Chauffeured To Death – Assassination of King Alexander I In Marseilles (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #31b)

Yugoslavia was in a tenuous geopolitical situation in the 1930’s. Foes, both foreign and domestic wanted to end the reign of King Peter I. The enemies of Yugoslavia knew that if the King could be murdered, it would result in a power vacuum at the top. The heir apparent was Alexander’s eleven year old son, Peter. This did not bode well for Yugoslavia keeping the Italians, Hungarians, Croatians, and Bulgarians at bay. The greatest threat to Alexander’s life occurred anytime he appeared in public. While he took the necessary precautions, Alexander was probably less worried about his autumn trip to France than he would have been at home. Nevertheless, trusting his security to the French state would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Taking aim – Vlado Chernozemski (middle) with Ustase

Sinister Calling – A Man Of Action
Vlado Chemozemski was a political fanatic, professional revolutionary, and accomplished assassin, not exactly in that order. He was also a man of many aliases, one of which was the nom de guerre, Vlado the Chauffeur. He received this alias as the driver for one of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization’s (IMRO) leaders. During his teenage and early adulthood years, Chemozemski had a wide range of jobs in an early attempt to find a career. These included service in the Bulgarian Army during World War I, watchmaking and offering his services as a chauffeur. He fell in with his true, more sinister calling, when he joined up with the IMRO during the early 1920’s. He was a man of action, carrying out political murders in the name of the Macedonian independence movement. For these crimes, Chemozemski was twice sentenced to death. While those sentences were never carried out, he did spend time in prison.

After release, Chemozemski found his way to Italy. This was where he became involved with the Ustase, the far right Croatian fascist group that actively worked to topple the Yugoslav government. Chemozemski impressed the Ustase with his zeal. He was more than glad to do the dirty work. If that included murder, then so be it. Chemozemski was good enough at his craft to be given a role as an instructor by the Ustase. He was transferred to one of their training camps in southern Hungary. It was here that Chemozemski began to train three Ustase members on how to assassinate King Alexander I. The men traveled to France in late September, then split off into two groups. Chemozemski and one of his subjects made their way to Marseille where they awaited the arrival of King Alexander. The other pair headed to Versailles, where they would carry out a second assassination attempt if the first one failed. No one in Marseilles suspected that there were two assassins in the city and they certainly had no idea of what was about to occur.

Fateful journey – King Alexander I of Yugoslavia and Louis Barthou in Marseilles

Festive To Furious – Shooting To Kill
On October 9, 1934, a Yugoslav Royal Navy destroyer arrived in the harbor at Marseille. On board was King Alexander. There to greet him was the French Foreign Minister, Louis Barthou. After exchanging greetings, the two men got into an automobile. The back seat in which they sat together was open, exposing them to the crowds. They then began to make their way through the streets of Marseille where a curious French public lined the sidewalks. The vehicle soon turned onto the Canbiere, the city’s famed high street which has often been referred to as Marseille’s Champs Elysses. While the curious crowd looked on, King Alexander and Foreign Minister Barthou enjoyed the warm welcome. The atmosphere was festive with the crowd cheering and waving at the two men as they rode past.

This was just the kind of greeting Barthou had in mind for an ally. Everything was going according to plan when suddenly a man came out of the crowd, ran up to the vehicle, jumped onto the running board and pulled out a Mauser pistol. He then proceeded to shoot King Alexander and the driver. Barthou was also wounded. The crowd watched this horrific scene unfold in a matter of seconds. They went from festive to furious. Before the assassin could make his getaway, a nearby officer slashed him with a saber. Then the crowd fell upon the man and attacked him mercilessly. The police stood by and watched the crowd have their way with the assassin. At the same time, the vehicle in which the King had been traveling had stopped. The chauffeur was dead, but his foot was pressed against the brake pedal. This allowed those filming the procession to capture the scene on film.

The King was already near death and Barthou was losing blood from his wound. Their situations were irreparable. While the dignitaries were rushed to the nearest hospital, the assassin was nearly unconscious from the brutal beating inflicted on him by the crowd. There were also members of the crowd who had suffered wounds. The scene was one of chaos. The celebratory atmosphere had vanished. Another monarch from the Balkans was dead. Before he did, the police tried to interrogate the assassin. His identity was a mystery. If not for a Yugoslav journalist who noted the assassin’s skull and cross bones tattoo with the letters VMRO, the assassin may never have been identified. Only later would his fingerprints be sent to Sofia, where the Bulgarian authorities would confirm that the assassin was none other Vlado Chernozemski.

