The tour of the ancient village begins in Boulevard Lamartine which was one of the first roads built outside the fortified village. The moats were filled in, and the walls demolished, long before the villagers ventured to build outside. It was, in fact, only after the IIIrd Republic had been declared in 1870 that the French population began to feel secure after the problems of the previous 100 years.
The 90 minute tour passes through the Place de la Republique, where the oldest stone Marianne has stood since 1878. This Place, which has several names through the centuries, is also the site of the main village pump, and the Croix de la Mission stood here until Napoleon banned the Catholic Religion. It now has a new home alongside the church.
The Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) is one of the finest in the Midi. Together with the magnificent church and the fine chateaux it demonstrates just how wealthy the Marseillanais were. Especially by comparison with villages of a similar size.
The village is divided into four quarters by roads that originally linked the four gates. Even today each quarter has a slightly different ‘feel’, and village meetings are usually held by quarter rather than generally.
At the junction of the roads is the focal centre of the old village. Here were the small shops and family-run restaurants. The old covered market was renovated in the 1880s, and again in 2008. A magnificent old house is in the corner of the square, today it is a fine restaurant, La Table d’Emile. The old village was, of course, limited in growth potential by the fortifications. It held about 3,000 people then, and it holds 3,000 now. The rest of the nearly 8,000 population are in new and newer property built by the Etang de Thau and in sacrificed vineyards.
The narrow roads twist and turn, so that a stranger is lost in minutes. The church tower, however, is always visible and so it is not too difficult to orient oneself.
Marseillan houses are mostly back-to-back and of three stories. Back-to-back to economise on space, and three stories because the water table is only one metre down. (Marseillan, a fishing port, is - of course - at sea level.)
No house is younger than 600 years, but most have been renovated to add todays comforts. Living was pretty basic for most of the villages history, even today the ground floor of many houses has the kitchen, lounge and work room all in one. Much of life is lived outside in the streets, a very comfortable way of life given the soft Mediterranean climate.
Most houses have a pully over the top window. In days gone by these were used to take the fodder for the animals up to the top floor for storage. A chute allowed the feed to be gravity fed to the ground floor each day. Then the families would share the ground floor with the horse, today it is likely to be a motor bike!
Living was hard for the typical Marseillanais. The houses have no through ventilation, and the inner rooms are without windows. So they get extremely hot and stuffy in the long summers. Much of life is lived out of doors. Fortunately the mosquitos were eradicated in the 1960s. (This makes the Marseillan one of the few places in the Midi without mosquitoes. A major plus!)
Grouped together are the large and spacious homes of the entrepreneurs who were responsible for exploiting Marseillan’s potential. When the Canal du Midi ceased to be commercially viable, in the 1920s, the more well-to-do left. Marseillan went into a decline that was only arrested by the beginnings of the tourist ‘industry’ in the 1960s.
There has never been a shortage of pure fresh water. Drinking water flows only ten metres down so it was easy for every home to have a pump in the kitchen. There were also large pumps on street corners, of which three, deactivated, survive.
There were no drains, however, and so no sanitation. Piped water and drainage did not arrive until the late 1960s. The Marseillanais worked hard, dawn to dusk, on the water, at the port or in the vineyards. Housewives shopped twice a day because food could not be stored, and the menfolk needed two substantial meals each day. The last village quarter visited differs because it is built on a slight slope. Thus there are steps to the front doors, and some houses are at slightly odd angles. Because of the need for surface drainage there are shortcuts that do not exist in the other quarters.
Christianity arrived in the village around 100AD. Very early - a testament to the communications that existed between Marseillan and Rome. There were at one time monks and nuns from four Orders distinguished by the colour of their habits: Blue, Black, Grey and White. They had all left the village by the time it went secular in 1901.
The tour leaves the ancient village at the church square which is dominated by the great church of St. John the Baptist. Christian religion arrived in Marseillan around 100 AD and there have been a succession of churches built on the site of the pagan temple. Todays church dates from 1615 and is one of the best in the Languedoc. Far too large for a small village it is a testament to the wealth of its benefactors, and their desire to ingratiate themselves with the Bishop in Agde and the Count in Toulouse.
Its organ, altar and Virgin are listed as of historical importance. The organ, so far as can be told, was donated in the 1880s. But whether it was built in the church or brought from elsewhere is unclear. In 1100 Marseillan was co-signatory to the Charter that founded the Abbey Valmagne. Their magnificent altar, of Carrera marble, was transferred to Marseillan when the Abbey was deconsecrated after France became secular.
The splendid Virgin outdates the church, but her infant was exchanged for a toddler in unusual circumstances.