Discovering timeless Marseille: start your journey with the classics.

Books on Marseille are fewer compared with Paris, but a couple of great classics have scenes set in Marseille.

Most famously, perhaps, the eponymous hero of Alexandre Dumas père‘s swash-buckling novel The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) was incarcerated in the dungeons of the infamous prison of the Château d’If, built in the sixteenth century as a fortress on one of the islands in the Marseille bay. It later became a kind of early Alcatraz and specialised in political and religious prisoners.

The novel begins with the arrival of a ship into the busy harbour at Marseille, but also in the first chapter is a lovely little gem about the city’s broad, famous central street, La Canabière

A street of which the modern Phocaens are so proud that they say with all the gravity  in the world, and with that accent which gives so much character to what is said, “If  Paris had La Canabière, Paris would be a second Marseille.

Unique city

The same pride in their unique city can still be felt there today, and in some of the best contemporary writing that has come out of it.

the count of monte cristo
Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo ‘The infamous prison of the Chateau d’If’

In Chapter Eight the hero has a first taste of his cell. (At this stage he is still known as ‘Dantes’):

The prisoner followed his guide, who led him into a room almost underground, whose bare and reeking walls seemed as though impregnated with tears … And before Dantes could open his mouth – before he noticed where the jailer had placed his bread and water – before he had glanced towards the corner where the straw was,  the jailer disappeared, taking with his the lamp and closing the door, leaving stamped upon the prisoner’s mind the dim reflection of the dripping walls of the dungeon.

And just to remind us that this ‘impregnable fortress‘ is on an island, our attention is directed to the surrounding turbulent ocean, ‘that terrible barrier against freedom, which the prisoners look upon with utter despair.‘ After fourteen years of incarceration, Dantes makes a daring escape – the only person ever to do so and survive. We are, of course, in the domain of fiction: no-one is known ever to have done so. (In case you’re wondering about the odd name of the prison island – as I did, for years! – ‘if’ is French for yew tree. Not that there are trees on the island now …).

‘Dantes’ dungeon’ is now a place for tourist visits.  (No, the Marquis de Sade was never there – different prison.) If you’ve ever seen the film The French Connection, you may remember the Château d’If as the place where a deal for shipping drugs to the US is arranged.

Don’t forget to visit the Chateau d’If – where Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned.  Some wonderful views guaranteed!

So used are we to thinking of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) as a ‘London’ writer that it’s easy to forget that Little Dorritt (1855-57) actually begins in Marseille. It’s a dazzling description:

 Thirty years ago, Marseille lay burning in the sun, one day. … Everything in Marseille, and  about Marseille, had stared at the fervid sky and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which the verdure was burnt away … There was no wind to make a ripple on the foul water within the harbour, or on the beautiful sea without …Boats without awnings were too hot to touch; ships blistered at their moorings; the stones of the quays had not cooled, night or day, for months … Blinds, shutters, curtains, awnings, were all closed and drawn to keep out the stare. The churches were the freest from it. To come out of the     pillars and arches … was to plunge into a fiery river and swim to the nearest strip of shade.

little dorrit
Charles Dickens Little Dorrit ‘Dazzling’

 But Dickens – being Dickens – doesn’t stay with the sun and the brightness. It simply serves to accentuate what comes next.

In Marseille that day there was a villainous prison …’

It’s chilly, dark, damp, verminous, these qualities all emphasised by their contrast with what has come before. And, of course, the action soon leaves Marseille and shifts to London and the Marchelsea prison.

The beauty and the bustle

Dickens had visited Marseille more than once – including during his journey to Italy, recorded in his travelogue, Pictures from Italy (1846). He captures the beauty and the bustle of the place, but also one element which, happily, has changed – pervasive dirt, and the smell from the harbour!

 I was there, twice or thrice afterwards, in fair weather and foul; and I am afraid there is no doubt that it is a dirty and disagreeable place.  But the prospect, from the fortified heights, of the beautiful Mediterranean, with its lovely rocks and islands, is most        delightful.  These heights are a desirable retreat, for less picturesque reasons—as an escape from a compound of vile smells perpetually arising from a great harbour full of     stagnant water, and befouled by the refuse of innumerable ships with all sorts of cargoes: which, in hot weather, is dreadful in the last degree.

There were foreign sailors, of all nations, in the streets; with red shirts, blue shirts, buff shirts, tawny shirts, and shirts of orange colour; with red caps, blue caps, green caps, great beards, and no beards; in Turkish turbans, glazed English hats, and Neapolitan head-dresses.  There were the townspeople sitting in clusters on the pavement, or airing   themselves on the tops of their houses, or walking up and down the closest and least airy of Boulevards; and there were crowds of fierce-looking people of the lower sort, blocking up the way, constantly. 

The journalist and writer J. Ewing Ritchie (1820-1898) – a graduate of University College London, he published a number of books about the city in the nineteenth-century – wrote up his ‘grand tour’ of Europe as Cities of the Dawn (1887). Re-published in 2015 – though also available via Project Gutenberg – it has a good chapter on Marseille (chapter seventeen). Here’s a snippet:

Marseilles is a far nobler city than it appears to the tourist as he rushes from the train to catch the steamer waiting to bear him far away.  High above the city, on a precipitous rock, from which you have a grand view of the place, and the harbour, and the far-off    Mediterranean, stands the old Cathedral of Marseilles—Notre Dame de la Garde—a noble Romanesque building, with a gilt figure of the Virgin at the top, her arms extended as if to protect the city. 