Armed & dangerous – Artistic rendering of Vlado Chernozemski approaching King Alexander in Marseilles

Missing Links – One Step Closer To War
The assassination’s aftermath was almost as unseemly as the act itself. The other three accomplices of Chernozemski were arrested in the days to come. While Chernozemski was a Bulgarian, the other three were Croatians. The latter were given life sentences. They would only serve a portion of their sentences before the Nazi occupational authorities in the early 1940’s released them from confinement. It would later be discovered that the wound Barthou sustained had come from the gun of a French police officer. Random bullets from officers also struck and killed five bystanders. There was an international outcry as more details of the assassination became known. The Hungarians, who had allowed Chernozemski and his accomplices to train on their soil, were among those blamed. As was the Croatian Ustase. Though never proven, many believed the Italians were also involved. The murder of King Alexander played into their hands.

Yugoslavia was weakened by the loss of Alexander, who only five years earlier had suspended the constitution and began to rule in a dictatorial manner. He could strongarm politicians to do his bidding. That strategy was now defunct. Predictably, the alliance with France was shattered by the assassination. King Alexander’s son, Peter II would be crowned king. Because he was not even a teenager yet, his uncle Paul would act as regent. Neither could ever really replace King Alexander. The ramifications of his death reverberated across Europe. The assassination brought Europe one step closer to war. Much of the incident had been captured on film and disseminated for the world to see. It offered chilling evidence of a political murder and its immediate aftermath. The film was about to become as famous as the assassination.   

Click here for: Three Minutes In Marseilles – Assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #31c)

Live Targets – The Assassination Of King Alexander I In Marseilles (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny 31a)

When the words “assassination” and “Balkans” are mentioned, it calls to mind the most famous political murder in history, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The assassination was the spark that lit the fire of war that would consume the world from 1914 – 1918. While other famous Balkan assassinations pale in popularity, several were remarkable for the degree of violence inflicted upon the victims. For instance, on June 11, 1903, Serbian King Alexander I Obrenovic and his wife Queen Draga were murdered in the Royal Palace in Belgrade. After being gunned down, the assassins mutilated and disemboweled the bodies before tossing them out the window and onto a pile of manure. The assassination had been concocted by Royal Serbian Army officers who wanted to put an end to the Obrenovic Dynasty and install the Karadordevic Dynasty. The assassination was both dreadful and successful. Regime change in the Balkans during the first half of the 20th century was a violent affair. Any politician or member of a royal family offered a live target. All it took was a hand to pull the trigger.

Caught in the cauldron – Alexander I King of Yugoslavia

Death Watch – Life Threatening Decisions
Political assassinations in the Balkans during the 20th century were not confined to the years leading up to World War I. The violent tendencies of extremists in the region continued during the interwar period with spectacular malevolence. On June 9, 1923, Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Alexander Stamboliski, was captured by members of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) who were furious at him for signing the Treaty of Nis with the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. By signing the treaty, Stamboliski had agreed to suppress the activities of IMRO, which had used terrorist tactics to try and detach Macedonia from the Kingdom. Before Stamboliski was murdered the assassins symbolically severed the hand he had used to sign the treaty. After being violently tortured, he was then murdered. The assassins were not through sending a symbolic message. They severed Stamboliski’s head and shipped it in a box of biscuits back to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. These type of tortuous tactics in the service of political murder were sufficiently terrifying to make any politician think twice before making a decision that might cost them their life.

Balkan assassinations were not reserved for the region. I discovered this firsthand while strolling around the port city of Marseilles on France’s Mediterranean coast. This was where I found a plaque in French close to the spot where King Alexander I Karadordevic of Yugoslavia was gunned down by another assassin of the IMRO. In this case though, the assassin was not only working for his own interests, but others who also had an interest in bringing about the breakup of Yugoslavia. Southern France was not far enough away for the King of Yugoslavia to escape from the clutches of political murder which held the Balkans in their grip during the first half of the 20th century.

