the area in marseille behind the west side of the old port around the famous street known as ‘le panier’, which links the port with the cathedral, has a wonderful atmosphere. of course it’s very popular with tourists, but in the mediterranean heat of a summer’s afternoon it can be eerily quiet. in the heart of the district, at its highest point, is a little square known as ‘les moulins’, there were once as many as fifteen windmills here, all gone now, although one or two remain as conversions to private residences. the place has a haunting dilapidated elegance — you can find some of the pictures here
the area of le panier was the primary location of the ancient town of massalia founded by greek settlement as early as two and a half millenia ago. since then, with its proximity to the old port it has seen wave after wave of newcomers. from italy and corsica, later north african and other parts of the continent. the population in the twentieth century has seen waves of immigration from many parts of the world, and today its people are widely multi-cultural.
in addition to its reputation for gambling, prostitution and illegal immigration, during WWII le panier became a haven and focus for the burgeoning resistance of anarchists, communists against nazi occupation and its collaborators the french vichy government. in retaliation the area was devastated as the population were subjected to forced evacuation, arrest or summary execution (at least 30,000 were evacuated, 2,000 sent to concentration camps), finally about 1,500 of the houses were dynamited by nazi troops.
what remains today is covers about one third of the area of the pre-war district, largely a focus of tourism, yet it retains much of its labyrinthine and tortuous quality, its streets assailed these days by graffiti and wandering tourists among its craft shops and small restaurants.