I’ve been in Marseille for two days now, and I’m still not sure what to think of it. I’ve been endlessly walking about, and the biggest attractions that I’ve found are the sun, sea and fish. It’s not as bad as it sounds as the warm weather puts you in a good mood, but I wish I could find more things to do that didn’t involve wandering about outside.
Before I even made it to my hotel on Sunday night, I could see that the city had a very different vibe. Lots of Middle Eastern and North African fast food outlets and people all over the streets. It wasn’t until later that I learned that my route from the station took me straight through the area called Noaille where the shops are grouped.
I went to the Tourist Information centre yesterday morning, and they gave me a map, a city guide and a shopping/eating booklet. They’re not bad, but also not really helpful, and I don’t have much else to go on. A friend of a friend lives in Marseille, and she’s been giving me lots of information to work with too luckily.
When I looked out of my window yesterday morning I decided to take my sunglasses with me, and it was a good decision. The first sight I went to visit was the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica which is 150m above sea level, which made it a good look out point in the past as it has a great view over the sea and pretty much everyone in the city can see it. Unlike Lyon there wasn’t a funicular railway to take me there, so I walked. By the time I got to the top it was sunny and hot, and I ended up in my t-shirt and sunglasses with my jacket slung over my bag. Second church of the holiday, and it was OK but very different to the Fourvière Basilica in Lyon. The interior is very busy with lots of memorial plaques and model ships which make it look quite messy, and it’s also pretty small. I suppose it only serves a small part of the city that live close to it and can get to the top of the hill.
A colleague once told me that he wished that he had a gigapixel camera, but unfortunately neither he or I do. There were some great views over the city and I hope they won’t go too fuzzy in my memory.
The city feels really laid back. I’m not sure if that’s what happens to life when you live near the Mediterranean or if it’s the large number of people who seem to live and work on the streets. There are lots of men, young and old, who are sitting around in squares smoking and drinking, so guess there’s more unemployment here than the other cities that I’ve visited but I haven’t really looked into it.
In the afternoon I went for a walk around the Panier, which is the Old Quarter of the city. It’s filled with narrow streets and old buildings, and also lots of churches. I walked past one at the end of a funeral ceremony, and saw that the priest was quite young and was wearing thick black glasses (as is the inexplicable fashion at the moment) and a goatee, and I found it hard to take him seriously. Would you like a guy with glasses like that overseeing your funeral?
My overriding memory of the Panier was avoiding all the crap on the streets, I feel like I spent more time looking at my feet than at the stuff around me, and someone else agrees.
Today I went to visit two areas that were recommended to me by my friend of a friend, Noaille which I already mentioned and La Plaine which is the artistic or creative area of the city. The first view of Noaille that I had this morning was of the market that takes place on the Longue des Capucins which looks just like a normal market taking place in a city square, except that a majority of the shoppers are North African or Middle Eastern. When you start walking into the side streets you begin to notice that all of the shops are selling Moroccan or Lebanese or Algerian food, and they cover quite a big area. I’ve been to Edgware Road in London lots of times, but there it seems that Middle Eastern shops mix with general shops, but that’s not really the case in Marseille. I didn’t take many photos when I was there as I’d read that it wasn’t such a safe area and that there were dodgy people around, and when you’re told something like that you begin to see people acting strangely such as the guy who had 2 packs of cigarettes hidden on top of a tourist information sign, which was bizarre.
Afterwards I went to the neighbouring La Plaine area where I started off by walking along Cours Julien which is a wide pedestrianised street. I realised it was the first place in Marseille that I really liked. It was quiet and clean, had cafés opening out onto the central area and a nice looking water feature. All the other people around me were also enjoying it, and maybe they were exiles from the dirty, noisy parts of the city too. The streets coming off it were different but still interesting as they had the feel of an artistic area, with lots of graffiti and ‘modifications’ to the standard street furniture and some alternative shops. Lots of restaurants too, but most of them were closed even in the early afternoon which was weird. If I get a chance I’ll head back there in the evening to see if it’s a bit more alive.
After lunch I ventured out of the centre of the city to an area called l’Estaque which is around 30 minutes away by bus. It was apparently an inspirational place for artists and writers such as Paul Cézanne, George Braques and Émile Zola, and I can imagine that it was a beautiful little town built on top of a rocky seafront. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) at the turn of the 20th century satellite dishes, television antennas, cars and telephone poles were not common landscape features so they don’t appear in the paintings inspired by l’Estaque. Even if they did exist back then, artistic licence can remove things that shouldn’t be in a composition, but with photography it’s a little more difficult unless your Photoshop skills are up to removing things. Now you can see that it’s still a beautiful place, blue sky, terracotta roof tiles, boats in the marina, but technological progress has blotted the landscape.
I also read that there are two types of food that are unique to l’Estaque, and maybe I should have taken that as a warning, Chichi Freggi (like a doughnut the size of half a baguette and covered in sugar) and Panisses which are fried chickpea paste disks. I decided to try the Panisses because the Chichi Freggi looked *huge*, like eating 4 or 5 doughnuts I imagine. The Panisses were odd and I can understand why they haven’t caught on anywhere else. They taste like salty chickpeas, imagine falafel with more salt and without all the lovely coriander and other herbs and you’ll be close. They’re not bad, just not very good.
I escaped l’Estaque a couple of hours after I arrived, and went to buy a little present for my mum. I started speaking in French to the woman who ran the shop for a few sentences, but when I went to pay it turned out that she was American. She said that she used to live in Paris but had moved to Marseille many years ago, but there wasn’t much to do here and she missed the cultural life that you get in Paris. That pretty much echos my view of Marseille so far, although maybe I’ll change my mind tomorrow. I also mentioned to her about shops and restaurants being closed, and she just replied by saying that Marseille was like that and didn’t explain any further so it’s still a mystery.
Finally I had Aioli for dinner, which is like a French-Mediterranean ploughmans lunch, with cod, mussels, potatoes, green beans, carrots and cauliflowers all cooked separately and put on the plate, and it’s served with lots of garlic sauce which is the part that I would normally call aioli. I still feel stuffed 3 hours later and it’s time to go to bed…