Death watch – King Alexander Obrenovic and Queen Draga

Boiling Over – Caught In The Cauldron
Interwar Europe was a cauldron waiting to boil over. The post-World War I peace treaties had created as many problems as they resolved. Yugoslavia (the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes until 1929), which was born from that peace process, had its fair share of enemies, both external and internal. Tops among its foreign foes were the Italians who claimed entire swathes of Yugoslavia’s coastal areas. The Hungarians were eager to take back the Vojvodina region of what is today northern Serbia. Internally, Croatian nationalism was festering with the Ustase becoming increasingly active. A radical, far right fascist party, the Ustase would use any means necessary to stir up dissent in the fragile nation.

The problems in Yugoslavia affected more than just the nation, they were cause for concern across much of Europe. This was especially true for the French who were trying to keep an alliance known as the Little Entente made up of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia together. The French believed the alliance was critical in keeping German power in check. On the opposite side of the equation, the Italians, Hungarians and Ustase believed that if they could topple King Alexander I, it would cause Yugoslavia to collapse. That would then allow for territorial adjustments.

Port of call – Marseilles in the early 20th century

Tuesdays & Terror – Plot Points
In January 1934, King Alexander traveled to France on a state visit to sign a treaty between Yugoslavia and France. This treaty would hopefully shore up security in both nations. The king would land in the Mediterranean port city of Marseille where he would be met by French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou. The two would then be part of a procession through the city streets where crowds had gathered to greet the Yugoslav monarch. Was King Alexander aware of the danger he might face in France? Though a friendly ally, the king always knew political violence was a possibility at home or abroad. One precaution he usually took was born out of fear, but a superstitious rather than a rational one. Three members of the King’s family had died on Tuesdays. For that reason, the king always stayed away from the public on that day of the week. While a connection between death and a specific day of the week might seem dubious, after what would happen in Marseille, perhaps Alexander had good reason to be concerned.

King Alexander was cognizant that he was in danger of being overthrown by an act of political violence. Little did he know that it would happen far from his homeland. During the interwar period, one of the most active and infamous terrorist organizations in the Balkans was the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO). They were responsible for carrying out numerous assassinations of political opponents. Sometimes their activities expanded beyond the region. They were a force that both Yugoslavia and Bulgaria were still trying to reckon with in the 1930’s. Unknown to the French or Yugoslavs, the IMRO had been hard at work planning an attempt on the life of King Alexander. The planning and training phase were international in scope. It was a geopolitical plot that would inadvertently produce a first class horror film in the most literal sense of the term.

Click here for: Chauffeured To Death – Assassination of King Alexander I In Marseilles (Rendezvous With An Obscure Destiny #31b)

Anything But Great – A Morbid Misnomer: The Great Plague Of Marseilles (Part Two)

The Great Plague of Marseilles is a misnomer. It was the opposite of “Great”, causing death, depopulation and widespread deprivation on an almost unfathomable scale. Histories of the plague often note that the population of Marseilles recovered relatively fast. It was back at pre-plague levels less than fifty years after it devastated the city. That is an uplifting coda to a horrific event, but it does nothing to temper the sheer human misery that beset both the city and surrounding countryside from 1720-22.

One of the few physical remnants left from the time of the plague can be found in the Vaucluse region, northwest of Marseilles. Here a crumbling, dry stone wall is the only trace left of a barrier that once stretched for 27 kilometers between Provence and the Comtat Venaissan (County of Venaissan). In front of the wall was a ditch and parapet of earth, a bit back from the wall were sentry posts manned by guards that stopped anyone from the south trying to travel beyond it. Known as the Le Mur de la Peste (The Wall of the Plague), this was an attempt to create a physical barrier that would contain the plague. The problem was that south of Le Mur it had already spread, with lethal results. This brings up a second reason the Great Plague of Marseilles is a misnomer. The plague affected an area much greater than just the city of Marseilles. The surrounding countryside was hit almost as hard. The scope of the suffering is hard to grasp even today.

