Saturday, September 5th 2015
Our best way to get to Marseille1 would be to take the Eurostar service from St Pancras to the Gare Saint-Charles, Marseille. For this, you need to book well in advance and we, unfortunately, were a little late in ordering our tickets, so we had to make do with a two-part journey: Eurostar to Paris, TGV2 to Marseille.
As usual, we ordered our tickets online and collected them from the ticket machines at St Pancras Station. When changing trains in Paris, we would arrive at the Gare du Nord but depart from the Gare de Lyon. Given the distance between these two stations, we would need to use public transport.
We got up bright and early this morning because our Eurostar would depart at 7:52 and we would first have to submit to the luggage and body search, followed by passport control. Once again we had reserved seats in Standard Premier class on the Eurostar to benefit from the extra leg room and the meal they serve en route. Everything went well and we reached Paris two and a half hours later at 11:17 local time.
Next we had to make the transition from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon, having 80 minutes in which to do so. The Eurostar Website helpfully provides instructions on how to do this. A train service called the RER (Réseau Express Régional) connects the two stations. You need to buy Metro tickets to use this service. Eurostar sells Metro tickets in the train’s buffet but only in books of 10 – useful if you are staying in Paris but not if you are travelling to another destination – so we bought return tickets from a machine on the station. This would all have been fun but for the anxiety of getting to our destination on time. In the event, we did it easily.
We spent a little time at the Garde de Lyon waiting for our TGV to be announced, then boarded and relaxed for 3 hours, 19 minutes, the time it took to whisk us to our final destination.
When we stepped off the train at Marseille Saint-Charles Station, my first impression was the heat. We had left London in the throes of autumn cool to return to summer in Marseille!
The station is large, as befits a major city (and the second largest in France) but what impressed me most was the trees growing on the concourse. I think this is the first station I have seen with trees. If only they had birds as well, it would be perfect! The city’s first railway station was built in 1848 but the current one dates from the 1890s. It is perched on a hill and so you literally have to ‘go down to the town’ from the station.
If you are on foot as we were, you start your descent by walking down a monument. This remarkable flight of steps deserves a grand name but seems to be known only as Les Escaliers de la Gare Saint-Charles (The Stairs of Saint Charles Station). If you are hale and healthy, these stairs present no difficulty; otherwise, before starting down – and even more so before starting up – you might care to reflect that there are 7 flights, comprising 105 steps in all.
It would be natural to think that station and stairs were conceived and built at the same time but it was only in 1911 that the first project to build the stairs was mooted. A plan by Eugène Sénès and Léon Arnal was adopted but work was interrupted by the First World War. Prompted by the Exposition Coloniale de Marseille in 1922, plans were brought back to the table and building began in 1923.
Because of the delay and the changes in outlook brought about by the war, the steps have a dual character, partaking of things ancient – in the Classical styling – and things modern – in the use of reinforced concrete and metal handrails.
To my eyes, this is a very French building, exuberant and boastful, yes, but elegant in style and form, so that you cannot but enjoy and admire it. (If you wonder why the female figure has been given a blindfold in red serge, I am sorry to say that I do not know. Maybe someone can tell us?) (Update Oct 16th 2015: Big John has solved the mystery of the blindfolded statues. See his comment.
The steps were to celebrate the status of Marseille as the ‘Gate to the Orient’ and also to France’s standing as a colonial power, hence this sculpture group by Antonio Bottinelli entitled Colonies d’Afrique (‘African Colonies’).
As a large city that has grown and developed over a long period, Marseille today presents a varied and complex picture. Narrow streets here and broad thoroughfares there; buses and trams mixing with the traffic on the streets and the Metro running underground. Poor districts alternate with affluent ones and the shops give a good indication of which district they belong to.
We had booked a hotel online and set out to look for it on foot. We dumped our bags and had a rest before setting out again. We would also have had a cup of tea but discovered we had forgotten to pack the travelling kettle…
We set out again without any plan except to take a preliminary look around. The following are a few random sights encountered on our way.
Designed by Pascal Coste and inaugurated by Napoleon III in 1860, the Palais de la Bourse (Business Exchange) was the centre of business life in Marseille. Today it is the seat of the Chamber of Commerce. As with the station steps, the style is French Classical and exuberant at the same time. The interior is said to be splendid also but we were not able to see this for ourselves.
You would expect such a building to be decorated with figures expressing the nobility of commerce and, of course, such expectations are fulfilled. This work by Eugène Guillaume, for example, is an allegorical representation of Commerce, and, above it, is a companions piece (not shown), symbolizing Navigation.
In a completely different style is this object that stands in front of the Palais. Standing on three legs, it looks like some alien vehicle from a sci-fi film. It is in fact one of a pair of experimental diving bells, called Castor and Pollux, made by Comex (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises) in 1967, intended for deep-sea work. Were they ever put to the test? The notice doesn’t say.
Le Palais de la Bourse faces Place Charles de Gaulle where another old-style structure is found. Carousels have remained popular and most fairgrounds include a real or replica Victorian one but this is an 18th-century Venetian carousel. It has two peculiarities that I have not seen elsewhere. Firstly, it has two levels and, secondly, it rotates left-to-right whereas all other carousels that I have seen rotate right-to-left. It is called La Belle Epoque Carrousel.
Thus we arrived at the Vieux Port (‘Old Port’). Once it would have been alive with merchant shipping but that has all gone. Today, the port is devoted to leisure.
The harbour serves as a marina and where once the quays stood is now a broad open area where people stroll and take their leisure. It also acts as a market place on certain days of the week.
The Vieux Port is also the site of this strange construction that seems to be known simply as the Pavilion. It was built by that busy British firm of architects, Foster and Partners, responsible for other peculiar structures. While I admit that it is unusual (and it is fun to stand underneath it and look up to look ‘down’ on yourself), I think it’s an eyesore spoiling the seafront. Here is another, partial, view of it:
I don’t know what purpose this mirror on legs is supposed to serve. Perhaps it forms an easily spotted landmark where people can meet, as under a station clock, and a shelter from the hot Marseille sun while they are waiting. Apart from that, I don’t know what is the more remarkable, its huge inappropriateness in the setting or the fact that Foster managed to convince the authorities of Marseille that building it was a good idea.
I remember a time when Indian restaurants were a rare novelty in France but have noticed that in recent years they have become more popular and have proliferated. I am not sure whether this is because of growing French acceptance of exotic cuisine or because of demand from tourists, particularly those from the UK. Perhaps it is a mixture of both effects. We happened upon Govinda’s and were invited in despite it being a little before opening time. We had a good meal, a pleasant finish to the day.
On the way back to the hotel for the night, I took this photo of the elaborate sculptured surround of a window. This seemed to sum up my first impressions of Marseille as an old city that is still developing and thriving in the modern era, in which old and new jostle side by side, tolerantly if not always harmoniously. What forgotten dreams were once invested these neglected sculptures?
1Until recently,the British always wrote the name of this town with an ‘s’ and called it Marseilles (‘mar-sales’). Nowadays, it has recovered its proper spelling and most people now call it Marseille and pronounce it approximately correctly (‘mar-say’).
1The TGV – Train à Grande Vitesse – is France’s high-speed inter-city train service. It links major cities with few stops in between. It has no equivalent in Britain’s lack-lustre range of rail services.