La Canebière, once the pride of Marseilles, now the road to nowhere

Inhabited by the homeless, drug addicts and alcoholics, the air is filled with the stench of urine and beer

Paris

It was once the Champs Elysées of Marseilles, a majestic tree-lined avenue heading east from the Vieux-Port, immortalised in films such as French Connection II.

But the glory days of la Canebière are gone. Today the Marseilles newspaper La Provence consigned the avenue to the tourism dustbin in an article which concluded “there is nothing attractive about la Canebière”. It said that local hotels were advising customers to stay away from the avenue which is now practically deserted after 8pm.

Disappointed tourists are unprepared for the shabby and unsalubrious state of la Canebière, its upper reaches inhabited by the homeless, drug addicts and alcoholics, the air in its litter-strewn pavements filled with the stench of urine and beer. The tram now rumbles noisily down the avenue where construction work churns out noise and dust.

A British tourist from Brighton who asked directions for la Canebière was astonished when he was told he was standing on it. “You’re joking,” he said. A Polish tourist walking back towards the Vieux-Port from the Reform church told the paper that it was the first time he’d visited Marseilles “and I’d heard about this famous Canebière. It’s a rip off!” 

Named from the Latin word for cannabis, La Canebière was originally part of the hemp fields around the old port. The Provençal word for hemp is canebe.

Built in 1666 under Louis XIV, the avenue’s heyday was under the Third Republic at the end of the 19th century, when café life flourished around the thriving commodity exchange. On October 9 1934, the king of Yugoslavia, Alexander 1, was assassinated by a Croatian terrorist just after he had disembarked at the port at the start of a visit to France.

The French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou was also fatally wounded in the shooting outside the stock exchange at the bottom of the avenue. Their death masks are on display in a city museum.

Later, the 1km-long artery came to symbolise the dividing line between the city’s impoverished and troubled northern districts, where drugs and cigarette smuggling are as rife now as in the French Connection of the 1970s, and the southern bourgeois districts.

The bustling avenue was a backdrop for several films when Marseilles was known as the French Los Angeles in the 1920s thanks to its film industry. It was celebrated in song in the Henri Alibert operetta “Un de la Canebière”. Marcel Pagnol, the chronicler of life in Marseilles and its surroundings, set scenes from Marius around an idealised Vieux-Port.

Louis Barthou, the French Foreign Minister, was shot dead outside the stock exchange in the avenue in 1934 Louis Barthou, the French Foreign Minister, was shot dead outside the stock exchange in the avenue in 1934

But the sumptuous Café Riche is now a Monoprix store (a supermarket), and the Café Turc was replaced by the tourism office, now abandoned after the office moved across the street.

There are still plenty reasons to visit Marseilles, which was the European city of culture in 2013. But now the tourists flock to the spectacular Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations whose dark honeycomb stands at the other end of the Vieux-Port.

Jean-Pierre Cassely, a tourist guide, said that the museum has acted like a magnet and tourists now tend to go there and nowhere else. He told The Independent that “it’s not just la Canebière which is dying, it’s the city of Marseilles.”

The museum“is like giving oxygen to a sick man who has a moment of euphoria before succumbing,” he added.

Still, city authorities have plans to refurbish the emblematic avenue, by putting in a four-star hotel and a brasserie. The deputy mayor of Marseilles Dominique Vlasto said: “La Canebière isn’t the same as 60 years ago, and the city wants to give it back its lustre.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
people
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
News
news
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Sport
football
News
i100
News
Perry says: 'Psychiatrists give help because they need help. You would not be working in mental health if you didn't have a curiosity about how the mind works.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?