A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: MadameBallam

Marseille is a very dangerous place...

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.

Posted by MadameBallam 15:10 Archived in France Comments (0)

Montauban Marathon Monday

WAKE UP! WAKE UP NOW! It is time to say goodbye.

sunny 20 °C

We set the alarm, but there was no need. Well before the time to wake up we were awoken by drums and horns. It was the Montauban marathon including a half and a 10k. We were up earlier than we wanted, then off to mass on time. Afterwards we went to a home stay parent's place for lunch. Both parents are doctors. Specialists, actually. And their home was very nice, as were they. We had a great visit, a wonderful lunch, and then Corinne and I headed back to town in the inferno of direct sunlight. We hunted down part of an art exhibition that is usually housed at the art gallery, but the art gallery is closed for the next 3 years for renovations. That is not a typo. Three years to renovate. So they have moved the exhibits to other venues, one of which we went to.

Afterwards we sat in the square that is Place Nationale and had beer and wine (in separate glasses of course) as the sun slowly set. The shadows relieved us of the fiery heat which then subjected us to the contrast of the cool evening breeze. I believe there would be more affluent bar owners if the servers came back and asked you if you wanted another drink. We did manage a second round but were not successful in securing the bill, so up to the bar we went and just like magic our server appeared to tell the barman our total. Luckily tips are not expected, so I don't feel bad.

We eventually had a nice meal at the home stay parent's restaurant where a very nice English speaking gentleman offered to help me with the menu. Of course, with Corinne there I didn't need help, but Corinne was reading the menu first before helping me, so he thought he might lend a hand. As it turned out, he was from McGill in Montreal, and he was doing a ProD session at the same school we were attending! We had an interesting conversation and learned about his area of specialty and his children. Caitlin Howden is her name and she was with Second City in Toronto. Check her out on YouTube. Quite funny.

Monday found us at the school attending classes. I was in an English science class with a very nice teacher who had just finished the half marathon the day before. We shared ideas, and in one of his classes I got to interview a student on their prepared presentation about the Beatles. Juxtaposition of topics you might ask? Students in France all have to write a national exam which can as long as 4 hours and of which some is in a presentation style if they are learning English. So, all students practice, and teachers provide opportunities for them to practice. It is very interesting to see how the national exams influence how teachers teach, which is expected since student results reflect back upon the teacher and the school, much like the Fraser Institute reports in BC back when provincial exams were in fashion.

Lunch here is an experience. I explained earlier the fancy restaurant run by the vocational school. This is the school cafeteria which serves students and teachers, but the teachers have their own private room. A salad bar which, I should have known, was not the only part of the meal although I ate like it was. The hot entrée was in another part of the room which I failed to notice, but still managed to help myself to shepherd's pie and green beans. There was also a fish dish, but the beef called to me. It was very good.

In the afternoon, with Berta as our guide, we toured the elementary school near Place Nationale. The original school building was built in the 1600s. It is still there but has been added onto since then. The school with all its twists and turns, tiny hallways, and steep staircases makes one understand the inspiration behind Hogwarts.

We said goodbye to Berta, and later on, we said goodbye to Marcy.

We both feel blessed to have met such wonderful people on this trip. It is hard to leave, but our time here is running short and Marseille awaits. No schools there, just some downtime. It has been a very busy week. We are looking forward to what Marseille has to offer us.

Posted by MadameBallam 09:41 Archived in France Comments (0)

Carcassonne and Montauban

And the great cream puff disaster

From Avignon we drove to Carcassonne, a hilltop town in southern France’s Languedoc area. It is famous for its medieval citadel, La Cité, with numerous watchtowers and double-walled fortifications. The first walls were built in Gallo-Roman times, with major additions made in the 13th and 14th centuries. It was first built by the Romans about 100BC but later taken by the Visigoths, and was built up to protect the people from the French. The Visigoths had mastered Roman construction and added on in the Roman style, a problem for modern archeologists trying to date parts of the structures. Well worth the visit with beautiful views of the Pyrenees and surrounding countryside. You need several hours to do an audio tour and then walk the castle walls. There is a church to visit as well after you exit the castle, and lots of shops and restaurants to keep you busy and make your wallet lighter.

From there we drove to Montauban and our temporary place of residence at Place Nationale. Well, not quite. We got close to our flat, but you can't drive in the Place Nationale no matter what Google maps says, that is unless you have a remote control to lower the post blocking the road. So we found a place to park and rattled our suitcases along cobblestone roads in search of our flat. It was quite the task in a maze of streets and narrow alleyways. Corinne had plugged in the destination into Google and we followed a rather circuitous route for a while until I realized she had us following driving directions, not walking directions. A quick correction and voila! We found where we needed to go, met the owners of the flat, and settled in. What a cool place it is. High ceilings, plaster walls, large rooms, tile floors. Thank you Airbnb!

