Tales from the City of Galéjades

17 April, 2021

The Mucem museum and the old fort St. Jean, Marseille (Photo: Jean Ro, Getty Images).

François Thomazeau

La Rose du Ciel (The Rose of Heav­en) is a lot like Mar­seille. It stands proud “between the crypt and the water,” as poet Paul Valéry wrote, on a cliff over­look­ing the old port. It is the per­fect loca­tion to embrace the mag­ic of the old cove around which Mar­seille was built. From the top floor, the Mediter­ranean glit­ters as far as the eye can see. And Mar­seille is all there: boats com­ing in, fer­ries going out, the old town with its bell tow­ers and its for­got­ten wind­mills, its tiny town hall, the Fort Saint Jean and its stone walls, the MUCEM (Musée des civil­i­sa­tions de l’Eu­rope et de la Méditer­ranée) and its lace of con­crete. The house is over­look­ing the Mar­seille of today — the busy traf­fic mov­ing along through the net­work tan­gle of tun­nels tan­gled beneath the port — and  the dwelling also rests upon the foun­da­tions of the city, the Saint Vic­tor Abbey, found­ed in the 5th cen­tu­ry. It could almost be a light­house. And yet it shies away from the curios­i­ty of both tourists and locals.

Villa La Rose du Ciel, Maison Paul Valéry, 140 rue Sainte, Marseille (photos courtesy François Thomazeau). Vil­la La Rose du Ciel, Mai­son Paul Valéry, 140 rue Sainte, Mar­seille (pho­tos cour­tesy François Thomazeau).

You could be for­giv­en for miss­ing it. If you came to the area, it was prob­a­bly to see the Saint Vic­tor Abbey with its fake medieval bat­tle­ments and its crypts, which you can vis­it for 1.5 euros and dis­cov­er the sar­coph­a­gus­es of its founder monks as well as a cave sup­posed to have been the last home of Lazarus. He cer­tain­ly nev­er came any­where near there, but Mar­seille is prone to exag­ger­a­tion and loves to see itself as a city quite capa­ble of ris­ing from from the dead. Or you passed by Le Four des Navettes for the local pas­try, navettes— boat-shaped bis­cuits so thick you should mind your teeth. On sum­mer nights dur­ing the last decade, and before Covid-19 struck, the imme­di­ate sur­round­ings of La Rose du Ciel became a hang­out for thir­ty-some­things who, with­out a glance to the Rose of Heav­en, came to down gal­lons of beer and eat tons of tapas on the pave­ment in front of the trendy Bar de l’Abbaye.

There is a lit­tle square adja­cent to La Rose du Ciel, which might have been its gar­den, with a gor­geous view of the Care­nage — the sec­tor of the port where boats were once repaired. It is called Square Berty Albrecht, after one of the famous inhab­i­tants of the Rose. Recent­ly and between lock­downs,  small open-air clas­si­cal con­certs take place in this square. But none of the musi­cians or spec­ta­tors are like­ly to know who Berty Albrecht was. Maybe they had a quick glimpse at the plaque on the wall assert­ing that Paul Valéry once lived there. Beyond this,  lit­tle do they know or care about the house.

And yet it is haunt­ed, just as Mar­seille has been since the first-ever paint­ing of a mur­der was splashed on the walls of the old­est cav­ern found off its shores, the Grotte Cos­quer. Like most mon­u­ments in the city, the grot­to is invis­i­ble. It lies under the sea. And even when such mon­u­ments are as vis­i­ble as La Rose du Ciel, nobody sees them, or cares. The house is haunt­ed by the mem­o­ries of those who lived in it, their des­tinies as trag­ic, bril­liant, diverse, obscure or remark­able as the city itself.