Last Remains - Le Mur de la Peste (The Wall of the Plague)

Last Remains – Le Mur de la Peste (The Wall of the Plague) (Credit: Wikipedia)

Consumed With The Stricken – An Expanding Horror
The first hints of plague in Marseille had begun about a month after the arrival of the Grand-Saint-Antoine ship at the port in May of 1720. Its cargo of silk fabric and cotton loaded on the Levantine coast carried the seeds of southeastern France’s destruction. The outbreak was slow, but began to expand at the beginning of July when two women in the city died. They showed symptoms of the plague before they succumbed. Then eight days later, doctors attending a gravely ill twelve year old boy diagnosed his illness as plague. They alerted a city alderman who spread the word. Precautions were taken to seal the homes of those who were believed to have died from the disease. This did little good because it had already spread.  On August 9th, the first day of one hundred deaths occurred, with many more to follow. Less than two months after the first sign of an outbreak, every district in Marseilles was consumed with the stricken.

The horrors of the plague would end all too often in death for the sufferer, but the living were also witness to horrifying scenes. The strain of plague that hit Marseilles with such deadly force was bubonic. Caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, bubonic plague is transmitted through the bites of fleas which breed on vermin. It infects and then rapidly multiplies in the lymph nodes, causing painful swelling which forms bubos, a sort of dark blister usually found in the groin, armpits or neck area. Bubos were the nasty hallmark of this type of plague. For treatment at the time, doctors would burst them, falsely believing that this would lead to a cure. In reality, it was a totally ineffective form of treatment. Those infected suffered from a range of ever worsening symptoms including ferocious bouts of fever, painful muscle cramps, gangrene, bloody vomiting, coma and finally death. First hundreds, then thousands in Marseilles were beset by these maladies. Hospitals quickly became overwhelmed.

Vue de l'Hotel de Ville pendant la peste de 1720 - View of the Town Hall during the plague of 1720

Vue de l’Hotel de Ville pendant la peste de 1720 (View of the Town Hall during the plague of 1720) (Credit: Michel Serre)

Mass Transmission – Punishable By Death
The rudimentary public health infrastructure of Marseilles could not cope. Infirmaries ran out of room to hold the dead. Bodies were tossed out into the street, exacerbating the crisis. The close quarters of the old town acted as a breeding ground. Most of those suffering were left to die at home. Whole families succumbed. Homes of those who had died underwent combustion with sulfur, this did little good. Bodies were thrown in mass graves filled with quicklime in another futile attempt to fend off the pestilence. At one point the situation grew so extreme, that a thousand people were said to have died in a single day. Whole sections of the city lost almost all of their population. Outlying areas in Provence feared they would be next.

By mid-summer the situation had turned so dire that a provincial court in the nearby city of Aix passed legislation making communication with anyone from Marseille a capital offense, punishable by death. At about the same time, Le Mur de la Peste was erected. A two meter wall and armed guards could only do so much. Aix ended up getting suffering grave casualties, losing a quarter of its population. The city of Arles suffered just as much. The plague was at its worst in the Mediterranean ports. In Toulon the mortality rate was 50%. In Marseille the plague finally began to lessen in the autumn with the advent of cooler weather. Deaths had fallen to one per day by the winter of 1721. The worst was over, but this bout of bubonic plague was not finished with Marseilles.

Vue du cours pendant la peste de 1720 (View of the course during the plague)

Vue du cours pendant la peste de 1720 (View of the course during the plague) (Credit: Michel Serre)

Dead Last – A Plague On Population
In the spring of 1722 there was another outbreak, causing mass panic and more deaths. It would take twenty-six months before the Great Plague of Marseilles had completely run its course. The demographic changes wrought upon the city as well as southeastern France were staggering. It is estimated that Marseilles lost approximately 50,000 of its 90,000 pre-plague population. That same number died in the provincial hinterlands. This sent the economy into a tailspin. Strangely enough it did not take very long to recover. The city took measures to protect the population from another outbreak. Port sanitation facilities were upgraded. Cargo would now be offloaded straight from the water into a quarantine facility that was surrounded by fifteen foot high walls. This only took place after inspections on an offshore island. Crews were vetted just as closely. Such measures helped, but they could never bring back the 100,000 men, women and children who died as the result of the last major plague to strike Europe.