The fun began after the owners of the flat helped us get free parking. We drove them to the free parking lot where they had parked and then Corinne and I walked back to Place Nationale and stood there wondering exactly which door was our flat. We wandered around for several minutes going from corner to corner of the square looking for the door. Eventually we found it and had a good laugh about it. We have laughed several more times since too. Not a lot of landmarks to go by when it all looks the same. It is especially difficult at night, but we've managed.

We met Marcy, one of the people who helped organize the French exchange students. She brought us chocolatines, or pain au chocolat, and walked us around the centre of Montauban showing us some of the sights. A short walk (or so Marcy thought... 30 minutes later) got us to the school from which 5 students attended our school in February and now where 5 of our students are attending. We entered the school and were met by all 10 of the students previously mentioned. What a nice welcome. And the welcome got even better. After a meeting with the international liaison and the vocational principal, we were escorted to the vocational school dining room. Young teens who have chosen a path in food services awaited us dressed in suits and ties, some looking as young as 12. How professional they were. We were escorted to our table and one of the students, the one that drew the short straw I assume, was our waiter for the luncheon. This meal was a special meal which included not one, not two, but three directors of the school, head teachers, and the special Canadian guests, one of whom didn't speak French. "Does that mean I have to serve in English?" short straw asked, deer in the headlight expression on his face. A big sigh of relief to know he only had to respond to me in English, a task I did not make arduous for him.

First up, of course, was a drink. These kids served us a rum drink and, later on, wine!
The meal was very good, and very long. The main meal had all the student servers march out single file, one by one surrounding our table in a counterclockwise fashion, and place a teardrop shaped plate with a silver dome covering the plate's contents in front of each of the guests. In a semi-choreographed manner, on the count of three all the domes were removed to reveal our meal. It was quite the show. The meal was very good as was the wine. Dessert of either pear and ice cream or 3 cream puffs was served. Our poor server accidentally spilled a plate of cream puffs at the table right on top of one of the director's clothes and purse. She was off making a phone call, luckily, but her purse, scarf, and seat wore the whipped cream. He was so embarrassed but handled himself well during the cleanup. The director, when she returned, was very good natured about the whole thing and tried her best to make the young lad feel better.

After lunch we met with the religious director and then a head English teacher gave us a tour of this very large school. 1500 students attend from 8 AM to as late as 6 pm, just like most schools in France!

After the tour Berta, the English teacher, drove us home due to the unfortunate change in the weather. Rain. Wind. Just like home.

Friday night all the home stay families met us at a restaurant belonging to one of the families and we had a lovely meal. Kids all in one area, adults in another. One of the few English speaking people sat beside me. Another short straw draw? The evening was fabulous and for dessert, gifts were again presented to Corinne, some from the students, some from the parents. Marcy was also presented with a gift from the parents; an olive tree.

The experience of both students and parents has been exceptional. Great kids came to Canada, great kids came to France. The matchup of students was done well. A lot of time and effort on both Marcy's and Corinne's part has resulted in lifelong treasured memories and perhaps (hopefully), friendships.

Saturday was a little downtime for us. We slept in, a rest much needed. We went out for a bit of shopping by noon in a light drizzle only to exit a shop in the sun. We had a lovely dinner at Marcy's, a good 20 minutes out of town on highways and then narrow country roads. Watch out for deer and wild boar! Marcy's 3 children were very friendly and family is obviously very important in France. The SARHS student staying with the family is having a great time. Google maps got us back to Montauban and Corinne's exceptional navigation skills helped us find the free parking lot we left hours earlier. Must remember to save places in Google maps.

It is well after midnight and time for bed. There is a marathon running through the city tomorrow which should be interesting, and we are meeting another home stay family for mass at 11 AM. Till next time.

Posted by MadameBallam 17:30 Archived in France Comments (0)

Av Igg Non

Thank you Google


Hello Avignon

We made it to Avignon in a roundabout way. That's a joke. Get it? It is interesting to be driving down a highway and encountering a roundabout that you slow down for and may have to stop at, but mostly traffic flowed quickly. I think I like roundabouts. Once you get the hang of them, they really do work.

We were lucky enough to stay with a teacher from Lycée Louis Pasteur, the school we had students from back in November. The teacher has a flat she and her husband rent out in the summer, so it was available and they let us stay there. Anne Marie and Jean Claude were the ultimate hosts and provided us the place to stay, a ride into town to have dinner (mentioned later) and a ride home after the dinner, a wonderful meal, and just great company. Jean Claude didn't speak English, and I speak no French, but Corinne and Anne Marie navigated between the two languages seamlessly to keep all in the conversation.

