Au revoir Paris! :(

So today’s my last day in Paris.  My last morning in fact, and I’m taking the 12:25 train back to Amsterdam.

I’ve enjoyed my time here and I’m really sad to be leaving, but that’s life.  My assignment was for 8 months and now they’re over, so I’m going back to life as normal.  That has it’s up sides and down sides, and I’m not really sure which city I like the most, but Paris is new and shiny while I’ve been living in Amsterdam for almost 4 years now and it’s lost a little of its attraction.

There are things that I’m looking forward to doing in Amsterdam, like getting back on my bike(s) and meeting up with my friends and colleagues, but there are things that I can’t deny are better in Paris.  The food is great here, and I’m almost always impressed when I eat at a bar or restaurant, and the bread is to die for *drool*.  I love the fact that salad can be a meal here rather than some lettuce leaves on the side of the plate, and I enjoyed trying to master the language.  I can’t really say that I succeeded, but I gave it a good try.

While I’ve enjoyed learning French, much more than when I was at school and also way more than I enjoyed learning Dutch, I’m looking forward to being in a city where it’s easier to speak English.  I shouldn’t look forward to that because I should be saying that I’m looking forward to speaking Dutch again, but I can’t honestly say that I am.  I’ve forgotten almost all the Dutch that I knew 8 months ago and starting again just seems soul destroying, especially when people will respond in English anyway when they realise I’m a foreigner.

There are silly things that I like in both cities too.  I gave up trying to find concerts that were coming in Paris because there are so many concert venues that I couldn’t keep up to date with who was playing at each one.  In Amsterdam it’s much easier as I’ve been to 2 venues in the last 4 years, so I just check their websites for new tickets on sale.  My apartment in Paris has hot running water in the bathroom though, which interior designers in Amsterdam apparently think isn’t important.  In Amsterdam I have a cloakroom sink with a cold water tap, which sucks!  I also haven’t taken a flight in almost 10 months, as I can jump on a train in Paris and go anywhere in Western Europe which is ace.

I really hope I’ll be coming back in the future, hopefully for fun and also for work.  I’ve made connections with a lot of people in the office here, and I want to keep them active.  I think if I visit the office for a day I could spend most of it just chatting to people!

And that’s the last short post about Paris.  Thanks for listening to me talking rubbish. Au revoir!

Mont Saint Michel

After 13 days on the go around France, I had a day of rest last Friday.  I suppose rest is a relative term, I was back in Paris and had a lie in before I went out to do lots of little jobs that needed to be done.  I was back on the move on Saturday though on a day trip to Mont Saint Michel.

Mont Saint Michel is a rock off the coast of Normandy which used to be linked to the mainland before the land in between was eroded away.  Now it stands in the English Channel with a road linking it to the rest of Normandy, where you find a small town, a church and at the top there’s a monastery.  It lies right at the western border of Normandy with Brittany, and when you climb up you can see a river which acts as a natural delimiter between the two regions.

mont saint michel river

Brittany on the right and a carpark/Normandy on the left

I’d been told by people at work that it was an impressive sight and if I had the chance I should go and see it.  I’d tried once before when I visited Saint Malo, but public transport’s not so good out there in the off season so I didn’t manage it.  Second time lucky though as I booked a day long coach trip with a guide (of sorts).

mont saint michel mont

Ground level

It’s five hours drive from Paris, which meant an early start.  I was up at 5:30am and met up with the group at 7:15, and most of us slept until the 10 o’clock pit stop at a service station.  The people were pretty varied with absolutely no French people but there were Americans, Spaniards, Portuguese, Japanese and Taiwanese people, and probably more nationalities that I didn’t get to know about.

After the stop at the service station we were all a little more awake, and Sergei the guide started giving us some commentary about Normandy.  Seems that the areas we passed were all about cheese, apples and allied landings.  He was very enthusiastic about the cheese which he claimed was some of the best in France, and told us that as Normandy wasn’t wine country they grew apples to make cider and calvados instead which doesn’t seem like a bad trade off.