Reminders Of Rats – A City Betrayed: The Great Plague Of Marseilles (Part One)

I was running through the old historic quarter of Marseilles, Le Panier. Following the twisting and turning streets I climbed stone stairways and then just as quickly plunged back down another set of steps again. I lost my way, rounding what seemed to be a thousand corners. I followed quaint, cobbled paths through narrow passageways to nowhere in particular. At times it felt as though I had covered every street, every alleyway, every impasse and every square Le Panier offered, but then I would suddenly realize a new route or perhaps an old one I had misremembered. Everything looked different and alike all at once. I spent much of the run in a blissful confusion, lost in the maze of Old Marseilles. Then suddenly something squished beneath my right foot, transporting me back to the present.

Looking down I noticed a fat, fleshy rat, lifeless and rubbery. I leapt in a sudden fright. I had stepped on a large dead rat. I noticed another one nearby. My pace quickened as I hurried away, turning at the next corner. Then the fear left me as quickly as it had arrived though the experience was embedded in my memory. Le Panier may have been quaint, cozy and historic, but in the early morning it was also pungent and dirty, covered with the residue of late night activities. From this a scent, a sight, a hint of the past came to me. A reminder of what Marseilles was like for more centuries than I could possibly imagine. Centuries past when a lack of hygiene brought deadly diseases that laid the entire city’s population waste.  Death was sometimes brought by ships unknowingly transporting a lethal cargo, which would then lead to a dreaded plague. The worst outbreak to hit the city was also one of the last major plagues in Europe, devastating the populace from 1720-1722 during what came to be known as the Great Plague of Marseilles.

Le Panier - the maze of Old Marseilles

Le Panier – the maze of Old Marseilles

Quarantine In Marseilles – The Power Of Life & Death
On my last day in Marseilles I was walking back from Fort St. Jean toward the Vieux Port (Old Port) area. During that short, pleasant stroll along the Quai des Ports I suddenly came upon a long stone building. The structure had obviously stood the test of time and could rightly be termed “historic.” While studying the building I came across an information sign in French. Instantly I recognized the word “quarantine.” Then it dawned on me that this building had been a make or break point for any ship that wanted to enter the port of Marseilles. The building had once held the power of life and death over the city, both economic and biological. Such structures were part of lazarets, quarantine facilities such as buildings or islands for seafaring crews and cargo. Captains would enter the building to present their ships’ manifests. These would be carefully studied by personnel who worked for the city’s sanitation board to make sure a ship did not transport a dreaded disease to Marseilles. If anything was found that constituted a threat to public health, the ship would be turned away. Conversely, if the ship was given a clean bill of health, then it would be allowed to enter the port.

The consequences of each decision on whether to allow a ship to pass into the port or not were huge. The ships bringing goods to or from the port were the lifeblood of commerce for the city.  Ironically, these same ships could bring untold devastation. That stone building along the Quai des Ports is one of the few physical remnants left of the quarantine system setup to protect Marseilles from the plague. The system was a response to a deadly outbreak that struck the city in 1580. The quarantine consisted of three tiers that would scrutinize and confine the cargo and crew of every ship that arrived in the harbor. Any hint of plague uncovered during an inspection would result in the ship being isolated at an island well outside the harbor.

An 18th century perspective of the Great Plague Of Marseilles

An 18th century perspective of the Great Plague Of Marseilles

Captains also had to present detailed logs to sanitation officials. These documented each city their ship had visited prior to arrival in Marseilles. If one of those cities was known to have had an outbreak of plague, the ship would then be confined to the second part of the quarantine system with facilities on another group of islands just off the coast of Marseilles. The crew, along with their ship, would then be forced to wait for several weeks. If no signs of plague were found then entry would be allowed. Even ships deemed disease free would have to wait for two and a half weeks before they could enter the port. The quarantine system did a good job of protecting Marseilles from plague for well over a hundred years. Then in the early 18th century the system suddenly broke down as pressure from commercial interests led to a sidestepping of the usual regulations. This proved to be a fatal mistake.