We visited Lycée Louis Pasteur where both Corinne and I attended classes as observers. It is hard to follow a physics lesson in a language you don't understand. I understood about every 50th word, not enough to get a sense of what he was saying, but the kids were attentive, worked well, and seemed to know what they were doing using potential and kinetic energy equations. The Chemistry class, in French, was just as difficult for me, the students just as attentive but not all as sure of what to do during the KMmO3 dilution lab. These two teachers were exceptionally empathetic and helpful asking probing questions (I think) and helping students to understand. I also attended a math class in English, but there was a lot of French trying to explain probability terms. I was asked to read some passages so students could hear proper pronunciation. It is a difficult job to teach two subjects at the same time.
Corinne attended classes as well, including Philosophy (studying Lord of the Flies), Economics, and French and had a similar experience as I did. We both attended a business class, in English, and engaged students in perceptions we had of each other's culture.
Lycée Louis Pasteur is a private school, but tuition is only about €1000. Teachers are paid for by the government as are public school teachers. The school itself was built in the 60s and you can tell. The technology was as good as at SARHS, but we didn't experience anything out of the ordinary during our very short visit.
Five students from France who attended our school last November invited Corinne for dinner at a very cute restaurant. They wanted to thank her for all her hard work, which they did by presenting her with a card and gifts. They are so sweet. We had a wonderful time with them. I was exhausted after 2 hours of trying to catch snippets of the conversation en français, but they let me in on some of the more juicier parts of the conversation. We were lucky to have had these lovely young women attend our school, and it is too bad that there were none of our students who wanted to go on that exchange back with them at that time.
It is interesting to learn how students handle stress. In Canada students may act out, become depressed, or withdraw. In France it is common for students to experience panic attacks amongst those other more common symptoms. It is also interesting to greet students with a "bise", or in Avignon, three (to the right, then left, then right again). It was uncomfortable for me, a male teacher, to partake in this custom, but after some rumination it was easier. Each area has a different number of 'bise', and it varies whether it is a formal or friendly greeting. Gendre matters not. Males greet males in the same manner, but I have yet to experience that.

Sadly time marches on and we had to say goodbye to Anne Marie, Jean Claude, and Avignon. Google maps got us to our next destination albeit with phonetic pronunciations of the French names. "Turn right on All ee Con Sol Dup You Why and continue towards Place (know it should be said plass) do General Lock Lerz). What a riot!
If you get to visit France, Avignon is highly recommended. It is, like all the cities we have visited here, beautiful.

Posted by MadameBallam 11:08 Archived in France Comments (0)

Too much to do...

Not enough time to write

sunny 20 °C

Good bye St. Rémy
We had our usual French breakfast of chocolate cereal (think chocolate, not sugar), meats, cheeses, dried fruit, yoghurt, and, of course, bread. The French know how to make bread, and the butter is to die for. The little 2 star hotel is a place I would return to. Hotel l'Armendiere has a pool open in the summer, and lots of outside seating. 2 stars in France is an acceptable level of hotel and we certainly didn't have any complaints. They might have complained about me, had they known, because I accidentally knocked out all the lights on the 2nd floor in the hotel. Don't ask. Down one piece of electronics.

Our day in St. Rémy was warm and pleasant. Shops tend not to open on Mondays, so I didn't have to wait for Corinne outside of clothes/shoe shops. We did sample some olive oil though, and there certainly are incredible differences.

Vincent Van Gough lived in St. Rémy for a spell and some of his iconic work is from the town and surrounding area. We saw some of the places he painted, very different today, but interesting to see nonetheless. Time was of the essence and so we had to hit the road to get to Les Baux.
Les Baux is an ancient fortress city in the mountains overlooking plains. You could spot a Moore attack for miles. Various war engines could hurdle rocks or flaming substances quite the distance to thwart attacks, or, alternatively knock down fortress walls. This was a fascinating place to visit, one we will return to with students.
A quick bite to eat and a short walk to the next site brought us to a spectacle, the like of which I have never experienced. Carrières de Lumières was a visual/auditory extravaganza. Picture a giant cavern with smooth, flat walls and pillars of limestone with boulders sticking out here and there, and parts tapering off into dead ended caves. Now add a whole bunch of projectors and speakers, project digital artwork of well known paintings, or silent movies, onto any available surface (walls, floor, ceilings) and add music. Unbelievable. www.carrieres-lumieres.com. Check it out. The images on the website are from other exhibits but it will give you an idea of the scale of the place and projections. Best part for me: Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven, live as the last presentation. Animated butterflies were very cool. All images are from paintings, so the animation is slightly Gillianesque, as in Terry Gillian of Monty Python fame. Loved it. Till next time...

Posted by MadameBallam 14:38 Archived in France Comments (0)

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