He motioned out into the fields along the motorway pointing out apple trees as we went, but as I couldn’t see any apples on them they could’ve been olive trees for all I knew.  At least the dairy cows I could see and recognise as something that might produce milk.  He wasn’t a great guide, he was just about OK, but he could speak a lot of languages.  The only thing I learned was “pica pica” which is “photo” or photo opportunity in Japanese as far as I could tell.

Anyway, we finally made it to the Mont, and it did look impressive.  We got there early and there were only three or four other coaches parked, so I headed straight up to the abbey at the top where there was no queue thankfully.  Walking around the abbey was a little dull though, as it was just an old religious building which isn’t unexpected but I was expecting something a little more spectacular.  For me the location was much more interesting than what had been built there.

mont saint michel monkey

Some bored Spaniards

Apparently the archangel Michael appeared to a bishop in the 8th century, telling him to build a church on the island, and so the abbey was created.  After visiting the abbey for an hour I still had two hours left until the coach left, so I went to investigate the island along with half of the tourists in Normandy it seemed.  In the past it was also fort complete with a nice set of ramparts that you could walk around.  There’s a small island a few hundred metres away that we were told was the English base during the Hundred Years War, but despite being so close they never managed to capture the Mont whose tall rocky sides and fortifications kept them out.

These days it’s a huge tourist trap, complete with Japanese tourists buying piles of souvenirs.  I’m not so interested in souvenirs as photos are much easier to keep, but I did have my first ice cream of the year which was a nice surprise as I was half expecting it to be pouring with rain.  Food (though not ice lollies) are something the island is famous for though, as it has a restaurant which is well known for it’s omelettes.  So well known in fact that I heard that they cost between 20 and 30 Euros. I imagine they’re much better than those that I make at home, but I can’t imagine any omelette could be worth so much.

mont saint michel street

Main street

And that’s it.  It looks good, but there’s not a whole lot to see there.  If I’d stayed at home I probably would’ve wasted my Saturday, so at least I did something.

Last stop: La Rochelle

Last stop on my mini Tour de France is La Rochelle, the town that terrorised me from the pages of my high school French textbook.  Well not really terrorised, but the main reason I know of it is from the textbooks.  I was looking for a relaxing place to end my holiday, and curiosity got the better of me as a small part of me wanted to know what it was really like.

As usual I spent yesterday morning was just orienting myself and finding the tourist information office as well as getting a good whiff of salty ocean air.  Surprisingly they can fit the whole town map onto one sheet of A4, so finding my way around wasn’t too difficult and nothing is too far away.

I’d talked to a few people about visiting La Rochelle because (as usual) I wasn’t sure what I was going to do here, and without fail every single one said to me “I hear they have a great Aquarium!”  So that was the first thing I visited yesterday morning.  It sounds childish to visit an aquarium, but it really was interesting with lots of fish and other sea creatures to see, and they cover each part of the sea or ocean separately starting at the shore and heading to the depths.

The first cool thing that you see when the door opens in front of you and you enter the aquarium is a dark 5m long tunnel with small moon jellyfish swimming all around you.  It’s very impressive.  The biggest draws were the sharks of course, and there was a huge tank where you could see them swimming without tearing chunks out of people or boats.  Second on the ‘must see’ list were the tropical fish as people, myself included, are easily attracted to pretty things with bright colours.

la rochelle aquarium

Shark watching

After spending way too long in the aquarium, I left and without an idea of what I should do next, started the city walking tour.  It’s definitely the smallest and quietest place that I’ve visited so far, but it has some charm.  It’s still got three fortified towers that were part of the city walls, and an imposing city gate.  I walked past the beach where people were picnicking on the sand, but fully clothed, no sun bathing going on.

The city hall’s quite different.  Rather than a big facade to shop the town’s strength and wealth, there’s a wall with turrets that encloses the central courtyard.  It may be a sign that the city’s been fought over many times by the French and English.  It’s a story I’ve heard in different cities as I’ve been travelling (Bordeaux was also English for a long time), but looking at it now it would be really strange if a part of present day France was actually part of Britain so probably for the best that it’s French.

