieux Port and the traces of Greek colonization found in the Place de la Bourse, when it was being leveled, also indicate that it was a center of civilization. 400 years later the jealousy of the Ligurians and Celts was awakened, and the Greek colony appealed for help to the Romans, who not only freed Massilia, but conquered the whole Mediterranean region and Romanized it.

Marseilles, though, remained a republic allied to Rome.

70 years later, at the moment when the rivalry of two Roman consuls between Caesar and Pompey was at its height, Marseilles was forced to decide for one or the other of the two Roman generals. It backed the loser, Pompey. Besieged for six months by Caesar, the town at last fell in 49 B.C. Caesar took away its fleet, its treasures, and its trade. Arles, Narbonnes, Frejus were enriched with the spoils.

Nevertheless, Marseilles remained a free city and maintained a brilliant university, the last refuge of Greek teaching in the West.

But in the 3rd century A.D., its decline was accentuated and the city came under the rule of Rome.

Up to the time of the crusades it vegetated, but when the crusades came, Marseilles competed with Genoa and Venice for the rich supply trade in war material and food to the Crusaders. As with all these supply cities, Marseilles reaped great profit from this, but it was Venice that outdid them all in reaping, not only great profit, but also bringing the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean under its control.

The Great Plague  In 1720, a ship coming from Syria had several cases of plague during its journey. The captain informed the port authorities, but since the cargo was destined for powerful merchants of the town who did not want to miss the Beaucaire Fair, quarantine was suppressed. A few days later the epidemic broke out, and its ravages were terrible. The hospitals were full; the sick, often driven from their homes by their families, died in the streets. Thousands of corpses lay on the ground, for there were not enough galley slaves to carry the bodies to the mass graves.

The Parliament of Aix-en-Provence forbade all communication between Marseilles and the rest of Provence under penalty of death. But this did not stop the plague from spreading to Aix, Arles, and Toulon, so that within two years, 100,000 people had died, of whom 50,000 were from Marseilles.

The Marseillaise  In 1792, a young sapper officer, Rouget de Lisle, composed at Strasbourg the war song of the Army of the Rhine — Chant de guerre de l'Armee du Rhin. This battle song was published and reached Marseilles. The city had welcomed the Revolution with enthusiasm and now sent 500 volunteers to Paris. At a banquet in their honor, someone sang the new song that had come from Alsace. It was an immediate success and all present sang it in unison.

Before their departure, each of the volunteers had been given a copy of the song. They sang it at every stopping place, arousing constant enthusiasm. By the time they reached Paris, the volunteers had become something of an expert choir; as they marched through the streets they electrified the crowds as they sang the stirring words at the top of their warm southern voices. The new song was quickly given a name: the MARSEILLAISE.

Entering Marseilles  You enter Marseilles from the Autoroute going straight into the city center. The Autoroute ends in the center at the junction with C. Pelletan, continue as straight as you can and pass the Vieux Port. Drive around the Vieux Port East, make a photo stop if you can, and drive to the coast Parc du Pharo, where you can definitely make a picture stop.

Continue to drive along the coast line, Corniche President J. F. Kennedy, until Plage du Prado. Then turn left into town along Ave. du Prado until Rd. Point du Prado, turn left along Ave. du Prado which continues into rue de Rome. From here turn left to the Basilique de N-D de la Garde. There is parking at Plateaux de la Croix.

Our Lady of La Garde was built by Esperandieu in the middle of the 19th century in Romano-Byzantine style, then fashionable. The belfry is surmounted by an enormous statue of the Virgin. The church's interior is faced with multicolored marble.

Our Lady de la Garde is the goal of an annual pilgrimage on 15 August, which draws crowds of the faithful from all parts of Provence. It is, of course, the panoramic view for which we came here; the church as such not being really interesting.

Vieux Port  It was in this inlet 600 years B.C. that the Greeks landed, and it is here that up to the 19th century all the maritime activity of the city was taking place. In the Middle Ages, the marshes bordering the end of the harbor were reclaimed as hemp fields. The hemp was woven on the spot into ropes which could then immediately be used by the ships. The quays were built only in the reigns of Louis XII and Louis XIII.


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