Eleven years ago my first trip into France was a fantastic voyage by air on a shuttle flight from London on a brilliant June day. I watched from my window seat as the soaring 737 cleared the British coast far above the blue water and white caps of the English Channel. As the plane flew over the Norman coast and made its way toward Paris I was enthralled by every view. A decade later I entered France for the second time in my life snoring heavily as the train from Barcelona crossed the border in the Pyrennees and stopped suddenly. I was awoken by two French customs officers asking for my passport. Apparently they found my snoozing quite amusing as I cleared the cobwebs from my head and handed them my rumpled blue passport. They glanced over the picture and then looked at my face before moving on without saying anything. When they left the train, it resumed its journey along the Mediterranean coast. I changed trains in Montpellier, crossing sunlit tracks with weeds growing up between the ties. After climbing into a crowded smoking car, I grabbed a window seat in a train that sped toward Marseille, my destination. Each stop along the journey was a name familiar in my memory. Arles, the sometime home of Vincent Van Gogh, Nimes, the home of the Maison Carrees. At last the train reached Marseille, where I disembarked.
Marseille has always held a strong place in my imagination. Marseille has held an integral place in history. It was beseiged by Julius Caesar during the Roman Civil War. Marseille is the setting for much of the Count of Monte Cristo, the city through which a flood of human beings passed in flight from the Nazis after the fall of Paris. Marseille is the second largest city in France and the largest port. I had been anticipating my stay in Marseille since my arrival in Europe.
I set out from the Saint-Charles train station perched atop a hill overlooking much of the town with a great deal of uncertainty. For the first time I entered a city without having booked a place to stay. My plan was to make my way to the old part of town, called Vieux Port, and find accomodations among the discount hotels. First I needed to find my way there. I borded a bus and after asking my way in broken French, I was able to get directions. I waited for the bus’ final destination, which was immediately adjacent to the Marselle tourist information center. In the info center I obtained a list of hotels and proceeded to check out the prices and vacancies of all the one star hotels. I struck paydirt after an hour of searching when a vancancy opened up at the New Hotel Select, located near La Canabiere, the central boulevard which led downtown to the port. The hotel room was more expensive than I had planned but it was a private room, which was a nice change after a month with little to no privacy and it had a top of the line air conditioning unit, a blessed relief from the nonstop European heat and humidity.
After a shower and long nap in my room I set out at night for to get some dinner and a first glimpse at the Marseille night scene. As the sun set and dusk crept across the clear sky I came to the horseshoe shaped harbor of Vieux Port. The masts of hundreds of sailboats dotted the harbor. The northern end of the harbor is essentially the heart of the city. Two massive 17th century forts built from heavy stone by order of Louis XIV guard the mouth of the harbor. At night these forts are brilliantly lit and eye catching for anyone wandering around the port. On the western side of the harbor stand many of Marseilles most exclusive and beautiful hotels and mansions. The eastern shore, meanwhile, is home to many of the cities best bars, restuarants and clubs. Atop the hills of eastern Marseille also sits the Cathedral of Notre Dame de la Gard, a brilliantly illuminated church which presides over the whole town. I wandered around to the eastern shore where I stopped to grab a cup of tea and a hookah of rasberry flavored tobacco at a wonderful arab tea house.
As I sat outside, enjoying the night air and drinking a cup of sweet arab tea in which I was surprised to find pine nuts, I struck up a conversation with a young Tunisian couple sitting next to me. I love to speak French, though I am not very good at it. I studied French for eight years in high school and college but lost much of my French vocabulary from lack of use. The couple were very much intrigued to find an American in France who could speak the language at all. I found that they were engaged and saving up money to be married. I told them that I had a girlfriend in the United States who was waiting for me to come home. They taught me the French word for girlfriend (copine), which I had not learned in class. They politely corrected my speech at times and advised me on some sights which they insisted I had to take in. When they finished their tea and left, I sat alone for some minutes smoking my hookah before paying my bill to find a cool place to hang out.
The first bar that I came to became a place that I would return night after night because I enjoyed it so much. It was an Irish Pub on the shores of the harbor in which they played an endless stream of American 80’s pop hits. I soon found the French have a soft spot for Michael Jackson, whose music was played in heavy rotation. The bar was extremely popular with locals, with whom I was able to converse in loud broken French over the music. I stayed for a few hours and danced before returning home on foot, exhausted, to get a good night’s sleep.