I wasn’t planning to have a seafood dinner, but in the end I had oysters and salmon.  I’m still not sure what the attraction of oysters are, but I keep trying to find out.  They taste salty and kinda sweet, but other than that I don’t get any really amazing sensation from them.

la rochelle sunset

Sunset on the beach

Today I walked through the parks on the north of the town, and past an animal park near the beach where there was an enclosure of around 15 peahens among other things, which I’d bet is more than most zoos have.  They also had an enclosure with goats which had three kids playing “I’m the king of the castle” on a pile of rocks, which was very cute.

I didn’t really achieve much in the morning, so I went to the Musée du Nouveau Monde after lunch, which was a museum showing the French and in particular La Rochelle’s ties with the Americas.  They had different exhibits in different areas of the museum starting with slavery and the West Indies which covered the trade in indigo and sugar too, then the colonisation of Canada and the USA, and finally a section on the Native Americans.  It was OK, lots of reading and paintings depicting how things were in those times.

Finally I visited one of the fortified towers, the St. Nicholas tower, that had been used to defend the city in the past and housed a noble family whose father was the Captain of the tower.  His term lasted for one year and during that time he wasn’t allowed to leave the tower at all, so it served a dual purpose as military base and home.

Each of the towers had an exhibit about a different part of the cities history, but I decided just to visit the most interesting one as I didn’t have enough time to go to all three and also I didn’t think I needed to see the city from the turrets of all three.  It was nice to see the port from a height, but the old port is really pretty small and most of the boats are actually berthed further out of town.

la rochelle port

The Old Port

So a short post instead of the usual mammoth essays as I didn’t do much in the last two days, but it was nice to relax a little.

Bordeaux: From rugby to wine

Second last city of the trip was Bordeaux and before I even made it to my hotel I saw something really cool!  They’ve got a tram system that takes electricity from a third rail on the ground rather than over head wires, and the cool thing is that it (of course) doesn’t electrocute you if you walk on it.  Well I thought it was cool…

I went to bed early on Sunday night, but still ended up sleeping in on Monday.  I spent what was left of Monday morning in the Tourist Information office,  who also had a little exhibition of the history of the city which was a useful introduction.

When I left the Tourist Information office, I ran into four German girls.  One of them did all the talking, and asked me if she could ask me to do something.  Umm, well she could ask…  Next question was what nationality I was.  Before asking her third and final question, she explained that it was her birthday and that she has to complete a challenge before her friends would give her her present (at least it wasn’t a hen party!).  Feeling a little uneasy now I said OK, what’s the challenge?  Turns out she needed to have a photo taken with people of five different nationalities. *Phew* that’s no problem, photo taken and on my way again.

Unusually I didn’t visit any religious buildings today and as most museums are closed on Monday, I headed out of the centre of town to the Museum of Wine and Wine Merchants.  It’s not really related to the growing of the vines as I would see if I had visited a château, but it concentrates on the history of wine in the Bordeaux region and the trades around the production of the wine, especially that of the wine merchants who buy wine from various châteaus to blend together.

The museum is quite small, mostly taking up the cellar where wine used to be matured in the basement of a building.  That’s only two arches that are a total of 60m long, but I spent almost 2 hours reading about how the merchants work and how to identify where a wine has come from.  There was also a short explanation of the different types of grapes grown around Bordeaux and the characteristics of each one.

bordeaux wine museum

Bottles lined up in the cellar of the wine museum

There were a couple of other people visiting at the same time as me, but they appeared to be getting special treatment from the staff and I didn’t know why.  I found out later that they were interns and it was their first day on the job, one of whom was English and studying French and German.  She’d spent the last 6 months studying at a university in Germany, and was now going to work for 5 months in the museum which seemed pretty cool.  She didn’t know an lot about wine yet, but I guess she’ll need to learn quickly.

After finishing the theoretical parts of the museum there was a wine tasting too.  The white wine was quite nice, but the red wasn’t to my tastes and apparently it’s young and will improve with age.  The main aim of the tasting was to reinforce the information that was presented to us in the museum about châteaus and merchants, and the people working there were pretty knowledgeable in my novice opinion and also very helpful.

