Marseille is a sort of impenetrable survivor. The city, whose history goes back 2,500 years, has shaped itself by absorbing waves of immigrants, who have built it by almost sheer force of will.
Since its time in the spotlight as European Capital of Culture 2013, a new boost – hopefully more cultural and better planned this time – is trying to bring the second most populous city in France back to the forefront of Europe. During 2013, it changed its appearance to transform itself from Queen of Crime and Corruption to Cultural Capital.
The opportunity was seized to morph into a new city that wants it all: maintaining the historic colonial background that gives it character and distinguishes it from the rest of France, while at the same time attracting the tourists that the whole of Europe is fighting for. As all this is happening, it is renovating its seafront, loading itself with huge modern buildings and constructing five-star hotels, while looking around its old quarters for the famous formula that will allow modernization without losing identity.
Marseille’s Le Panier, its Old Town, is the site of the original Greek settlement in around 600BCE. They were the first of a stream of arrivals from around the Mediterranean that still come through the port to this day. The district took its name from an inn, Le Logis du Panier, that stood here at the time when it was at its most prosperous. From the 16th to 18th centuries, Mediterranean trade made Marseille wealthy, illustrated by some of the remaining buildings such as the impressive 18th century Hôtel Dieu, a former hospital.
Le Panier was a warren of narrow streets and tall buildings that supplied a natural hiding place for refugees, Jews, Resistance fighters and Communists during World War II. The Nazi response was to destroy much of the lower part and the result can be seen in the ugly 1950s blocks that now separate Le Panier from the Vieux Port. However, the strong community spirit survived and, with the economic and cultural boost of Marseille’s time as European Capital of Culture, Le Panier is now undergoing a major resurgence. Its appearance in the popular TV soap series Plus Belle La Vie has also helped, even if most of that is shot on studio sets.
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