A Fatal Passage – The Grand-Saint-Antoine’s Deadly Cargo
In 1720 a merchant ship, the Grand-Saint-Antoine, was sailing around the eastern Mediterranean making multiple ports of call. In Syria and Lebanon the ship took on fabrics and cotton that were likely contaminated with the plague bacillus Yersina pestis. This was the same extremely virulent form of plague that had caused the infamous Black Death in the 14th century.  While the Grand-Saint-Antoine was traveling to Cyprus in early April, a Turkish passenger on board died. His body was thrown into the sea, but soon thereafter several crew members also succumbed. At the northern Italian port of Livorno the ship was denied entry. When it arrived on May 25th in Marseilles it was immediately put into quarantine.

Scene of the plague in Marseilles

Scene of the plague in Marseilles (Credit: Michel Serre)

A decision was then made that the ship and its cargo should be sent to a nearby island. That decision would soon be changed. The wealthy commercial interests in the city wanted the silk and cotton offloaded. A popular trade fair was due to take place at the town of Beaucaire in July. Getting the ship’s valuable cargo in the hands of powerful merchants took precedence over the imminent danger of plague to the inhabitants of the city. Thus the cargo came ashore and with it the plague. Exactly a month after the Grand-Saint-Antoine had first called at Marseilles, several porters who had offloaded bales of cotton died. These were the first of tens of thousands of deaths to come, not only in Marseilles, but also Provence. One of the last great outbreaks of plague in Europe was underway.

Reduced To Ruin – Massilia & Marseilles: A Future Few Care To See

Of all the cities in France, Marseilles is the oldest. It was founded 2,600 years ago by colonists from ancient Greece. This comes as something of a surprise. Many would likely guess Paris as France’s oldest city, since it is by far the nation’s largest, most famous and important city, but Paris was founded three and a half centuries after Massila, as Marseilles was then known. This first city on what would eventually become mainland France was a colony created by the Phocaeans. These Greek people hailed from the Aegean coast of eastern Anatolia (part of present day Turkey). They were known for their extensive exploration of the Mediterranean. According to Herodotus they discovered the Adriatic Sea as well as parts of the Italian and Spanish coasts.

Classical civilization traveled with the Phocaeans across the Mediterranean onto the shores of France. This colonial foothold would later be exploited by other Empires, most prominently the Romans as they expanded into Gaul. Antiquity is something that Marseilles is rightfully proud of. The city was part of ancient Greece for six centuries, almost the same amount of time that it has now been part of France. Both before visiting Marseilles and after arriving in the city, I read numerous accounts that referenced its Greek origins. This left me wondering about Massilia. What if anything could be learned about pre-French, pre-Roman Massilia? Were there any physical remnants left to see from that period in the city?  My search to learn more about Massilia started where so much of classical history does, in legend and myth. The city’s founding is told by a story that mystifies and enlightens.

Massalia in ancient times

Massalia in ancient times (Credit: G. Bouchard)

A Natural Magnet For The Ancients – Massalia On the Mediterranean
It is not surprising that Massilia, a colony located on the classical world’s very fringes, has an early history based on legend. Its founding at the beginning of the 7th century BC lies deep within an age where written accounts concerning it were rare. History, like power abhors a vacuum, thus myth acts as a substitute for the lack of factual information. The legend goes that a Phocaean explorer by the name of Protis happened upon the Lacydon, a cove that was framed on each side by rocky peaks and fed by a freshwater stream. It was here that he received an invitation to a banquet being held by a Ligurian chief. The Ligurians were the people who inhabited the region north of the cove. The banquet was to decide which man would get to marry Gyptis, the chief’s daughter. Protis was chosen by Gyptis, who then gave him a ceremonial cup filled with water or wine (accounts vary). The happy couple decided to make their home on a hill north of the Lacydon.

From these beginnings the city of Massilia evolved or at least that is how the story’s told. Whatever the case, Massilia grew into a major trading port where a merchant class grew wealthy trading in such local products as cork, coral and wine. The city was home to two great temples, dedicated to Apollo and Artemis, demarcating its northern and southern ends. These structures were signs of the great wealth that Massilia’s traders were able to accumulate. A couple of centuries after its founding the city had a population of 6,000, a metropolis of the northern Mediterranean during that age. Massilia drew the attention of such famous personages as Aristotle who wrote about its government. The city was as an aristocratic republic, governed by the wealthiest ten percent of its citizenry. Cicero wrote that Massilia was ruled by wisdom. Its most notable son was the mathematician and astronomer Pytheas who was the first to ascertain that tides were connected to the phases of the moon.