You reach it either by a winding road or a hydraulic lift, for the use of which you pay a trifle.  It was there the ancient inhabitants kept watch over sea and land.  In time a chapel was erected on its site, which became a place of pilgrimage for mariners and fishermen.  The present magnificent building was erected in 1864.  If only for the view, the visitor is well repaid for his trouble. 

Hardly can you enjoy a more  magnificent prospect, embracing the fair valley of the Rhone, the white houses of  Marseilles stretching up the plain, the gray mountains of Spain in the far distance, the    dazzling blue of the Gulf of Lyons, the dark towers of the fort, with the rocky, picturesque islands, with the Château d’If, whence, according to Dumas, Monte Cristo made his marvellous escape, beyond.  In the city itself, on a hill, whence you have also a fine view, is a grand new cathedral of imposing form and structure.  It was Sunday when I visited it; but there were not many people in it, though more in the heart of the city, where I tried to enter a church, it was so crowded that there really was no standing-room.

But he warns against the Sirocco …

 … you must be cautious when the east wind blows.  It was there Dr. Punshon, the greatest Wesleyan orator of our time, caught the cold which laid the foundation of the illness that ultimately carried him off.

 This characteristic Marseille wind features regularly in writing about the city – memorably in Jean-Claude Izzo’s novel A Sun for the Dying, which we’ll look at later.

An early novel by Émile Zola (1840-1902), The Mysteries of Marseille, was serialised in a Provençal newspaper in 1867. Although it’s a love story, it also prefigures what would be the themes of his powerful later works – the injustices that pervade the society of the time and have particularly destructive effects on the poor.

Humour and honesty

Mark Twain (1835-1910) takes us to Marseille during his travel narrative The Innocents Abroad (1869). In typical Twain fashion he manages to combine humour, honesty, and very moving description. First, rather a ‘put-down’ of the city’s inhabitants:

These Marseillaises make Marseillaise hymns and Marseilles vests and Marseilles soap for all the world, but they never sing their hymns or wear their vests or wash with their soap themselves.

the innocents abroad
Mark Twain The Innocents Abroad ‘Combines humour, honesty, and a very moving description’

 But when he visits the dungeons of the Château d’If, he is deeply moved by the evidence left behind by the many prisoners incarcerated there – and many of whom died there. Some simply carved their names into the rock, not to be forgotten entirely. And one, who did not see another human being for twenty-seven years (even his food was delivered in such a way that he could not catch sight of the deliverer’s face), carved his cell walls with the most amazing patterns of people and animals – the pictures he created his only companions.

Also travelling from America at about the same time was Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), best known as the creator of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ and as a vigorous campaigner for women’s rights and for ‘peace’. Her ‘grand tour’ of Europe took in a number of cities covered in this book, including Marseille, and the written account of her journey, From the Oak to the Olive: a plain record of a pleasant journey (1868) – so called because she starts in England and travels to the Mediterranean countries – provides a delightful (though quite short) period piece on Marseilles.

An ‘historical reproduction’ of the book was published in 2009 – though it’s also available online through Project Gutenburg. I loved the sense of a real tourist looking about the city for the first time – ‘long streets, handsome and well-shaded, tempting shops, luxurious hotels, a motley company‘ – and determined puffing her way, in the heat, to the chapel of La Bonne Mère du Garde – ‘This hot and panting ascent is not made by us without many pauses for recovered breath and energy … Finally, with a degree of perspiration more than salutary, we reach the top and enjoy the first view of the Mediterranean …‘, though the heat and aridity of the town makes ‘the remembrance of London in the rain soothing and pleasant.’

French Nobel laureate J.M.G. Le Clézio sets part of his novel Desert (1980, translation 2009) in Marseille – the city to which the main character, Lalla, flees in order to escape a forced marriage to a much older man in Morocco. As a hotel maid, she shows us the difficult life of an immigrant.

desert 2
Le Clezio Desert ‘The legacy of French colonialism’


The background to her personal story – and the story of her people – is told in the first part of the novel (set in 1909) when tribesmen were forced from their homelands by the French during the period of colonial expansion. Needless to say, the novel deals with the legacy of French colonialism in North Africa, which is built into the history and very fabric of Marseille.

Heather Reyes is the editor of the acclaimed city-pick urban travel guide series. She is the author of An Everywhere: a little book about reading (‘a brilliant travel guide to the city of books’ Helen Dunmore) and Bookworms, Dog-Ears & Squashy Big Armchairs: A Book Lover’s Alphabet (Reader’s Digest Book of the Month) and the novels Miranda Road (‘rich, poetic, painterly, wise and tender’ Maggie Gee) and Zade (‘tremendous verve and wit’, Jill Dawson). All the titles are published by Oxygen Books.

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Discovering timeless Marseille: start your journey with the classics
Books on Marseille are fewer compared with Paris, but a couple of great classics have scenes set in Marseille.
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Oxygen Books
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Malcolm Burgess and Heather Reyes are the publishers of Oxygen Books' city-pick series, featuring some of the best writing on favourite world cities. These include Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, Venice, Dublin, London, St Petersburg, Istanbul and New York.

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