Popular myths and a fishy reputation have led Marseille to be unfairly maligned as dirty urban sprawl plagued with impoverished immigrant neighborhoods and slightly louche politics. It is often given wide berth by travelers in search of a Provençal idyll. A huge mistake. Marseille, even its earliest history, has maintained its contradictions with a kind of fierce and independent pride. Yes, there are scary neighborhoods, some modern eyesores—even a high crime rate—but there is also tremendous beauty and culture. Cubist jumbles of white stone rise up over a picture-book seaport, bathed in light of blinding clarity, crowned by larger-than-life neo-Byzantine churches, and framed by massive fortifications; neighborhoods teem with multiethnic life; souklike African markets reek deliciously of spices and coffees; and the labyrinthine Old Town radiates pastel shades of saffron, marigold, and robin's-egg blue.
Called Massalia, this was the most important Continental shipping port in antiquity. The port flourished for some 500 years as a typical Greek city, enjoying the full flush of classical culture, its gods, its democratic political system, its sports and theater, and its naval prowess. Caesar changed all that, besieging the city in 49 BC and seizing most of its colonies. In 1214 Marseille was seized again, this time by Charles d'Anjou, and was later annexed to France by Henri IV in 1481, but it was not until Louis XIV took the throne that the biggest transformations of the port began: he pulled down the city walls in 1666 and expanded the port to the Rive Neuve (New Riverbank). The city was devastated by plague in 1720, losing more than half its population. By the time of the Revolution, Marseille was on the rebound once again, with industries of soap manufacturing and oil processing flourishing, encouraging a wave of immigration from Provence and Italy. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Marseille became the greatest boomtown in 19th-century Europe. With a large influx of immigrants from areas as exotic as Tangiers, the city quickly acquired the multicultural population it maintains to this day.