Shimmering sea - the Mediterranean close to Marseille

Shimmering sea – the Mediterranean close to Marseilles

On Distant Shores –  Portal To The Past
Pytheas must have spent a good deal of time studying the comings and goings of the Mediterranean at the shoreline in Massilia. Many things have changed since that time, but not the sea which still washes the same shores. The sea that Pytheas studied was the one I watched sunlight shimmer on, transforming the water’s surface into flashes of silvery fire. This was the eternal glow of the Mediterranean, a natural magnet to eyes both ancient and modern. Classical Massilia and modern Marseilles both have one thing in common, their intimate connection to the Mediterranean. The sea has always kept this port city’s gaze fixed southward towards that limitless, enchanting horizon. The Greek golden age of Massilia eventually ran its course. The city was slowly surrounded and finally consumed by the Roman Empire. The Romans co-opted and then built upon the foundations laid by the Greeks.

The Greek and Roman presence can be seen most visibly beside the Centre Bourse shopping center in the old heart of Marseilles. Shopping complexes and ancient history may seem like a strange combination, but this is no ordinary city. The development of the complex inadvertently led to a major archeological find. In 1967 as the Centre Bourse was being constructed, the work revealed an eastern portion of Massilia’s ramparts in addition to a city gate. Roman dockyards were also unearthed in what archaeologists said was the best preserved remnant of a port’s facilities dating from antiquity. The city decided to protect these excavated ruins in the Jardin des Vestiges (Garden of Ruins) which is now an appendage of the Musee d’Histoire de Marseilles (MarseillesHistory Museum).

Jardin des Vestiges (Garden of Ruins) in Marseille - the last remnants of ancient Greek and Rome in the city

Jardin des Vestiges (Garden of Ruins) in Marseilles – the last remnants of ancient Greek and Rome in the city

The Future In Situ – Lasting Traces
A visit to the Jardin des Vestiges was a surreal experience for me. Looking down upon the ruins I could see the stone foundations of Marseille’s first port, two thousand plus years of history sprawling across the grounds. These physical, tangible relics of Massilia look small in comparison to their immediate surroundings. I could not help, but notice the apartment and office buildings, rows of modern structures that encircle the ancient port’s last traces. The setting showed little reverence for this splendid piece of the ancient past, other than the fact that it had been uncovered and left in situ. People walked by totally indifferent to this first iteration of their home city. Few of them taking the time to notice, let alone ponder, this stark reminder of Marseille’s very beginnings or the fact that one day all the surrounding development will also be reduced to ruin. The present eventually ending up just like the past, a future that few care to see.


Marseilles – The East Comes West: A French Mirage On The Mediterranean

It was supposed to be dangerous and beautiful, seedy yet enchanting, full of life as well as a place where you might fear for your life.  This was what I was led to believe before traveling to Marseilles, that gritty, idyllic French city that rises from the dreamy blue shore of the Mediterranean. My initial impressions helped peel back the multi-faceted layers that make up Marseilles. Everything I had read and researched beforehand turned out to be true, but there was so much more.

The Mediterranean as viewed from the Notre Dame de la Garde

The Mediterranean as viewed from the Notre Dame de la Garde

In France, But Not Of France – A Mediterranean City
It may be France’s second largest city, but Marseilles is rarely mentioned in the same sentence as Lyon, Nice, Strasbourg, Bordeaux or Toulouse, let alone Paris. It ranks low on the list of destination cities for visitors to France. That is odd because regionally Marseilles is often included in two of the most attractive and well-known tourist destinations in the world, Provence and the Cote d’Azur. While it might be included as part of these, the city really stands apart. There is nothing like it in France or for that matter, the world. It is an urban conurbation that size-wise is even larger than Paris. From the perspective of cultural geography the city is a contradiction. Marseilles is in France, but only partly of France. It is more a Mediterranean than a French city. It has a grittiness that is reminiscent of Eastern European cities, but a grandeur that is unmistakably French.