Saint Victor Abbey
Saint Vic­tor Abbey
Door to the former home of poet Paul Valéry
Door to the for­mer home of poet Paul Valéry
Gateway to enter La Rose du Ciel
Gate­way to enter La Rose du Ciel
Green candles...
Green can­dles…
The Black Virgin
The Black Virgin

Pic­ture your­self here, on the very spot where the abbey was built and lat­er the house, like a lit­tle wart on its nose, at the begin­ning of the 5th cen­tu­ry. It is the year 414, or per­haps 415, and you are stand­ing on a rocky plateau above the port found­ed by the Greeks. The area is a huge ceme­tery, where the first Mar­seil­lais buried their dead, and the caves at your feet are the sepul­tures of Chris­tians said to have been tor­tured to death by the Romans — Vic­tor, the Chris­t­ian sol­dier who gave his name to the abbey, or Lazarus, not the famous one but a priest who returned from Pales­tine with the first abbot, John Cass­ian, and sev­er­al oth­ers. John Cass­ian spent years of impris­oned reclu­sion in Pales­tine and lat­er in Egypt and was asked by the pope to bring his Near East­ern wis­dom west and build two monas­ter­ies, one for men, one for women. He chose this holy spot and turned the bur­ial site into an open-air bap­tis­tery, on top of which a chapel, a church, then a whole con­vent grad­u­al­ly rose. The influ­ence of the abbey was con­sid­er­able in the Chris­t­ian world of the time and its monks and abbots spread the word of God around the Mediter­ranean from Spain to Italy. You would not imag­ine such a des­tiny nowa­days by look­ing at the rather mod­est size of the church, but Mar­seille has always been dis­creet in terms of archi­tec­ture, and today, two dull tow­ers on the seafront can hard­ly be described as a “sky­line.”

The abbey had its ups and downs. At times in the Mid­dle Ages, it actu­al­ly ruled the city and ran fac­to­ries, mills, and pri­or­ies all over Provence. It was also attacked, destroyed and plun­dered, notably by the Spaniards in 1423, when Mar­seille was almost anni­hi­lat­ed. The troops of Aragon took home the chain that barred entry into the port and was prob­a­bly tied to a pil­lar some­where pret­ty close to where we stand. The chain is still in the cathe­dral of Valen­cia, and Mar­seille may­ors have unsuc­cess­ful­ly asked for it to be hand­ed back ever since.  
“In Mar­seille, what is true is what is believed”

— François Thomazeau
In 17 cen­turies, sev­er­al tra­di­tions took root around the abbey and are still extreme­ly vivid. If you did stop at the bak­ery to buy navettes, you were per­haps told that their shape is sup­posed to evoke the boat that car­ried Mary Mag­da­lene, Mary of Jacob, Mary Salome and Lazarus from Pales­tine to con­vert Provence in the 1st cen­tu­ry. Oth­ers will tell you that the cake is in the shape of a womb and a reminder of a pagan fer­til­i­ty rite prac­ticed on this spot. The navettes are baked on Can­del­ma. On this day, a pro­ces­sion leads to the abbey, where the parish­ioners burn green can­dles in hon­our of the Black Vir­gin, a wood­en stat­ue of the Vir­gin Mary placed in a chapel next to the altar. Anoth­er ver­sion of the sto­ry says that the tra­di­tion is actu­al­ly in hon­our of Saint Blaise, an Armen­ian priest mar­tyred in the 4th cen­tu­ry and whose arm — one of about fif­teen held around church­es through­out Europe — was kept in the crypt. Saint Blaise, who will res­cue you if you call his name when a fish­bone is stuck in your throat, was offered a cake and a green can­dle by a shep­herdess he had pro­tect­ed against wolves. All these details need to be told, sim­ply to make it clear that you are tread­ing on holy land, stand­ing as you are in front of the Rose of Heaven.
François Thomazeau's biography of Marseille and a crime novel, Marseille Confidential .
François Thomazeau’s biog­ra­phy of Mar­seille and a crime nov­el, Mar­seille Confidential.

Lit­tle is known of the peo­ple who built this house, but it is a rather sim­ple, rec­tan­gu­lar block with a mansard roof of slates—which is rather uncom­mon in Mar­seille. It is a clas­sic mid-19th cen­tu­ry bour­geois town­house with two palm-trees in the garden—another odd­i­ty in a city that has always refused to be a sea­side resort. At its fron­ton, in a small niche, stands a bronze stat­ue of a beard­ed man pro­tect­ing a younger boy. Father and son, mas­ter and pupil? It is prob­a­bly Joseph, and the boy a young Jesus.

