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
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine