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The 'Bastides' of Marseille

Discover the bastides of Marseille and Provence, which are a part of the lifestyle in Provence.

The bastides are the dominant passion of the people of Marseille.” (Stendhal, 1837)

The bastides, a Provencal lifestyle

The bastides located in the southwest are fortified cities. In Provence, the bastide is a secondary residence that is at the same time a place of leisure and an agricultural domain. Like in every big Mediterranean port commercial city, the elites owned private hotels ( town house) in town and a second home in the countryside.

Life in the bastides was a true lifestyle. Installed in the countryside, outside of the ramparts of the city,  they offered a refined living environment to the greater families of the Marseille bourgeoisie. However, the primary vocation remained the cultivation of olive trees and vines.

The first architectural scheme of these exceptional villas dates  back to the years 1670-1700.

“I am charmed by the singular beauty of this city,” wrote Madame de Sévigné in 1673 when she arrived  in Marseille.

Coming from Aix-en-Provence she discovered the city by entering from the ‘Viste’district and the heights of Marseille. She saw the sea in front of her expanding into the horizon, the scattered  bastides, the hills of the l ‘Estaque’district and of ‘Marseilleveyre’ closing off to her right and on her left a large and rugged space, in which nestled the ‘Vieux-Port’ (old-port).

The bastides today

Today,  we can only deplore the disappearance of these numerous bastides subjected to the pressure of real estate and the need to develop the urban spaces.

A few scattered vestiges sometimes  remind us of the presence of one of these beautiful residences around a gate, a pilaster or a few stone walls still standing on our urban space like a desperate sign of the splendour of yesteryear, today gone for a concrete world.

The bastides have been converted into public or private establishments like hospitals, public equipments such as the town hall, social or cultural centre, museums, youth hostels, retirement homes, religious establishments or public parks. In 1807, there  were  5,000 bastides in Marseille, but according to the lastest  inventory, there are only 250 left.

I considered with aterrible sorrow of heart all these beautiful properties, formerly so rich, which, for so many years, had been the honour and the charm of our paradisiacal suburb of Marseilles, today devastated from top to bottom, torn up, dirtied, mutilated…

Victor Gelu, 1857

Gardens and architecture

From the «golden age» of the 17th and 18th centuries to the 19th century, the bastides and their domains underwent changes. From the traditional five or seven-bay building, topped with a four-sloped roof, to the constructions of the Corniche, true seaside follies, the bastide was transformed.

A true summer residence sheltered from the sweltering heat and noise of the city, this place of relaxation and leisure brings together family, friends, and sometimes work relations. Walks, pétanque, swimming, hunting  or other activities related to the gardens punctuate life in these green havens, serenely sheltered by high stone walls. It is also a life of hard work for the farmers who maintain the land.

It was a place of refuge for a privileged population during the great epidemics of plague in 1720 or cholera in 1835.

The arrival of water in Provence in the 1850’s, thanks to the construction of the Canal de Provence, led to the creation of   luxurious gardens featuring terraces, fountains, water mirrors, parvis and plant arabesques.

The enrichment of the bourgeoisie through trade, the transformation of the city, and the opening of the Corniche Kennedy to the coast attracted great fortunes to the seaside. Owners and architects competed to build and animate these new building spaces where all fantasies and follies were permitted. The bastide of the 19th century found its favourite terrain on the seashore. The water is exploited around gardens decorated with rare species, cool caves to refresh oneself in stylized decorations with nymphs, floral motifs, and water jets.

Wave at sea or  ‘Villa Valmer’, ‘Castle Berger’’former ‘Castellamare’, ‘Villa Santa Lucia’ … are examples that remain today the witnesses of the discreet charms of the Marseille bourgeoisie.

Sumptuous parties were given there. The owners competed in splendour by decorating the interior with marble, golden stucco, or canopies with a requirement of luxury and refinement.

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