Rivalry in Provence: is it a love-hate thing?

Aix-en-Provence and nearby Marseille are two wildly different cities in the heart of Provence. It’s not hard to find a Marseillais who regards Aix-en-Provence as ‘pretentious and uninteresting’. Alternately, an Aixois may look down their nose at what they refer to as ‘the less sophisticated Marseille’.

It’s a love-hate relationship, and it begs the question: why this rivalry in Provence? Where did it all start? And how does it show up today?

Why the rivalry in Provence today? Two cities ‘worlds apart’

Those visiting Marseille and Aix-en-Provence can see big differences in their atmospheres. Marseille is a bustling and diverse metropolis. Its gritty port and graffiti-filled neighborhoods clash with its chic and polished neighbor, Aix-en-Provence.

Looking at the Tourism Instagram accounts of both cities we can see the difference at a glance, non ?

Interestingly, visitors often develop a strong preference for one city over the other. For example, MyFrenchLife.org member Elizabeth Gabay says:

“Aix is a showcase – good for tourists – pretty, smart, a little snooty. Nice shops, museums; an overall intellectual city. Marseille is an international port – dirty, poor, rough in places but inspires fierce passion and loyalty. Has history, excitement, diverse culture.

I would go for Marseille.”

MyFrenchLife.org - Rivalry in Provence: is it a love-hate thing? graffiti

Now let’s dig deeper into these rivalries.

Rivalry — population and diversity

The different populations of Aix-en-Provence and Marseille create the noticeable contrasting cultures of these two cities.

Firstly, Marseille, with a population of 850,000 is a typical big international city. With big cities come big city problems such as high crime rates and many residents living below the poverty line.

However, Marseille’s large population is diverse. For example, a large proportion of immigrants come from North Africa which makes for multicultural neighborhoods such as the North African quartier Noailles.

The benefit of this diversity means that Marseille restaurants and street markets boast cuisines from all around the world.

In contrast, the population of Aix-en-Provence is wealthier and more homogenous. The city showcases traditional French culture at its finest.

For example, Aix-en-Provence is famously the birthplace of Cézanne. Its many museums display the work of Cézanne and his contemporaries.

Additionally, there are annual classical French cultural events like the Opera Festival as well as many wonderful literary festivals.

The now famous Brasserie Les Deux Garcons which was frequented by Cézanne and Emile Zola is located on the iconic boulevard, Cours Mirabeau.

Understanding the historic rivalry: Aix-en-Provence versus Marseille

The backstory of this rivalry in Provence begins with the cities’ very different yet intertwined origins:

  • Marseille is France’s oldest city. It was founded in 600 BC as Massalia by the Greeks as an important trading port on the Mediterranean.
  • Ironically, the attractive land of current day Aix-en-Provence was discovered by Romans who were defending Greek Massilia from the Gaulois.
  • As a result, two years later the Romans settled Aquae Sextiae, the Roman name of Aix-en-Provence.
  • Previously having dominated Provence, the Greeks now had to answer to the new Roman power. Aix became the center of Provence’s political power, and thus began the rivalry in Provence.

Certain events in history perpetuated the tension between the two cities. For example, Marseille’s port has always ushered in people and goods from faraway lands for better or for worse.

The last wave of the Black Plague arrived in Europe through Marseille’s busy port in 1720. It completely ravaged the city, causing deaths and overwhelming hospitals.

MyFrenchLife.org - Rivalry in Provence: is it a love-hate thing? plague

Consequently, the parliament, located in Aix-en-Provence at the time, took drastic measures by cutting all communication with Marseille. What’s more, they threatened those who attempted to leave Marseille with the death penalty.

By the time of the Revolution, Aix-en-Provence had become a lavish city. Filled with intellectuals and wealthy aristocrats, Aix-en-Provence was suspected by the Marseillais, of ties to the monarchy. As a result, mobs from Marseille stormed the city.

Rivalry in Provence today: is it a love-hate thing?

Today, the rivalry is felt between residents and tourists alike and it can be fierce. Some just ‘love to love’ one city and ‘love to hate’ the other. Either way, everyone has a preference or an opinion at the very least.

Let’s look at a few more opinions.
Another MyFrenchLife.org member Susan Gilbert McGuire recalls:

“… in Marseille in 2006 … it’s a big passionate historical city. The port and coast are beautiful. The restaurants around the port are amazing. The bouillabaisse. The melange of cultures. There is an underlying sense of danger and I was traveling alone and was careful especially after dark. The men there generally don’t have subtlety or restraint. The port area was known for and frequented by prostitutes.

Aix and Marseille are complete opposites, so it depends on what kind of travel one is looking for.”