One thing that’s very noticeable in all parts of the city is that there are squares everywhere.  Some large and very grand and others are small and maybe only have a couple of benches to sit on, but you can’t walk for more than two minutes in any direction before finding another square.  It was nice to people watch a little during the afternoon even though it’s not something that I’m very good at, and seeing the locals just hanging around.

bordeaux miroir d'eau

The biggest square in the city, Place de la Bourse, reflected in the Miroir d'Eau

Today I went on a guided tour of the city organised by the Tourist Information office.  I picked up some useful facts that I wouldn’t otherwise have known, but I think that it’s better to go on it on the first day that you’re in the city as I’d already learned or seen a lot of the basic things that we covered.  Also it was two hours long, but it felt like we’d only covered a small part of the city by the end of it.

Some of the interesting facts are:

  • There’s a street in the centre called rue Maucoudinat, which in the Gascon language meant “street badly cooked” because there was an inn on the street that served terrible food
  • Airbus wings sail down the Garonne river by boat until they’re south of Bordeaux, which would be an odd thing to see.  They’re going to the Airbus factory near Toulouse
  • Many buildings in Bordeaux are made using foreign stone, as ships sailed to the city with lots of ballast before being loaded in the port, and the ballast stones were used to make buildings and monuments.
bordeaux porte cailhau

Porte Cailhau, an old gate to the city made using foreign stone

I had lunch with a guy from London who was also on the tour and afterwards tried to find something to do.  I eventually ended up at the Musée d’Aquitaine, which contains a history of the Aquitaine region from prehistory through to the present day.  I didn’t spend too much time examining all of the exhibits, especially as in the earlier times there are lots of tools and arrow heads which are only so interesting.

The Roman era and the middle ages were also covered, then a large part of the museum was dedicated to the last 300 years as the 18th century was Bordeaux’s most prosperous period, when it was one of the largest ports in Europe and the biggest trading point for goods coming from the French colonies such as coffee and sugar.  Slavery is also covered in the exhibits, and while they claim that the city wasn’t a large trading point for slaves they do admit to having made a lot of money from trading products produced by them.

By this point it was almost time to leave, but I had time again to stop for a cup of tea and chill out on one of the city’s squares.  There were a few times when there was no one else in it and it felt almost abandoned, which wasn’t exactly eerie, but is strange in the middle of a city.  The tea again had a name, but I think this time it probably had something to do with the variety of tea used as it was called Silver Dragon.  It was OK, but the most impressive thing about it was that it was served in a really nice Villeroy & Boch mug which probably cost more than 15 pots of tea, so I’m surprised that I didn’t have to leave a deposit for it.  Maybe that only happens in beer bars where people are more likely to steal the glasses.

I got to the train station early and bought dinner, then waited for the platform to be announced for my train.  So for 30 minutes I was watching a mechanical departure board clicking and clacking as trains came and went, and it gave the place a little more character than the usual electronic boards.  On the down side you have to wait until all the clacking has finished to find out if the platform has been announced or if they were just removing a train that departed from the top of the board.

So what did I think or Bordeaux?  It was nice.  A city that’s proud of it’s past as a port and of it’s region that brought money to the city.  Now that I’m trying to think or something to sum it up I’m struggling, as it wasn’t outstandingly good and it certainly wasn’t bad.  It was just a nice place to relax for a couple of days.

bordeaux column

Column in Place de la Victoire, complete with grapes

Toulouse: Rugby country

Next stop on my tour of France was Toulouse.  There were a few cities in the area that sounded interesting, but there was one thing that I wanted to do in Toulouse that made me come here rather than Montpellier or somewhere else.  At the moment I’m thinking that I should’ve stayed in Marseille though as it was the first rainy day of the holiday yesterday, thankfully today was reasonably sunny though.

I started off yesterday morning with a trip to Tourist Information and then a walk around town.  The first thing that hit me was that Spanish is definitely the second language here, everything’s in French and most things are written in Spanish, then if you’re lucky there’ll be an English translation, and it’s tough being German or Italian.  The tourist information signs around the city are all translated to Spanish, the street names are in Spanish and the station names are announced in Spanish on the métro too.  I found out later that the city was where Spanish revolutionaries escaped to when General Franco was in power, so the ties with the the country are still strong.

