Monday, September 7th 2015
We were relieved that no ‘events’ took place during the night and that there were no conversations or revving engines under our window to disturb our sleep. We enjoyed a peaceful night’s rest.
Our hotel is quite small but apart from that, tolerable. The people who relay one another at the reception desk are unfailingly polite, friendly and helpful. The hotel is old and this is perhaps why there is only one electricity power point in the room, intended for the bedside lamp. Fortunately, we brought our trailing socket with us and taped it to the bed headboard so that we could share it to charge our respective phones, cameras and geotagger.
We set out in search of breakfast though there was no doubt in my mind as to where we would go: La Samaritaine! It had lost none of its charm and we again enjoyed coffee and fresh croissants.
Although it was quite early, we noticed that there was some activity on the quay. It turned out that in the mornings there is a fish market.
I did not want to pay close attention to this, especially as on some stalls at least the fish were alive, flapping about in shallow bowls and I didn’t like to think what fate awaited them.
We had a special visit in mind and to reach our destination, took the Métro for the first part of our journey. This underground railway system is quite small, compared with the Paris Métro or the London Underground, but seems efficient and very useful. We later transferred to a bus for the second leg.
This is what we had come to see. It is an apartment block known both as L’Unité d’Habitation de Marseille and as La Cité Radieuse (The Radiant City). ‘L’Unité d’Habitation’ refers to a style of building apartment blocks developed by the architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, generally referred to as Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and this one is considered the prime example of its kind. It was designated a Monument Historique in 1986.
Le Corbusier received a commission from the Minister of Reconstruction in 1947 to produce a new apartment block on land owned by the city. The result is this large structure containing 337 apartments deigned as 23 different types with ‘interior streets’ running between them. All modern comforts and facilities were provided.
The massive building stands on legs or pylons and these, and other external features, are in ‘Brutalist’ style, that is, the reinforced concrete of which they are made is left raw (or ‘brute’), showing the outlines of the caissons in which they were cast. Unfortunately, this material is showing wear in some places (see the picture of the pylon above).
A garden with trees adds pleasantly to the amenity and discreetly veils the car park, though the top of the building of course rises high above the tops of the trees.
The public is allowed to visit parts of the building (including a rather genteel cafe – part of the building’s shared facilities). We were interested to see that there was a museum in the building and set off in search of it.
I was glad to see that the Brutalist elements were confined to the exterior and did not follow us indoors. The interior is pleasant and even beautiful in places. Communal facilities do give the impression that this is a community rather than simply an apartment block containing only dwellings.
But what about the museum? We wandered around looking for it. We asked the lady in the shop and she shrugged and said it was on the top floor. We went to the top floor but could find no sign of it. We asked a group of three men who looked as one another as though our question were a little simple-minded and then said ‘Sur le toit’ (On the roof).
We found our way onto the roof where we found strange shapes which, though they were not Gaudiesque in any real sense nonetheless conferred a sort of ‘Gaudí aura’. We also found what we thought might be the museum but it was closed and looked as though it had been closed for some time. Perhaps that was why people reacted oddly to our enquiries, not understanding why we would want to see a defunct museum.
The roof, of course, provided good views over the city and above are two examples of what we saw.
After a final look around the outside of the building we started back towards the centre of the city.
Changing from bus to Métro, we passed by the elaborate gates of the Parc Chanot. Established at the beginning of the century and named after Amable Chanot, twice mayor of Marseille, the park has been the site of important fairs and exhibitions, including the Colonial Exhibitions 0f 1908 and 1922. The wrought-iron gates were made in 1924 by Trichard of Marseille.
We took the Métro back to town and discussed what to do next. We wanted to visit the Cathedral which seemed to beckon to us from any and all points of the town. It seemed that one way of doing this would be to take a trip on the tour bus. The open deck would provide a viewing platform from which we could take our photos… or so we thought.
Riding the tour bus was fun and at times nerve racking because it had to negotiate narrow streets with sharp turns and steep slopes, sometimes places where I would not have thought a double-decker bus could go! We saw the Cathedral from the bus but never came near enough to it for a good picture and the shaking and bouncing of the bus as it twisted and turned made photography difficult. The above was as good as I could get it. Another solution was called for.
But first we took a little detour. Disembarking from the tour bus in town, we made our way to the coast at a place called Les Catalans. For casual visitors, the most noticeable feature of this neighbourhood is the large sandy beach upon which there seems to be every kind of amusement and seaside amenity.
The name comes from a group of Catalan fishermen who established themselves here after the plague of 1720 had greatly reduced the population. They were given permission to stay and to fish and sell their wares in the markets of Marseille in direct competition with the native fishermen. Relationship between the two groups were somewhat bitter at times. The last remaining Catalans moved out in 1858 when the area was redeveloped as a resort.
We walked some way along the coast beyond the beach and enjoyed the sea air, the sunshine and the seaside atmosphere. We were impressed by how blue and clear the water was here.
We now returned to the port, ready to take a second shot at visiting the Cathedral, Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. We joined the tour bus for another white-knuckle ride through the narrow streets and up the hill. We had already picked out the stop where we wanted to disembark. When we asked the driver to let us off, he was concerned. He pointed out that this was the last tour bus of the day; there would be no others. He said it several times, obviously concerned that we did not understand and would be stuck on the hill. When I told him we would go back by public transport, he relaxed and we got off.
If you arrive by car, you can drive up to the car park beside the Cathedral, but if you come by bus then you have no option but to climb the hill on foot.
There are steps called Les Escaliers de la Bonne Mère. I don’t know how many steps there are but quite a lot!
The Cathedral, which was inaugurated 1864, was designed by Henri-Jacques Espérandieu (1829-74) who was also responsible for Sainte-Marie-la-Majeure (see yesterday’s post).
The statue of the Virgin and Child on the bell tower was made by Eugène Lequesne and was put in place in 1870. It was made in four parts by the Christofle company and was plated with gold by a then ground-breaking method called galvanoplasty. It is regilded every 25 years.
The higher you go, the taller the building seems to be. This is an illusion, of course, brought on by the fact that you have to crane your neck ever higher to see it as you approach.
We took a quick look inside but the place was crowded and we preferred to walk around the exterior.
It is common in Catholic churches to find votive plaques when not gruesome little models of body parts whose injuries or diseases have supposedly been cured through the kind intercession of the saint and the Cathedral is no exception. There is a separate loggia set aside for the purpose. I wonder, do the faithful ever leave messages of complaint when their diseases have not been satisfactorily dealt with?
Of course, this is a good place from which to get photographs of the surrounding countryside and town. As long, that is, that you manage to avoid those silly people who seem to think that the purpose of historic monuments and grandiose landscapes is to be photographed in front of them. The ‘selfie stick’ is surely the most stupidly inane invention of recent years.
We made our way down to the road again and found the bus stop. The bus came at least and we could sit and relax as it threaded its way through the narrow streets and steep slopes back to town. By now it was time for supper. When it comes to restaurants, there is a lot of choice in Marseille, as you might imagine. We were quite happy to score an Indian hat trick for our last supper in Marseille and chose the Sri Ganesh. If you think it strange to go to France and eat in Indian restaurants, I will simply say that France has not yet really caught up with the concept of vegetarian cuisine whereas the Indians have been doing it, and doing it superbly well, for centuries.
Though the sunshine and heat felt like summer, it was nonetheless autumn and the sun set correspondingly early.
Tigger had a yen to photograph the sunset and we thought that Les Catalans would provide a good viewing spot. It turned out that we were right.
This was our last full day in Marseille and we managed to fill it quite well. Tomorrow we return to London, taking some good memories with us.