Stepping off the train from Aix at Marseille’s Gare Saint-Charles is unlike arriving at many other railway stations.
Yes, it can feel a bit ‘edgy’; you have arrived, of course, in the city made infamous by The French Connection, and that reputation has stuck – with some reason.
But stop for just one moment! Look above and I defy you not to be struck by the grandeur of the station with its enormous iron wrought roof. That sense of setting and space is reinforced by its position. Unlike many train stations, it sits on top of a hill in central Marseille providing breathtaking views across the city and towards both the mountains and sea. There’s little question the station’s expansive terrace affords the best views to be found anywhere in this, France’s second city.
So this is the arrival point to Provence, the South of France, the Mediterranean and gateway to the world. Hemmed in by the Provençal mountains, the city’s orientation is to the sea and beyond and La Gare Saint-Charles, too, has embraced this aspect.
Opened on 8 January 1848, the station quickly became an important staging post in transit to Africa and Asia. Many features of the city salute Marseille’s colonial heritage but none more so, for me, than the railway station.
In my 1938 South and East African Year Book & Guide, published by the Union Castle Line, it’s apparent Marseille was an important departure point not only for French colonial territories in Africa, but all imperial territories and dominions in the continent. Sea routes out of Marseille included both British and French West Africa, Equatorial Africa, East Africa and South Africa. Gare Saint-Charles was then a lynch-pin in a vast logistics network that united Europe with its imperial lands.
The guide book states:
‘The Gare Saint-Charles is the point of arrival and departure of passengers. Whether as a point of departures by steamer or as a centre from which Central or Southern Europe may be visited, Marseilles and its station occupies a favourable position’
It goes on to advise that ‘those wishing to taste the peculiar dishes of Provence’ should eat à la carte at the station.
Nothing speaks more to the Gare Saint-Charles’ significant role in Empire, than the magnificent staircase, or Le Grand Escalier, that connects the station with the Boulevard Dugommier. Commissioned in 1911 and opened by the then Mayor in 1923, the monument pays homage to France’s Empire in Africa and Asia.
At the foot of the monument on the left hand side and again on the right, are two fine statues of women reclining, symbols of France’s Empire. On the left reclines the symbol of Les Colonies d’Afrique while on the right hand side is the lady representing Les Colonies d’Asie.
Intricate bronze statues of beautiful children adorn the staircase as it climbs, representing the offspring or the fruits of Empire. On the left hand side we see La Chase, Les Fleurs and Les Vendanges; on the right Les Fruits, La Moisson and La Pêche.
As we reach the summit of the staircase, we find two towering obelisk which pay tribute to Marseille’s heritage.
Marseille Colonie Greque speaks to the city’s heritage as the oldest continuous settlement in France, founded by the Ancient Greeks in 600 B.C.
Marseille Porte de l’Orient speaks to the city’s role in 1923 as a gateway to the ‘Abroad’, the ‘Exotic’ and to Empire.
In the 1920s, France was at the pinnacle of its imperial ambitions, with far reaching territories spanning Africa, Asia and the Americas; those, too, were Marseille’s finest days. Wealth from imperial trade and travel rolled into the city; grand boulevards were modelled, a magnificent new dock constructed and rail lines expanded.
But like the rest of Europe, France’s imperial fortunes were dashed first by WWII and then the post war climate which rightly viewed Empire as an anachronism. Slowly France began to dismantle its Empire, and Marseille’s role as its imperial gateway ended.
Unsurprisingly with the disbanding of Empire, and the advent of the jet aeroplane, Gare Saint-Charles’ standing slowly diminished. Yes, it continues to be a bustling train station, home to the TGV connecting it to Paris in just three hours; but its role as an international interlocutor is the stuff of bygone days.
The next time you’re passing through Gare Saint-Charles, resist, for a moment, the temptation to get to your next destination. Appreciate its spectacular position and Le Grand Escalier. Like so much of Marseille, its immediate appearance belies a fascinating insight into French history.