I made the now routine stop at one of the city’s Basilicas, Saint Sernin, which is very austere with the only thing brightening it up being a set of completely unintelligible modern art which depict scenes from Jesus’ life, allegedly.  When I left a small flea market was being set up outside, with a guy selling used bikes, another selling pots and pans, but what caught my eye in a pile of junk was a red heart shaped “Just Married” cushion, and it made me wonder who would buy someone a second hand Just Married cushion?  I didn’t hang around to find out.

The only other interesting thing that I saw before lunch was in the Notre Dame de la Daurade church which was on my wandering path.  There’s a wooden statue inside of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, but they’re black and no one’s sure why.

toulouse notre dame de la daurade

Black Virgin Mary

After lunch I saw that there were Oxfam charity collectors out on the street, and I managed to avoid one by blurting out “Je ne suis pas Français,” which worked.  Ten minutes later though another one came up to me and said something about my shoes which I didn’t understand.  I told her that I wasn’t French, but she said “Ah, but I speak English too!” Touche!  So we ended up having a chat in French about the weather, Scotland and the fact that Oxfam isn’t known in France but is in the UK.  Maybe I should’ve had a chat to the first woman too, as it was actually quite nice!

The only big thing that I did yesterday was to go and watch Stade Toulousain play rugby against Brive, which I’d bought a ticket for a couple of weeks ago.  Getting to the stadium was a bit of a trek, they have two stadiums and it was in the smaller one, not Stade Toulouse, which is further out of town.  First you take the métro out of the city, the a shuttle bus from the métro station, walk along a stony canal path then cross a pontoon bridge to make it to the stadium.

The game itself was very close, 9-12 at half time and Toulouse eventually won 23-22.  It was the first rugby game I’ve been to without anyone with me to explain what was happening, but I got on OK although there were a couple of decisions that I didn’t understand.  The atmosphere was pretty friendly between both sides too, at least until Brive scored the last points of the game through a controversial converted try near the end.

toulouse rugby

Toulouse in Black, but Brive were way stronger at the scrums

By the time I made it back to the centre of the city it was after 4 o’clock, so I went to explore the shops and squares in the centre.  The almost-pedestrianised zone at the heart of the city is actually really nice, and I was surprised that I saw the same number of small independent shops selling cool and interesting things in one day in Toulouse that I have in 7 months on Paris.  I think they’re just better hidden in Paris, but in Toulouse they’re more prominent alongside the bigger chains.

Today I had another art gallery day, starting in the morning at Les Abattoirs, which is a strange name for the modern art museum.  I suppose the original use of the buildings may have been an abattoir, but they could have named it something else.  I’ve decided to start playing a game of “guess what it is” whenever I see an untitled piece of modern art, as it should keep me amused for hours.  I need to work on my out-of-the-box thinking, but my favourite one is below.  Even titles of some pieces don’t help me at all in trying to decrypt the meaning behind them.

toulouse zombie dog

Untitled. Zombie dog?

Second stop was a museum dedicated to photography called the Château d’Eau, which is a pretty small looking place.  It used to be a water tower for the city from the year 1823, hence the name, but fell into disuse after some years.  1823 was the same year photography was developed, which is the link to why it’s now a photo gallery.  I didn’t know what their exhibition was before I got there but it turned out to be of a Lithuanian photographer that I’d never heard of, Antanas Sutkus, who took photos of life and people during Soviet times.  All of his photos were in black and white and didn’t really follow the rules of composition that I’ve been told, but I’ve also been told that the rules are meant to be broken.  Some interesting photos, some that were a bit mundane, but it was pretty good.

The city, like Lyon, was pretty quiet on Sunday.  There were people on the streets, and the bars and cafés were open as well as the museums, but as usual almost all the shops are closed with only some food shops opening.  I saw my first “statue guy” of the holiday today when I was walking around.  He wasn’t bad (well, he wasn’t moving much) but no one seemed very interested in him and walked straight past.  I felt a little sorry for him, but I did the same thing too.  He was standing on a quiet street though, and I think if he went and stood in the Place du Capitole, the main square in the city, that he might’ve found an audience.

