Beauty and the beast, it ain't pretty, it just looks that way!
Leaving Montauban we took an N highway, not an A freeway with tolls. Beautiful countryside with rolling green fields, cattle farms, and old stone buildings from who knows when. We drove through many little towns and villages admiring the architecture and scenery until we hit the A75. Then the tolls started but the beauty didn't end. We crossed the Viaduct de Millau. What an impressive bridge. Corinne shows students a timelapse video of its construction, but seeing it in person is something else. There is a rest stop just before it so we stopped and took pictures of this beautiful behemoth bridge. Driving over it is not a pleasure for the driver because you cannot look around. Passengers, on the other hand, are afforded magnificent views.
We made the airport thanks to (or in spite of) Google maps phonetic pronunciations. Even though we dropped the car off well over an hour late they did not charge us extra, not like my experience last summer with a Budget cube van in Vancouver, but I digress. We will see if the €750 deposit gets removed from my Visa. Then I will say thank you Hertz.
A blue bus took us from the airport to the bus station in about 25 minutes, €13.40 return/person. We checked into the Hôtel St. Louis after a 15 minute walk, a walk that made us realize we were no longer in Kansas! What a contrast of cleanliness and culture to the previous two cities we stayed in. Apparently Marseille is a dangerous city, a reputation earned from a past of mafia and drug smuggling. We had no problem, and in fact saw no problems even late at night wandering the streets, although late at night new street inhabitants appeared. Rats. Large rats. Rats running from building to building, garbage pile to garbage pile. We thought there was a garbage strike. Nope. That's just the way it is. Large piles of garbage on sidewalks and on the street. Garbage containers like smaller versions our BFI bins filled, overflowing, and surrounded by at least another load of garbage. This was not what we expected. You wouldn't expect to have to step into the street because of a big pile of rubbish. Don't get me wrong, this was not in the tourist area where all the restaurants are, nor in the high end shopping area. But wander a block up from the harbour, or even worse a few blocks in where the locals live, especially on the other side of the tram (literally on the other side of the tracks) and the world changed.
The trash really is a distraction from the potpourri of cultures living together in the narrow mazes of roads and alleys. Again, thank you Google maps. Despite the piles of trash there are treasures to be found here. Fresh fruit and vegetables, dried goods, wares and other life essentials all for sale amongst Kebab shops, Subway (sadly yes, there are NA fast food chains here. But there are also European chains too), and mom and pop operations. Closer to the harbour the restaurants get fancier and slightly more expensive. Along the street around the harbour are numerous bars and restaurants where you can sit outside and enjoy the surrounding beauty. And beautiful it is with a wide esplanade and a lot of yachts, very nice yachts. The harbour area hides well the truth of the city beyond. Here it is clean and upscale. We ate dinner on a side street at a very popular restaurant. Corinne and I shared a salad and lamb confit. Wonderful, and plenty of food for us both with the olives and bread. Of course dessert and coffee (decaf), as we have enjoyed with every dinner. Then it was time for bed.
In the morning you can go to the harbour and watch the fishermen offload their catch and sell them to restaurant owners and locals alike. Later on it becomes more of a tourist attraction where fishermen hold up squirming sea life for photo opportunities. DSLRs in hand, tourist aim for the perfect photograph of this unique everyday occurrence. Some of the vendors seem to truly enjoy engaging with the tourists, others not so much.
We booked a "free" walking tour of the old City called Free Walking Tour of Marseille (this is not a paid ad) and met down in the harbour area. There were 7 of us on the tour, and we learned about the fascinating history of the old port. Marseille is a city of destruction and regeneration. Parts of the city have been torn down, blown up, or literally turned around on its base. But after several thousands of years, change is to be expected. The guide, Ezequiel, was friendly, informative, and helpful; well worth the tip at the end of the tour. I was a little disappointed by what some others chose to tip considering that the tour was several hours long. Although professional tour guides cost more and might be able to take you into some of the places we walked by, Eze showed us the places we could visit, told us of their entry fees, and suggested what to look for when shopping for some of the more sought after touristy items. He was a history buff and regaled us with tidbits of Marseille's past. I would recommend the free tour to get a sense of the place so you could plan some of your visit with expert information at hand. After the tour Eze answered questions about buses, places to eat, etc. and then Corinne and I were off to eat.