Though it is geographically in Western Europe, much of the eastern aspect that gives the city such a distinct identity washed onto its shores via a port that ranks as the 8th largest in the world. Due to the fact that topographically it is hemmed in and segregated from the interior of France by hills, Marseilles has looked southward to the Mediterranean for its economic and cultural life. Over the past couple of hundred years Jews fleeing anti-Semitism, Italians fleeing poverty, Armenians fleeing genocide, Spaniards fleeing fascism,  Algerians, Tunisians and  Moroccans fleeing poverty all came to Marseilles seeking refuge, wealth and most importantly, a new start. This has made the city a mélange of cultures, with French culture leaving its imprint on them all.

Spice of life - in the Arab market area of Marseille

Spice of life – in the Arab market area of Marseille

Making Anyone Feel Foreign – Arabia In Marseilles
Marseilles does not suffer nearly as much segregation as other French cities. The dividing line between rich and poor, upper middle class, working class and low brow had often been blurred. Fortune and misfortune rub elbows on a daily basis. From the Vieux Port (Old Port) area inequality and the vicissitudes of fortune radiate outward. Beggars and bankers side step one another along the city’s main boulevard, La Canebiere. A couple of blocks away glittering Zara-esque storefronts sparkle while a homeless man lurks one doorway down. Haute couture fashion shops stand along un-swept streets as high heels and cigarette butts share the same sidewalks. Then the visitor suddenly arrives at the Arab Market, an ascent or descent into another world depending upon one’s perspective. It is an all-out assault on the senses. Here the Maghreb meets Marseilles. French gives way to Arabic, the skin of its merchants is a delicate, pale brown, noise and energy proliferate as do crowds of hawkers and gawkers.

A bit further onward from the market are streets filled with all the disparate and desperate forms of life. Storefronts indicate the minority cultures that have found a home here. Afro-hair extensions on offer, men standing in doorways watching, talking and waiting for a living, a decadent, exuberant dynamism can be felt in every alleyway and rubbish strewn street. Darkness lurks in daylight as crime seems to be around every corner, but such a feeling is fleeting. It is loudly contradicted by the vibrancy and variety of life to be discovered amid these pulsing streets. The area is fraught with ambiguity, an Arabian France, where friendliness and danger are to be felt in equal measure. Here is the kind of place that can make almost anyone feel foreign. The outsider imagines the worst. And the worst turns out to be less than imagined. In my case it happened to be a young man who tried to short change me out of one euro over a bag of jellybeans. He smiled politely, while his eyes attempted to evade mine when I called him out for his petty attempt at crime.

The path to Notre Dame de la Garde

The path to Notre Dame de la Garde on the highest hilltop in Marseilles

Scaling the Heights – The Way To Notre Dame de la Garde
A bit further out from the city center Marseilles crawls away from the Mediterranean scaling the hillsides. Steep streets defeat even the most vigorous urban hiker making their way through the 6th arrondissement to the city’s highest hilltop. Hundreds of steps lead to precipitously inclining pavements. They then merge into yet another set of steps. Directional signs lead the way through a withering array of twists and turns to the highest hilltop in the city. The tourist fails to notice that they are striding past the more refined, upper middle class Marseilles. Dirty white and sea foam green shutters cover large windows. Homes are hidden by large walls or gates, with every entry point requiring a code. A rage for privacy pervades these silent streets. The bark of dogs is heard much more often than voices. People seem to live here, but they are rarely seen.

The architectural achievement that crowns the heights above this neighborhood and the culmination of many a visitor’s itinerary is the Notre Dame de la Garde. It can be glimpsed in fits and starts on a trek to the top. Disappearing and then reappearing in bit parts, always a false summit farther away. The irony of this faraway so close feature of the church will not be lost on the hunchbacked pilgrim plodding up to these heights. From many miles away in the city the church can be seen soaring prominently skyward. Then as one begins to make the lung bursting ascent it disappears completely from view. On faith, the pilgrim must follow signs and steps and stairs until they arrive with their forehead frothing with sweat just beneath the church’s towering presence. It is at this point that the pilgrim’s heart must fall. For all their climbing, they must suddenly realize the Notre Dame de la Garde reaches heights that can never quite be reached. The gold Madonna that tops the church seems to reach the heavens. Glancing back from just outside the church reveals a panoramic view of the city, its buildings glowing white and luminous, looking like a mirage. This could only be Marseilles.