Sunday, September 6th 2015
Our hotel (Hôtel de l’Ariana) is off the main road in what seemed to be a quiet area. Last night, however, there was some sort of ‘event’ nearby and all night until dawn, people were queueing for taxis under our window, talking and calling to one another, and cars were driving up and driving away again. We did not get much sleep. Let’s hope that the performance is not repeated tonight and tomorrow.
We set out to look for breakfast. The neighbourhood of the hotel is somewhat run-down and we found nothing to our taste. I think, too, that I was subconsciously looking for the sort of ‘typical’ French cafe that I like, and nothing we found fitted the pattern. Not, that is, until we had walked all the way to the Vieux Port.
At last, I spotted hopeful signs on a corner, a large cafe restaurant called La Samaritaine. We hurried there and found exactly what I had been looking for, a traditional French cafe with aproned waiters busy among the tables like bees in a flower bed. This turned out to be my Marseille equivalent of Brooklyn’s New Apollo Diner (see New York 2014 – Day 2), the place where I feel content and at peace with the world.
La Samaritaine was established in 1910 when its founders bought a defunct lingerie store and converted it into a bistro. It survived until 1945 when it was burnt out by an incendiary shell fired by beleaguered German forces on the hills overlooking the port. Rebuilt, it opened its doors again in 1948 and is still going strong. If you read French, you will find an outline of its intriguing history on the Samaritaine’s Website.
After a satisfying breakfast of coffee and fresh croissants, we strolled along the northern edge of the harbour and found a market in progress. The usual sort of stuff was on sale and I was particularly interested in this stall where I had a chat with the owner, Jean-François Naudon. His wife, Maryse Naudon, is an artist and the couple use her work to make a range of useful and decorative articles. I bought a bookmark as a souvenir. You can find examples of Maryse Naudon’s paintings on the Galerie page of their Website.
We strolled on and admired the 17th-century Hôtel de Ville. Built in 1653-73, its relatively small dimensions indicate the correspondingly modest size of Marseille at the time.
Along here, the ground floors of the buildings incorporate an arcade that is lined with cafes and restaurants. Noted for future reference!
If you thought, from reading yesterday’s description of the station’s monumental staircase, that Marseille is a hilly place, you would be right. Flights of steps, long and short but mostly long, are a common feature of this town, whether incorporated into buildings or as part of a thoroughfare. The above are just a couple of samples.
The massive fortress called Fort Saint-Jean was built in 1660 by Louis XIV to protect the port of Marseille. It is huge and somewhat forbidding but the light colour of the stone is quite striking compared with the usual dark colours of British castles and forts. We tried to take a look inside by entering through a gateway but were shouted at by uniformed guards. Nice to see the fortress still doing its job of repelling foreigners!
A walkway (Promenade Louis Brauquier) leads around the fortress and along the edge of the water. Here one has good views that beg to be photographed in panorama. Marseille faces straight onto the Mediterranean but its harbour provides good shelter for shipping.
We also get a good view of Notre Dame de la Garde perched on its rock. Then again, it is visible from most points in Marseille.
The fortress is connected by a long bridge to what looks like a big basket made of layers of chicken wire. Not exactly beautiful but at least not as ugly as some of the incomprehensibly monstrous constructions of modern architects, this is the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean), understandably often known as MuCEM. The white building on its right if called the Villa Méditerranée which is described on its Website as ‘International centre for dialogue and discussion in the Mediterranean’. It seems to have its own museum too.
If you are a Catholic and a church-goer, the respective roles of Marseille’s two major churches perhaps make sense to you. They make sense to me only as long as I don’t think about it too hard. The church up on the rocks is called Notre-Dame-de-la Garde and it is a basilica but not a cathedral. The church near the fortress is called Sainte-Marie-Majeure and is a basilica and a cathedral. So, we have two basilicas dedicated to St Mary of which one is a cathedral and the other one isn’t.
So what is a basilica? That’s not an easy question to answer. Having looked this question up in the Catholic Encyclopaedia I am left with the impression that a (Catholic) place of worship is a basilica if the Catholic Church says it is. There are no defining qualifications though there can be both major and minor basilicas.
The present church or cathedral or basilica was built in 1852-96. Looking at the complexity of the decor, I am not surprised it took so long. The style is called Byzantine-Roman and it is quite spectacular in its own way. We did not go in (I don’t think it was open) and contented ourselves with a look around the outside.