Last thing to do before making it to the train station was to follow the Toulouse Resistance tour around the city, which points out locations in the city where resistance activity took place during World War 2.  It was good but standard stuff, like the resistance press and the organisation of the movement.  One of the differences in Toulouse was that because they’re close to the Spanish border, they helped people get into and out of France over the Pyrenees mountains which sounds like it would be a terrible journey, but better than not going.

And now I’m on the move again…

Nîmes: Rome in France

I spent today in Nîmes, which is about an hour west of Marseille by train.  When I was looking for cities to visit I didn’t find any that were hugely interesting in the far south of France apart from Nîmes which sounded OK and the next city that I’m visiting.

Most of Nîmes’ tourist attractions are based on the fact that it was an important city in Roman times, and they still have well preserved remains of buildings to prove it, so I spent my day visiting these and trying to forget that I’d come from warm sunny Marseille inland to a colder cloudy city.

By far the biggest Roman site in Nîmes is the amphitheater called the Arènes, built in the 1st century A.D. and which they claim is the best preserved in the world.  It’s been used for different purposes throughout history, including initially as a place of entertainment for the Romans who would go there to watch things like gladiatorial duels and animals fighting, as a fort after the fall of the Roman empire, as a city neighbourhood in the 18th century, and most recently it’s used as a bull ring and entertainment venue.

Although the story of what took place in the amphitheatre must be pretty similar to what I’d heard when I visited the Colloseum in Rome, a lot of the facts seemed new to me.  Maybe I just wasn’t listening when I was in Rome.  For example when the Arènes was first opened the gladiators were actually trained fighters who were rarely died if they lost, as the school which trained and managed them would be out of pocket if they were dead.  Later on in Roman times when there was a shortage of money, slaves did fight as gladiators but that wasn’t always the case.  Also there were different types of fighter with different skills, and a fighter would normally compete against a different type of fighter who had a complimentary fighting style, so it wasn’t all sword fighting.

nimes arena

Try to imagine the arena filled with people...

The Arènes was very close to my hotel so it was the first place I visited in the morning, but after I left I went to the tourist information centre where I spoke to a huge guy who was surprisingly softly spoken.  Later on when I went to buy lunch, the woman at the bakery has a completely different accent which put a lot of stress on the end of the word.  To be honest I’m usually too busy trying to understand what someone’s saying to notice their accent or how they speak, but the differences between these two people was huge so I wasn’t sure what to expect when talking to other people around the city.

I’d been told that people in Marseille had a distinctive accent as they speak very slowly, but I didn’t notice that either to be honest.  I do seem to be keeping up with the conversations that I’ve been having with people, but they haven’t been all that complicated.  In the end the other people I spoke to in Nîmes didn’t have a noticeable accent as far as I could tell, so I’m not sure where the Tourist Information worker and the woman in the bakery came from.

After lunch I went to the Maison Carrée which is another Roman remain, which stands in the middle of a square by itself, surrounded by cafés and a modern art museum called the Carré d’Art across the road which was designed by Norman Foster.  The building is the only fully preserved ancient temple in the world, which in this case was used by a priests to talk to the gods.  The people who were waiting for the news the priest would delivery had to wait outside on the square.

nimes maison carree

The columns of the Maison Carrée with the Carré d'Art in the background that mimics the columns

These days you can visit the Maison Carrée, but not see what it looks like inside as only a part of it has been converted into a small 3D cinema, and that’s the only part that you can visit.  The cinema shows a 20 minute film about the Heroes of Nîmes throughout the ages from the gladiator in the first century A.D. to a bullfighter in the present day called Nimeño II, all of whom have made a mark on the history of Nîmes.

nimes nimeno 2

Statue of Nimeño II outside the Arènes

The last Roman remain left to see in the city was the Tour Magne, which dates from the year 15 B.C.  It’s the highest point in the city I think as it’s built on top of a big hill, and it’s now a tourist viewpoint.  Unlike Marseille where you could get a great view of the city from the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica and you can watch the boats coming and going in the harbour, in Nîmes there isn’t a whole lot to see from a high viewpoint.  There are some nice old fashioned roofs and a few stand out buildings, that are recognizable like the Arène and the Carré d’Art, but I don’t think there’s anything else that was impressive to see from there.

nimes tour magne

The Tour Magne which overlooks Nîmes

One odd thing that just struck me today is that dates here are avant or après J.C. while in English we say B.C. or A.D.  If we said “before J.C.” which is the direct translation people would laugh at us for saying J.C., I think.  I’ve heard people say it before (Chris Rock in Dogma comes to mind) but it’s not normal, and this was the first time I thought about how it translated from one language to the other.