MyFrenchLife.org - Rivalry in Provence: is it a love-hate thing? port panorama

Provence: ‘living’ versus ‘visiting’

And member Keith Van Sickle who lives between California and Provence shares his perspective:

“If I were only able to visit one [of these cities] for a few days, it would be Marseille because it is such a distinctive city. You have the Old Port, the basilica, the Calanques, some wonderful museums, etc. Port cities are always interesting, even if a bit gritty, and a number of foreign populations have made Marseille their entry point to France over the years, so its history is rich and varied. Aix, by contrast, is pleasant and well-to-do but not so different from other cities [in Provence]. So, if I wanted to get a uniquely French experience, Marseille would be my choice.

On the other hand, if I were staying for an extended period of time, I would definitely choose Aix… It’s clean, charming, and lively, with nearly a quarter of the population being college students. From the center of town, you can walk [everywhere] …within 10 minutes, so you don’t have to worry about getting around (Marseille, by contrast, is spread out and driving is a disaster). The Cours Mirabeau, with its wide sidewalks and numerous cafés, is one of the best people-watching spots in France.

Today I love to visit Aix and tend to avoid Marseille but if I were a first-time visitor, I think it would be the opposite.”

How have the power and the differences played out?

Currently, it is Marseille that holds political power as the prefecture of the Bouches-du-Rhone department. It’s a vibrant and cosmopolitan city. Recently, it even ranked second in the world in a study for work-life balance by the international health & wellbeing chain Holland and Barrett.

Meanwhile, Aix-en-Provence shines as the cultural capital of Provence. It’s prestigious university and many famous cultural events throughout the year make it an attractive destination for students and visitors from around the world.

MyFrenchLife.org - Rivalry in Provence: is it a love-hate thing? fountain

Perhaps, we can even glimpse Roman opulence in the elegant tree lined boulevards and famous fountains of Aix-en-Provence today.

Do you think that the history of these cities has affected their appearances and atmospheres today? Which city do you prefer and why? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below or on Twitter @maviefrancaise

1. Aix-en-Provence via horizonprovence.com
2. Marseille: the new ‘Old Port’ via myfrenchlife.org
3. It’s a Love Hate thing between Marseille and Here’s Why via theculturetrip.com
4. Cezanne in Aix en Provence : a painter’s pilgrimage via myfrenchlife.org  
5. My Life in Provence : Aquae Sextia versus Massalia via francetoday.com
6. The Intriguing Origins of Marseille, France’s Oldest City via greekreporter.com
7. What Happened During Europe’s Last Deadly Plague? Via historyhit.com
8. Marseille named as best French city for work life balance via completefrance.com

Image credits:
1. Marseilles via @Marseille_Tourisme on Instagram
2.  Aix-en-Provence via @AixenProvenceTourism on Instagram
3. Le Cours Mirabeau via Wikimedia Commons
4. En descendant du Cours Julien by Jeanne Menjoulet via Flickr.com
5. Endless spices via @aboutcuriosity on Instagram
6. Couleurs d’en ville via @didiervdr on Instagram.
7. Aix- Cafe des deux garçons via Wikimedia Commons
8. Marseille-Peste-Serre via Wikimedia Commons
9. Marseille vieux port pano via Wikimedia Commons 
10. Cours Mirabeau Fountain by Dennis Jarvis via Flickr.com

About the Contributor

Alexis Herrington

Growing up in the United States, I always dreamed of living abroad. After completing degrees in English and French, I was able to live in different parts of France as an English language teacher. I currently live in Bordeaux and work remotely as a copyeditor for Jellysmack's Paris office. I spend the rest of my time exploring this beautiful city and learning as much as I can about French wine.

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One Comment

  1. Mishi Bellamy Jan 9, 2021 at 5:13 AM - Reply

    We lived in Aix, 2003 -2007. It was in transition when we arrived. Marseille the same….Having known both well, since childhood it was saddening to see how deep the divisions between the developers and the desire to keep faith with conservation and original beauty, especially in Aix, became. The appalling outbreak of graffiti was in response to a turf war, begun by a teenage son of a local councillor, which spiralled out of control. Many listed building have been ruined by attempts to clean up this ‘street art’…..Marseille is altogether different, and hard to define what its become, other than having the largest Muslim population in Europe. But that’s another subject. To sum up, the Cezanne-tax (?) makes Aix outrageously expensive, the only remaining essence of its glory is the cours Mirabeau and Rue du Cardinal etc…about 900sq metres of history left, in fact. Market day is pretty…but in the same way that Carcassone has been Disney-fied, so has Aix. Marseille will always be dark and dirty but has kept its character, at least. Now Lyons, on the other hand……….

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