On the morrow my first stop was to the eastern outpost of the French fortresses that guard the harbor. In my research of Marseille I learned that the city is much older than most of France. The city was established by the ancient Greeks around 600 B.C. and was conquered by the ancient Romans, who referred to it as Massallia. The town enjoyed a rich history of trade with many European nations, a status which led to its incredibly diverse ethnic makeup and its prominence as the capital of Provence. The people of Marseille are fiercely independent and have never considered themselves as merely French subjects but rather as Marseillaise. For this reason, Louis XIV built his forts not only to guard the city against invasion but also as a symbol of royal power to the ever rebellious citizens. The forts command the harbor; their turrets offer a fantastic vantage point for viewing the harbor. As I looked out on the Mediterranean Sea I as impressed by the rocky coast which is dotted with islands, the most famous of which is the Isle D’If, site of the Chateau D’If, the prison immortalized by the Count of Monte Cristo.
After checking out the fort my next stop was to make the long climb to Notre Dame de la Gard. The streets wound up through a beautiful neighborhood of provencale shops and homes. As I reached the base of hill I marvelled at the long climb of stairs that led up to the cathedral. Notre Dame de la Gard sits at over 500 feet above the port and is the highest point in the city. Upon reaching the top I had to take several minutes to regain my breath. The cathedral was built during the 19th century in a byzantine style of architecture. Its bright white and grey striped exterior is a marked contrast to the dark gothic cathedrals which were predominant throughout my travels in Europe. The cathedral’s main nave, chapels and crypt were very interesting and beautiful but the view from every spot on the hill was absolutely stunning. To the south the isles and Mediterranean Sea shone forth in the summer sun. To the west the city spread out below while the north and east were dominated by rugged hills. I took many pictures on the hill top which are the best photos that I took in Marseille. After my travels that day I was exhausted and took it easy the rest of that day, enjoying an early French dinner and a few hours barhopping.
On my last day in Marseille I woke early and immediately proceeded to the harbor where I bought a ferry ticket to Isle D’If and boarded the small ferry. The day was once again brilliant and I sat in the bow where I could enjoy the sea air. The ride took about 20 minutes during which I watched the small scrap of island grow larger and larger. As we approached for docking at last the size of the tower and walls of the prison were of menacing proportions. I have never seen Alcatraz but 5 minutes on Isle D’If made it abundantly clear to me that one of the chief torments of that island must have been its proximity to San Francisco. Marseille was so close. Notre Dame de la Gard was clearly visible in detail from the rocky coast of Isle D’If. Yet, much like Alcatraz, the rocks and treacherous seas surrounding the island would make any attempt to swim to the mainland a death sentence.
I entered the prison of the Chateau D’If, a squat fortress of sand stone built during the 16th century as a defence to the city. It was used chiefly as a deterrent and never had to fend off an actual attack. During the protestant reformation the island became a place to deposit religious and political prisoners, a use for which it earned its fame as a feared prison in French penal system. During the 19th century Alexandre Dumas made the island immortal as the setting for Edmund Dantes 14 year imprisonment. The hero famously escaped the prison by hiding in the burial sack of a dead prisoner that was thrown from the walls. Dantes is rescued from certain death by smugglers before going on to find his treasure and seeking his revenge.
Inside the sun baked fortress there are three tiers of cells. The upper story housed wealthier prisoners who payed for the luxury of larger cells and windows that looked out on the sea. Down below are smaller cells of more modest accommodations while below ground stand the dungeon cells which have no windows and are torturously small. After walking around the prison and looking at graffitti on its walls that span centuries I left the chateau to wander around the island. The rest of the island is home to dozens of species of seabirds. After an hour had passed I caught the ferry back to the mainland.
When the ferry docked I jumped out and decided to head straight for the beach. There are very few beaches in Marseille because the coast is so rocky. The beaches are located on the outskirts of town on the southeastern slopes of cliffs of the east side of the city. I walked through a very luxurious neighborhood where there were sumptuous hotels and mansions. The beaches were not crowded and the water was warm so I spent several hours getting sun and swimming. This was an incredibly relaxing finish to my sightseeing in Marseille.
That evening was my last in Marseille. I had purchased my train ticket to Nice and had booked accomodations at a hostel for the following day so I could leisurely wander the city with no worries. The streets were filled with people who wandered around Vieux Port browsing the wares of merchants and enjoying the summer night and sea breeze. A group of French tourists stopped me to ask where they could find a cool place to hang out and I was happy to point them towards the bars on the eastern shore of the harbor. That may have been one of my proudest moments in Europe, being mistaken by the French in one of their own cities as a local. While my stay in Marseille was short, it is indellibly imprinted in my memory as one of my favorite destinations.