When I’d finished climbing up the tower then going back down again I was a little stuck for things to do.  Too late to visit a museum and way to early to pick up my bags, so I followed the walking tour in one of the leaflets I’d picked up in the tourist information office.  I walked around the city looking at historical houses and noticed that it’s a small and very proper city.  There aren’t people selling fruit and vegetables spilling out into the street (probably because the roads in the old city are too narrow), nor people loitering around, but there are lots of little squares with nice looking cafés and outdoor seating areas which was good to see.

Even after the walking tour I still had time to spare, so I went to the café of the Carré d’Art which claimed to be a Salon du Thé.  I’m becoming more knowledgeable in such things, and can confirm that it is a Salon du Thé because it serves teas with silly names.  After the Fakir Tea I had in Lyon, I had a Casablanca Tea (green tea, mint, bergamot) in Nîmes.  I’m not sure why they can’t just call it a Green Tea with Mint and Bergamot, sure it’s a little longer but it’s also much clearer and less… daft!

Now I’m lording it up in first class in the train (it was only 3 Euros more), although there are still no power sockets which is infuriating!  Better make the most of it as I’ll be slumming it in in cattle class for the last 3 legs of my tour.

Leaving Marseille

I finally moved on from Marseille earlier today, after 4 days it’s definitely time to do something new but I’ve enjoyed myself here and it’s been nice relaxing in the sun shine.

Yesterday I went to the Art of Africa, Oceania and Amerindia and the Mediterranean Archaeology museums which are in the same building.  They were OK, nothing to special other than the scary masks in the Africa, Oceania and Amerindia museum, but it wasn’t a bad way to spend some time.

marseille african masks

Yikes!

At lunch time I met up with a friend of a friend called Justine who’d been living in Marseille for the last 6 months.  She didn’t know me at all, so it was very kind of her to take some time to have lunch with me and explain a little bit about Marseille.  We went for couscous in a small restaurant where people were all sitting shoulder to shoulder.  The food was good and incredibly cheap, and we just chatted and got to know each other.

After lunch we went for a wander in Marseille, which seems to be what I do every day, and she explained a little about the city.  The area we went for lunch in is called Belsunce, and it’s one of the more downmarket areas on the south side of Marseille, south of the train station.  It’s full of narrow streets crammed with little shops, and Justine told me that the mayor had been trying to get rid of the people who lived and worked there for a while to renovate the area and make it more in keeping with the rest of the city centre, but he hasn’t succeeded yet.

From there we walked along the coast on the south side of the city which is called La Corniche.  It has really nice views over the city and the sea, but has a busy road right next to the pavement so there’s the constant buzz of traffic whizzing past you.  On the way there’s the Palais du Pharo which is a huge residence built by Napoleon, and eventually ended up being owned by the city.  The building itself is quite pretty, but at the back of it away from the road is a small paved area and paths where you can see the sea without all of the distractions (boats, tourists – like me, buildings) that you get when trying to look at it from the Vieux Port area.

We joined all the other people looking out to sea, and Justine noticed that there were two small boats at the entrance to the harbour, then she remembered that she’d heard something about a strike by the port workers, so those small boats were actually blocking the exit and stopping any ships from leaving or coming in.  This was the first that I’d heard of it, so we kept watching and talking for a few minutes then saw a medium sized cargo ship moving towards the barricade.  Everyone around us was staring at the boats and trying to figure out what was going to happen.  There was no way the cargo ship was going to stop in time, even if it wanted to, but the port worker’s boats were holding firm too.  At the last minute when we thought there was going to be a collision the blockade was moved, but there couldn’t have been more that 2 or 3 metres between the cargo ship and the boats.  Justine told me that the Marseillaise were crazy, but they stood up for what they believed in.