From the start, the Rose of Heav­en was linked to the with­drawn but influ­en­tial Protes­tant com­mu­ni­ty of Mar­seille, many of them of Swiss ori­gin. Among the first known ten­ants were appar­ent­ly mem­bers of the Wild fam­i­ly, who lived there before WWI. Ulrich Wild was a trad­er in exot­ic wood. On Sun­days, he often took his daugh­ter Berty, born in 1893, to sea in the small boat he owned in the Vieux Port. Berty went to the town’s main high school for girls, Lycée Mont­grand, and lat­er stud­ied to become a nurse in Lau­sanne. After receiv­ing her degree in 1912, she returned to Mar­seille when the war broke out to work in a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal. The human suf­fer­ing she wit­nessed had a last­ing influ­ence on her future life. At the end of the war, she mar­ried Fred­er­ic Albrecht, a Dutch banker who had worked with her father in his youth. The man was wealthy and in the 1920s, the cou­ple set­tled in Lon­don, where they had two children.

But mar­ried life was not sat­is­fac­to­ry for the pas­sion­ate young moth­er, who start­ed to attend lec­tures by fem­i­nist pio­neer Sylvia Pankhurst, and soon Berty became a mem­ber of the Wom­en’s Social and Polit­i­cal Union. She also befriend­ed left­wing intel­lec­tu­als like Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Rus­sell and soon became involved in the birth con­trol move­ment led by Mary Stopes. In 1931, she decid­ed to take her chil­dren with her to Paris and part with her hus­band, who con­tin­ued to pay for the edu­ca­tion of his chil­dren. She joined the League of Human Rights and launched her own pub­li­ca­tion Le Prob­lème Sex­uel, defend­ing the right of women to give birth when they wished and have a free sex life.  

Berty's original carte d'identité
Berty’s orig­i­nal carte d’identité
Her Résistance plaque
Her Résis­tance plaque
A small square in Marseille is named after this nearly unsung heroine
A small square in Mar­seille is named after this near­ly unsung heroine

When the mag­a­zine col­lapsed in 1935, she became a social work­er in fac­to­ries while look­ing after Jew­ish refugees from Ger­many and Repub­li­can mil­i­tants exiled by the Span­ish War. After the French deba­cle of 1940, she refused to sur­ren­der and start­ed, with her old friend Hen­ry Fre­nay, a Resis­tance group called Les Petites Ailes, which was renamed Com­bat in 1942. Arrest­ed twice by the Ger­mans that year, she went on a hunger strike, and was sent to a men­tal hos­pi­tal until she was freed by a group of com­rades. Asked by oth­er mem­bers of the Resis­tance to find shel­ter in Lon­don, she refused, con­tin­ued the fight and was final­ly arrest­ed by the Gestapo in May 1943, tor­tured and sent to Fresnes prison out­side of Paris, where she was report­ed­ly found hung in her cell. In 1945, her body was final­ly dis­cov­ered in the gar­den of the prison, show­ing marks of stran­gu­la­tion. While male résis­tants like Jean Moulin became post-war heroes and myth­i­cal fig­ures, Berty was only recent­ly giv­en the cred­it she amply deserved.  Dur­ing the war, she returned fre­quent­ly to Mar­seille, where she had kept sol­id con­tacts, and maybe to the Rose of Heav­en, or to the lit­tle square now bear­ing her name. Who knows?

By the time Berty was fight­ing the Nazis, the house had become the res­i­dence of Mar­guerite Fournier, the daugh­ter of a local indus­try tycoon with a taste for the arts and social life. In 1937, she met Paul Valéry through friends she ran into by chance on a train and the poet became a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor of the Rose. He called Mar­guerite “the abbess of St Vic­tor” and he would spend hours on the house bal­cony watch­ing the sea he now con­tem­plates for­ev­er from the Cimetière Marin, the grave­yard in which he is buried in Sète. Through her sis­ter’s hus­band, Hip­poly­te Ebrard, a local schol­ar and nov­el­ist, Mar­guerite was close to the Mar­seille intel­li­gentsia of the time and espe­cial­ly to Jean Bal­lard, the founder of a lit­er­ary review, Les Cahiers du Sud, which pub­lished the lead­ing French writ­ers of the 1930s and 1940s from its head­quar­ters on the View Port. When the war broke out and most of the inhab­i­tants of north­ern France fled south, the Rose became a haven for artists in search of a place to stay or await­ing pre­cious visas to flee to Spain or the Unit­ed States.