These three worthies are no doubt important and pious figures from the history of Christendom such that the cognoscenti will have no difficulty in naming them. I, however, will sit this one out.
Most churches like to boast that they have an ancient lineage on the site and in this case there is some substance – literally – to the claim. Within the precinct of the cathedral stand the remains an an earlier cathedral dating from the 12th century. Not all of it, mind: a large part of it was demolished to make way for the new building. It is known as the Vieille Major (Old Major) to distinguish it from its 19th-century successor, the Nouvelle Major (New Major). (Why ‘Major’ and not ‘Majeure’? Don’t ask me, I’m just a tourist…)
We spotted this street art gracing a flight of steps. Happily it is signed and we can therefore identify the artist. Kajaman is a Brazilian artist also known as André Lourenço. I don’t know whether he deliberately sought out a staircase for this work or simply happened upon one. If he had wanted a staircase, they are not hard to find in Marseille…
We had a light lunch in a small cafe in a narrow street and then continued exploring this hilly part of town. I collected a few more staircases. Not that that was difficult at all…
We next popped into the Roman Docks Museum, partly for our own interest and partly because friends had asked us to obtain a copy of the guidebook for them. The museum is based on the ruins of a Roman docks warehouse. Among other items, it contains some large jars, some of which were possibly made on the premises. Around the walls are glass cases containing exhibits of Roman artifacts, including some domestic and personal items.
Unfortunately, no guidebook was available. It is no longer printed. Talking to the staff, who seemed somewhat discouraged, I get the impression that the Museum is not receiving the attention and funding that it once did. That is a pity.
A short distance off-shore from Marseille is a group of islands known as Les Îles du Frioul or L’Archipel du Frioul. Marseille once suffered an epidemic of yellow fever brought by a ship coming from foreign parts and after this used the islands as a containment area where ships could be kept away from the town and sick mariners quarantined until they were no longer infectious. Those days, happily, are in the past and visiting the islands now constitutes a pleasant excursion. We boarded the Edmond Dante for a visit to just one of the islands, Île Ratonneau, which contains the port of Frioul.
The crossing takes about 35 minutes but I was so busy looking at (and photographing) the scenery that it seemed to take less time.
Conditions were so warm that as soon as we disembarked we made for a cafe with a pleasant garden and indulged ourselves with a dish of ice cream each. Then it was time to look around and explore.
Perched on the heights you can glimpse this quaint Classical style building. It was built in 1828 to enable ships’ crews detained under quarantine rules to attend church services.
We climbed up to take a closer look. It is obviously no longer used but is in good condition.
The island we were on, Île Ratonneau, and the one next to it, Île Pomègues, are joined by a dike called La Digue de Berry, built 1822 to enlarge the harbour. Walking along this dike is a pleasant promenade and gives good views over the port.
We had to keep an eye on the clock as it was nearing the time of the last crossing back to Marseille. I don’t know whether there are any hotels on the island but we didn’t want to stuck here for the night.
Back on the mainland, we passed under the (in)famous mirrored Pavilion and strolled the streets for a while.
As the sun went down and evening came on, we started looking around for somewhere to have supper. We already had an idea.
We had spotted the Jaipur during earlier investigations and decided to give it a try. Indian restaurants are a good bet for vegetarians as they have a wide variety of vegetable dishes, all very tasty, unlike the dull ‘vegetarian options’ that other restaurants try to give us. I noticed an interesting feature of this restaurant. Many ‘Indian’ restaurants are in fact Pakistani and, though they don’t try to hide the fact, they usually don’t advertise it either1. They leave you to guess. The Jaipur has a pukka Indian name but boldly informs potential customers that it is ‘Indien Pakistanais’ (for example, see its Website). Either way, we were happy with our meal.
Night was coming on but in this part of town the night crowd were taking over from the day crowd and the scene was as lively as during daytime hours. We had had a long day and made tracks for the hotel.
Would we be able to sleep tonight our would our slumbers be disturbed again by shouted conversations and car engines? Time would tell…
1What is the difference, if any, between Indian and Pakistani cuisine? I am not expert enough to give an though one Indian (not Pakistani) restaurateur we talked to asserted that while Indian chefs use ghee (clarified butter), Pakistani chefs use oil. Is he right?