After the excitement on the high seas we kept going along the coast and Justine remembered she’d found a pretty little area of fishermen’s houses when she’d been exploring the area, so we tried to find them again.  She told me that she had a photographic memory of the place she was trying to get to, but the actual route to take to find that place was a little more of a mystery.  It’d taken us 10 minutes to find the couscous restaurant that she goes to regularly, but she was on form with the fisherman’s houses as we found them first time.

Once again it was a really pretty area, not on the tourist trail, which made me happy that I’d found someone to guide me around a little.  It sounds like I’m repeating myself, but the sea was gorgeous and blue/green again, and the huts looked very cute.  She also pointed out that the rocks along the coast around Marseille were all white like Dover rather than the more standard grey.  I have to admit that I hadn’t really noticed, but now that I’d been told it stuck in my memory.

marseille fishermens houses

Small houses (but not the huts) on the water

Time for a change of scene, so we took the bus to Parc Longchamps.  The bus was packed to bursting but we couldn’t really figure out why until a few stops later when a whole class of little school children got off and there was instantly room to breathe!  A short trip on the métro followed the bus, then Justine told me that we had to find the correct entrance to the park as there were many of them.  So we made it to the right one, and it was worth it as there’s a huge water feature overlooking the street, from there you climb up the stairs to the top and go through to the other side where the park falls away back to ground level, which is actually a little strange.

marseille parc longchamps

The "correct" entrance to Parc Longchamps

Last stop on the tour was La Friche La Belle De Mai, which was an abandoned factory before it became a cultural melting pot for Marseille.  The main building where it’s based is huge and houses an art gallery, a radio station and lots of other things that I can’t remember, and around this there are concert venues, a skate park, a restaurant and more.  We went to the gallery which had collections of art from a number of different local (I assume) artists, all modern, mostly funny, quite political and highly sexed.  It’s the type of thing that you don’t see in a normal gallery and was quite cool to see exhibited.

The most important thing that I learned from Justine was that in Marseille there aren’t a lot of blockbuster tourist sights (which I mentioned once or twice already), but the charm of the city is in the changing areas and seeing the different ways that neighboring areas live.  Seeing the North African and Middle Eastern area, then a few streets further east there’s the more creative Cours Julien, and seeing the Nouveau Riche moving into the Panier and living next to poorer families that haven’t been priced out of the area yet.  I’m a very bad people watcher, but she pushed me into paying more attention to the people that were in the area that I was visiting.

Today I decided to use that new knowledge and sense of adventure to walk somewhere, but without using a map.  I had two and a half hours to spare in the morning after checking out of the hotel, so I went east.  After 90 minutes of walking through some areas that I’d already seen and others that looked totally anonymous, I ended up back at Parc Longchamps.  That might not be considered a success, but it wasn’t a bad place to end up and I had a play with RetroCamera on my phone.

My plan for the afternoon was to take a boat trip out to the Calanques, which are like coves or fjords that have naturally been eroded in the white rock of the coast.  The boat tours take between 2 and 3 hours and take people out to see up to 12 of the calanques.  It’s also possible to hike out to them, but it’d take way more time, skill and effort than I had available.

The first calanque looked nice, and had twenty or thirty houses and small buildings at the bottom of a steep rocky hillside.  Not exactly idyllic or practical, but it did look good.  Most of the calanques looked pretty similar, some of them were little villages, others had boats collected on the waters edge, and one or two were beaches.  There wasn’t a lot of variation between them though, and I ended up taking photos of trees instead.

marseille sormiou calanque

Sormiou calanque

It was nice to head out onto the water to see a little more of the coast, but it felt bitterly cold for the three hours that we were out there.  It was warm in the city, but on the boat even with gloves on and my jacket buttoned up I still had the shivers.  So my top tip is to take a zip up jacket with you when you go on a boat in the Mediterranean.

marseille calanque tree

Gorgeous skies and trees on top of the cliffs

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.