Provence & Côte d'Azur: In 1720, the deadly plague wreaked havoc on the French Riviera and nearly 300 years later, the survival of La Ciotat will be celebrated
The Great Plague of Marseille
The plague infamously hit our shores in 1720 when a boat crawling with the disease moored in Marseille. The Great Plague of Marseille was the last of the significant European outbreaks of the bubonic plague and the death of 40,000 residents out of 75,000 was a difficult toll to bear. Yet despite its stubborn and fatal infection of villages, towns and cities across the continent, La Ciotat emerged unharmed from the notorious epidemic.
The 18th century residents barricaded the gates to the town preventing the infestation of disease ridden people and goods from neighbouring communes. The city's walls acted as a barrier to the wave of destruction caused by the bubonic plague, helping them to avoid a terrible fate.
Ships destined for the port of Marseille steered clear of the ailing city and instead changed their path to La Ciotat. Here, their precious cargo was unloaded into clean and healthy hands. Replenished with food and goods devoid of the plague, including boats laden with wheat sent by the Pope, the townsfolk threw food over the walls, in an attempt to save the surrounding population from starvation.
Ever since 2002, La Ciotat has celebrated this remarkable feat with a festival that gets the whole town involved. On the 12th and 13th October, '1720 - le Spectacle Son et Lumière' will see the town come alive in a wash of colour, costumes, music and dance. The celebration will send visitors back in time to the spring of 1720. Sailors, beggars, peasants and fishermen will all tell the incredible story.
Meanwhile, the very ship that has been blamed for the plague's arrival in Marseille will have its anchor displayed in the history museum of the city. The merchant boat, the Grand St Antoine, sailed from Lebanese waters after journeying through Tripoli and plague ridden Cyprus, and docked in Marseille. Within hours, the disease infiltrated the population. As soon as graves were dug, they were filled again with thousands of victims.
The merchant ship's anchor was discovered 30 years ago in the city's port after lying unknown on the sea bed for hundreds of years. The operation to rescue this precious artefact was difficult due to the risk of damage when it met with air after years enveloped in salty sea water. Wrapped in plastic, the heavy object was sent to a laboratory in Arles where it has been treated. Now, it is ready to face the public and is planned to be on display from next year.