Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Coast of Marseille

“I sat there on the coast of Marseille
My thoughts came down like wind through my hands.
How good it’d be to see you again.
How good it’d be to feel that way again ”

Jimmy Buffett said it best. The coast of Marseille is a magical place that never leaves you even after you leave it. My laptop has two desktops (One Mac & One Windows) both have pictures of the coast of Marseille. Everyday I dream of going back.

My daughter and I arrived there in the story weather, the last days of October. We saw a the sun just poking it’s firey sunset out under the gray clouds on the horizon as we rose up out of the Metro the night we arrived and saw bit of blue sky for a few minutes one day out to sea. Other than that it was a dark and stormy time full of adventure and mystery.

We got there on a Thursday night and after finding our hotel in a somewhat shady part of town, across from the Armourie (gun store) we got settled and walked back to the Vieux Port (Harbor) .

Marseille, being a port town on the Mediterranean was not like any other part of France I had visited. Known as “The Cutthroat of France” it is a rough and tumble town that is also a seductress of light and energy.

The port is a horseshoe, lively at all times with gaily lit restaurants specializing in bouillabaisse and the catch of the day. Most restaurants have a “Prix Fixe” menu, which means fixed price. You have several choices in each category to make up a dinner. An appetizer, entre and dessert. There are usually several price levels and the higher the price the better the choices. They’re usually a screaming deal but they make it up with the wine. You can’t get wine by the glass. Have to buy the whole bottle and it is usually about twice as much as the whole meal. I ordered something that I thought was bouillabaisse and realized after the waiter left that it might be something cooked in bouillabaisse. So I got to say the first of the three things you don’t want to find yourself saying in Marseille. ‘I have no idea what I just ordered.” Out came a large fish. The whole fish. Cooked in ..yep..bouillabaisse broth. It was intimidating with it’s bulgy eyes but really quite yummy…and boney.

We got in pretty late so after a stroll and dinner we made our way back to the hotel and went to bed. Somewhere around 3:30am we kept hearing this SOUND and a scrambling kind of ruckus. Finally I realized it was not my daughter’s errant alarm clock that went off at random times during our trip. I got to say the second thing you don’t’ want to be saying in Marseille. “Is that the FIRE ALARM?” It was the was!…It turned out the night clerk was trying to sneak a smoke and set off the alarm. After that adventured quieted, we got settled back in and back to sleep. About 7:00am the HORRIBLE noise started. CRASHING and well, it sounded like the building 10ft away was being torn down. It was. They were throwing large windows out the 7th story to the ground right next to us. Time to get up.

A rainy day in a port town is still lovely and smells like ocean. Wandering back down to the port we found a café on the water with a typical French breakfast, chocolate croissant, juice and coffee. Of course the chocolate croissant fell from heaven onto my plate.

Marseille is a hill town where everything eventually migrates down to the water. There are these cool little tourist trains that go all around town and hit the highlights. They also give you a great idea of what you want to go back and see. One goes uphill to Notre Dame Du Guard, the cathedral on the hill with the giant golden Mary on top (Every major city in France has one. Some holding the baby and some not.) and a spectacular 360 degree view of the city below.

The other train goes around the old town and the port. In the old town there is a basilica (there can only be one cathedral in every town) nicknamed ‘The Pajama” because it is made with brown and white stone and it is HUGE and obnoxiously stripped. Butted up against it is the ancient (time?) church where Catherine of Medici and Henry the? Were married.. It is in serious decline and is being propped up on most fronts. It is very plain but for it’s history, holds a mystery of it’s own. In it’s time it had to be the best there was to offer.

By the time we got to Marseille we were well versed in all forms of public transportation so we walked where we wanted to and got on and off trams, city buses, tourist trains and even took a boat.

We fell in love with Longchamps (pictures). The gift to Napoleon and Josphine is wondrous, it’s placement is strange. Located in a common are of the city you don’t even see it as you go towards it on the tram. You pass by average shops, some kind of industrial and then after you get off the tram and walk to the front, THERE IT IS. It’s STUNNING. Once you pass the sign that says “Please don’t fish or swim in the fountains.” (in French) and walk up the sweeping entrance, you feel like you have fallen down the rabbit hole into a different time. You expect to see the Lords and Ladies of Court sweep along the corridors on their way to dance. We went once at night and once during the day. During the day the time warp effect is more muted by the kids playing soccer in the courtyard.

Our next stop was dinner, again in what I call the restaurant district, which is lively and cheery and well priced due to massive completion. This time I did get the bulliabase. It was everything I expected and nothing was staring at me. Our next stop was the Irish pub. Irish pubs are very popular in France. This one was mostly populated by people of many nationalities who’s primary language was English. It was a rowdy, fun crowd. We stayed for a bit and then headed back to our hotel. On the way I said the third thing that caused us to do something you should not do, especially two American women alone with shopping bags in Marseille. I said.”Look up that street that looks like fun.” And we headed up, into what turned out to be the late night party area for middle eastern men who own the fish markets…… We realized pretty quickly that we were where we didn’t belong and everywhere we turned seemed to get us deeper into the mix. Finally I saw something I recognized. The GUN SHOP! We were near our hotel. WHEW. I got a thorough tongue lashing from my French friends. We retired to a peaceful night.

Our last day in Marseille was also my last full day in France as we were taking the train that night back to Paris and I would be out on the plane in the morning. It was also All Saint’s Day, a National holiday. All museums etc CLOSED. We decided the day before we would take the boat trip along the coast for the day. When we got to the port we wlked among the daily fish and flower market where the locals all shopped. It was exciting. The weather was very bad and the boat trip along the coast was not running but there was a boat that went out to the island of Friol. We took it. After the hustle and fast pace of the whole trip it was so very peaceful. Windy, but special. There was nothing much open on the island so we just walked around. We found a beautiful cove and collected seashells and beach glass. There was a lone man walking along with a baguette under his arm and a dog following behind him as he threw scraps of bread to him. The dog danced for bread. It was adorable and so very French. We took our boat back, retrieved our luggage and got on the TVG to Paris.

“When I left the coast of Marseille.
I hadn’t done what I’d come to do.
Spent all the money I saved.
And I still did not get over you.
No I still did not get over you.”

Thanks Jimmy. I get it now. I haven’t gotten over Marseille either. I wish I could close my eyes and when this plane landed I would be in France. I’m afraid though, it will be Portland.

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