Valéry lived at the Rose, of course, but also André Gide stayed here on his way to the Maghreb, as well as painter Rudolf Kun­dera, and pianists Mar­guerite Long, Sam­son François and Rudolf Firkus­ny often came to give impro­vised con­certs. The abbess of St Vic­tor also host­ed com­posers Charles Munch, who had failed to find a hotel in the over­crowd­ed port, and Bohuslav Mar­t­inu, who called her from a broth­el where he had found refuge.

Fulcanelli's book on the mysteries and symbols of Marseille cathedrales…
Ful­canel­li’s book on the mys­ter­ies and sym­bols of Mar­seille cathedrales…

In fact Mar­seille, flocked with immi­grants des­per­ate for a way out of France, became for a year the cul­tur­al cap­i­tal of the coun­try and the Rose of Heav­en one of its hot spots. In Jan­u­ary 1942, the first ren­di­tion of Valéry’s Nar­cis­sus Can­ta­ta, con­duct­ed by com­pos­er Ger­maine Taille­ferre, was broad­cast on French Nation­al Radio from Mar­guerite’s house. Taille­ferre left Mar­seille for Amer­i­ca a few days lat­er. Valéry also com­posed a piece called Mon Faust (My Faust) in Ebrard’s house in Cas­sis, a sort of twin house of the Rose of Heav­en in Mar­seille. Was it for­tu­itous that the poet should have writ­ten a play about a man seek­ing eter­nal life in such an envi­ron­ment? France at the time was look­ing for res­ur­rec­tion. And remem­ber Lazarus, the man who van­quished death, was sup­pos­ed­ly buried in a cave beneath the abbey, almost beneath Mar­guerite’s house…

There is anoth­er tale about the Rose of Heav­en which is far more cryp­tic and impos­si­ble to con­firm. Mar­guerite’s in-law Ebrard was a Rosi­cru­cian with a vast inter­est in the occult and he often met at din­ners with Bal­lard, Valéry, and oth­er artists to dis­cuss alche­my and mys­ti­cism. The house was an ide­al set­ting for such top­ics, giv­en all the sym­bols and leg­ends linked to the abbey — a crypt full of dead saints, a black vir­gin, green can­dles, and dodgy cakes. There were lots of dou­ble-enten­dres in the house itself with its stat­ue of Joseph the car­pen­ter and a name evok­ing Rosicrucianism.

Some say the house might have been built to replace the rose win­dow miss­ing from the ancient church across the road. It is wide­ly thought that in 1915 or 1916, Ebrard host­ed in the Rose of Heav­en one of the most mys­te­ri­ous occult writ­ers of the 20th cen­tu­ry, Ful­canel­li. The eso­teric author, who pub­lished two books in the 1920s, The Mys­tery of the Cathe­drals and The Dwellings of the Philoso­phers, is said to have changed met­al into gold and to have reached immor­tal­i­ty — he has been seen in var­i­ous places and times by his dis­ci­ples to this day. In both of his works, the man whose iden­ti­ty has been debat­ed for more than a cen­tu­ry, men­tioned the Saint Vic­tor Abbey as full of alchem­i­cal sym­bols, and draw­ings by his illus­tra­tor Julien Cham­pagne — who could be Ful­canel­li him­self — seem to have been done in the Rose of Heaven.

I said this was a haunt­ed house. Now do you believe me?

Well, maybe you should not.

Home of Fake News

All the tales you just read are based on the most com­mon­ly accept­ed sources on Mar­seille his­to­ry. And should you want to check the facts on var­i­ous offi­cial web­sites about the city, you would prob­a­bly believe them to be true. And they are not far from right. Yet Mar­seille is a town of lies, of make-believe, which even invent­ed a word to describe its nat­ur­al ten­den­cy to embell­ish: galé­jades. This is a city that loves tales more than it loves truth, turns approx­i­ma­tion into a fine art, and rel­ish­es the impres­sion of real­i­ty rather than bare facts. In Mar­seille, what is true is what is believed. It is part of its charm that turns its entire his­to­ry into an elab­o­rate urban legend.