We headed back to the Panier for lunch, and were seated at a restaurant where we were left alone. After the people beside us were seated and drink orders taken, we moved 6m across the small plaza to another place we were served water immediately, followed by very attentive service (for France) and the meals were fabulous. Roasted red pepper salad with anchovies and black olives. Thin crust pizza with tomato, black olives and anchovy. So good. It tastes even better when eaten outside in the sun. And then a capoeira demonstration along with drumming and some pretty amazing gymnastic jumps and leaps by a small group of street performers. Well worth the Euros as a tip for their effort, especially in the hot sun. You could tell by the sweat running down their black, chiseled features that they were working hard and in good shape. All this done on a stone patio. The impact on their bodies upon landing their jumps must be enormous. A while later some street musicians showed up. They looked like a ragtag down-and-out trio, but their musicianship was outstanding. Unfortunately we were finished and needed to move on, so we entered deeper into the Panier with the music echoing down the alley after us.
The Panier offers local wares for tourists and is off the beaten path, slightly. Tourism shops abound, but they are small and the service is friendly. Well worth the hike up to the old city to check out this area. A lot of opportunities to lighten the pocketbook await, and if anyone bets you to find the 13 corners at "13 corners", smile and tell them that there are not 13 corners. You win!
After a well deserved nap, and definitely feeling lighter, we headed up to Notre Dame de la Garde, a great workout of a hike. Take water. Of course you can always catch the No. 60 bus, or take a taxi, but you will miss some interesting sites. It certainly will work off some cheese and bread if you decide to walk. No matter how you get there, GO!
What a view. From here, on a clear day, you can see for days in every direction. You can see the entire city and les Calanques and Ile d'if with Château d'If, "home" of the count of Monte Cristo. High on top of a hill this once fortress built to watch for invading armies has been transformed into an amazingly elegant church. The gold leaf and abundant artwork (more on that in a bit) inside the main chapel is a wonder to behold. And if you are lucky enough to enter just as mass starts, as we did, you get to enjoy a service in French offered by a priest and a nun. The nun had a beautiful singing voice which sounded even more amazing in this church as it resonated every perfectly sung note.
Hanging from the ceiling are long chords with model boats attached, 6 or more per chord hanging there along the sides of the main archway. Models of old wooden ships, and, strangely, one aeroplane, amphibious of course. There is a saying in Marseille that if you want to learn to pray, go to sea. And for centuries sailors in peril have prayed to la Bonne Mère, the golden statue atop the Basilica of Notre Dame de la Gardé. If they survive, they present an offering of thanks to Our Lady in the form of a model or a painting of their ship. There are a lot of paintings.
After mass we bypassed the museum and visited the crypt before descending back into the hustle and bustle that is Marseille. What a contrast from the view up above. Here tall buildings, hundreds of years old, block one's view, and only the constant place-signs pointing us in the correct direction allowed us to get home efficiently.
Of course it isn't hard to figure out where the water is; just walk down hill. On the walk up we followed the signs too, and passed a park with a statue welcoming visitors. We meant to stop there on our descent but forgot. Sad face emoticon goes here, but I don't like them, so... If you decide to walk up, the park looks to be well worth the stop, and perhaps a bit of respite.
We had been meaning to go out for kebabs since arriving in France, and so that night we did. There are plenty of opportunities for kebabs, but none that also served wine. Funny that. We had a good laugh at our ignorance and entered a local establishment. We were disappointed by the food. Not that it was bad, but because it wasn't anything special. Meat in a bread like pita with some lettuce and tomatoes, along with freshly cooked fries. We had heard so much about kebabs from Corinne's daughter we had high expectations. I am certain we didn't do it properly. The Muslim families eating there were eating different food than we were. Next time we will try something else. So much for our anniversary dinner! We are not sorry for the experience though. Where else would you order 7-Up and get it Mojito flavoured? Strange mint flavour.
We returned to our hotel to have a drink in the bar, pastis, which we had heard about a lot. It is apparently a local favourite, especially in the heat. We each enjoyed the one recommended by our server, a Londoner who has been in Marseille for a decade. He is half French (mom), half Welsh. We finished and it was time for sleep. We have to be up early to catch a flight. Despite paper-thin walls in the hotel, all was quiet tonight (as was last night). There is never enough sleep when you have to awake before 6 AM. Even less sleep when someone forgets you are still in France and phones you 4 AM our time. Oops up side the head. Nonetheless, we are winging our way home as I type. Reality check awaits.