After Notre Dame de la Garde, Fort Saint-Jean was the next attraction Neil and I went to visit.
Fort Saint-Jean is one of two forts, the other being Fort Saint Nicolas, built in 1660 at the entrance to Marseille’s Vieux Port. Instead of protecting the city, however, the fortresses were designed to keep the local population in check. The cannons were pointed in toward the town, rather than out to the sea.
Below is a view of Fort Saint Nicolas across the entrance to the harbour from Fort Saint-Jean,with Notre Dame de la Garde in the distance. ¹
A closer view of Fort Saint Nicolas is shown below. You’ll see that it is a bastion fortress, with walls that are laid out in a star formation. More information on bastion fortresses can be found here.
Marseille had a reputation for rebelling against the central government of France. Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, ordered the construction of the fortresses after he had to come to Marseille with an army to end an uprising against the local governor.
Today, Fort Saint-Jean serves a rather less controversial function. It is a partner attraction with the modern Le MUCEM and makes for an interesting visit, with beautiful views of Vieux Port and neighbouring landmarks.
All right, let’s take a look inside!
I like a good, crumbling wall.
The long galleried arcade is where the officers’ lodgings were located.
The remains of the fortress chapel.
Overlooking the chapel and the King René Tower.
Louis XIV tried his best to deter local insurgent inclinations by building these intimidating fortresses. In spite of his efforts, a local mob overtook Fort Saint-Jean in April 1790 and beheaded the commander of the royal garrison.
So much for that.
During the French Revolution, Fort Saint-Jean was used as a prison. In 1794, the Revolution had completed a full turn of fortune’s bloody wheel. Robespierre was overthrown and guillotined, and 100 Jacobin prisoners being held in Fort Saint-Jean were also massacred.
A violent history, to be sure. Today, though, the stones of Fort Saint-Jean are awash with native Mediterranean plants instead of blood. There are several gardens located throughout the fortress to enjoy.
Aloe vera looks prehistoric.
It’s a good place to grow some sunbathers, as well.
La Tour du Fanal (the Tower of the Lantern) and more garden space, shown below.
There are fun modern art pieces located throughout the site, as well as a space for temporary exhibitions.
The modern art pieces helpfully remind you of the Fort’s partnership with the modern Le MUCEM – the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. A narrow steel bridge connects the two nearby attractions.
Another view of the bridge leading to Le MUCEM.
A second bridge makes it easy to cross into the neighbourhood of Le Panier.
The second bridge leads to the Church of Saint Lawrence, which was just down the street from where Neil and I were staying. We could hear its bells ringing throughout the day! The Roman-Provencal church was built in the 12th century. It is the only parish church of the Middle Ages in Marseille to have survived to the present day. It even escaped the Nazi bombing of Le Panier in 1943.
A view of Cathedrale La Major (with the old cathedral located on its right side).
Posts on Le MUCEM and Cathedrale La Major to follow.
¹Fort Saint Nicolas, especially, was later used against its own citizens. The Nazis had control of the guns of Fort Saint Nicolas during the battle for the Liberation of Marseille, and used them against the Algerian Allied soldiers who were trying to free the basilica from Nazi occupation.