“La Rose du Ciel” in Cas­sis by Irish artist Roder­ic O’Conor…

Clos­er enquiry reveals that the Lazarus buried in the crypt — local tales even pre­tend that he was tor­tured on the oth­er side of the port and tak­en to the abbey by a secret tun­nel built beneath the sea — was not the Bib­li­cal one but a 5th cen­tu­ry priest who final­ly became bish­op of Aix-en-Provence. There are no indi­ca­tions in her biogra­phies that Berty Albrecht actu­al­ly lived in the house stand­ing next to the lit­tle square bear­ing her name. This fact was sim­ply extrap­o­la­tion from the locals. A bit of research reveals she actu­al­ly lived at 125 rue Sainte, a bit up the road from the house. While Mar­guerite Fournier cer­tain­ly lived at 140 rue Sainte, noth­ing proves that the house was ever called the Rose of Heav­en. It seems that biog­ra­phers and would-be his­to­ri­ans con­fused the Mar­seille house with the one that Hip­poly­te Ebrard owned in Cas­sis and which is def­i­nite­ly called The Rose of Heav­en. All the lumi­nar­ies men­tioned in fact did stay in either the house in Mar­seille now called La Rose du Ciel and in the house in Cas­sis right­ly of this name. A 1913 paint­ing by Irish artist Roder­ic O’Conor called “La Rose du Ciel, Cas­sis” pro­vides evidence.

So should Mar­seille claim, on top of being the land of soap and bouil­l­abaisse, to have been a pio­neer of fake news? It does not real­ly mat­ter, does it? As long as you tell a good tale. Let me end with the most incred­i­ble sto­ry to have tran­spired in the area.

Remnant of the original Mosque of the Turks…
Rem­nant of the orig­i­nal Mosque of the Turks…


Not far from the Rose of Heav­en — its giv­en name now, right­ly or wrong­ly — at the cor­ner of Rue Sainte and Rue de la Paix, and back in the 17th cen­tu­ry, once stood the Mosque of the Turks. France and the Ottoman author­i­ties who ruled over the Maghreb at the time had agreed that their mutu­al pris­on­ers should have a place of wor­ship in Mar­seille and Istan­bul. There was a Catholic chapel for the French detainees on the oth­er side of the Mediter­ranean while a mosque was installed inside the Mar­seille Arse­nal where the roy­al gal­leys were built by enslaved Mus­lims. When the arse­nal was destroyed in 1748, so was the mosque. Yet parts of it reap­peared here and there through­out the years. Vaults and pil­lars were first used to build a restau­rant in a park just above the Saint Vic­tor Abbey, Parc de la Colline Puget. When the restau­rant fold­ed in 1890, the ruins of the mosque van­ished once again. They were appar­ent­ly reused to build a house on rue Par­adis (!) but as the house was reput­ed­ly haunt­ed (again!), it was destroyed in the 1920s. What remained of the mosque was pur­chased by a rich indus­tri­al­ist, Paul Rou­vière. He used the ves­tiges to build a mau­soleum for his chil­dren, who drowned while swim­ming off the shore of Ban­dol in 1927. The build­ing is still stand­ing out­side of his now demol­ished house, in a pub­lic park known as Parc Val­belle, not far from Pra­do beach. It is offi­cial­ly list­ed by the French Cul­ture Min­istry as “the for­mer Mosque of the Turks.” If so, it would prob­a­bly be the old­est mosque in West­ern Europe! Yet it stands in an almost emp­ty park, with old ladies and their dog­gies as its only faith­ful. Now is it real­ly the Mosque of the Turks? Maybe. Maybe not. Who cares?


A few years ago, as I was walk­ing past the Rose of Heav­en in Mar­seille, I noticed that a poster with a phone num­ber on it had been pinned to one of the win­dows. FOR SALE. I hur­ried­ly called the num­ber to find out what it was about. An old lady replied to my call and gave me a price I actu­al­ly could have afford­ed. “Oh, but you’re very unlucky. The house was sold only an hour ago,” she said.

I too near­ly lived in the Rose of Heaven.


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