Sunday 4 October 2009

On Est à Marseille

There are many themed tourist trails around Provence. The Cezanne trail. The Picasso trail. The Mistral trail. The Van Gogh trail. I am on a Mary Stewart trail. (Did you know I was a huge fan?) Her first book, published in 1955, was Madam, Will You Talk?, whose lovely, witty, and beautifully-befrocked heroine drives around Provence being chased by a possibly murderous antique dealer. They play cat-and-mouse around Avignon (check), Les Baux (check) and Marseille – where Roisin and I went for the day yesterday.

Leaving Gare St Charles by way of its Nationally Significant Historic Napoleon III Steps, we walked down to the Vieux Port.

(Don't you love these postboxes?)

We had lunch at Les Arsenaulx – an antique bookshops/restaurant/salon de the (I wanted to move in) where I had, not bouillabaisse, but something very close: soupe de poisson de roche avec sa rouille et ses toasts.

Then Roisin had sea bass and I had pork. We finished with coffee which was served with mini meringues flavoured with orange flower water. These were especially good.

Needing to work off lunch, we headed for Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse. We trailed up a steep hill and when crossing at a pedestrian crossing at the top, Ro had an encounter with a guy on a motorbike. He told her she was dangereuse to step out into the road. After a bit of back and forth about how he was the dangerous one and he should have stopped (you should have heard her, she was very impressive) he concluded, ‘bah, on est à Marseille’ which seems to be what you say here when you’ve run out of arguments but you don’t want to admit you’re wrong. We then trailed down the other side of the hill and along an avenue towards Cité Radieuse. We had just realised that we were still a way away when we spotted a row of public bikes (don’t know what else to call them.) After a false start, we got two bikes and were soon careening along Avenue Prado. Oh the joy of ringing our little bells!

Got to Cité Radieuse – absolutely worth the walk/cycle. It was built in the late 1940s/early 1950s as public housing, but puts most council housing to shame.

From the lobby (which took us a little while to find – nothing is signed) we went up to the 9th floor but couldn’t get on to the roof to see the swimming pool and running track. Had a drink on the terrace of the 3rd floor hotel.

The detail is incredible. Le Corbusier thought of everything: stairs, chairs, doors, toilets. Ro bent the truth slightly and told the receptionist/barman/waiter that I was a student of architecture so he showed us a couple of the hotel bedrooms – the same as the original bedrooms of the apartments. Everywhere you look you can see evidence of Le Corbusier’s total obsession with the right angle.

Back along Avenue Prado and up a hill and another hill. By the third hill I was off the bike and pushing – though that was nearly worse because the bike weighs a ton. By the time Notre Dame de la Garde was in sight I wanted to varmint into the front basket. But we persevered (Roisin’s epitaph will be ‘we’ve come this far, we might as well go on’. Mine will be ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’.) From the basilica the whole city is spread out beneath you.

It is beautiful. This came as a surprise to me – I wasn’t expecting Marseille to be so lovely. It is both quintessentially French and unlike any French city I’ve ever been to. It has the tall, narrow buildings with wrought iron details like Paris, but with the blue blue of the Mediterranean, the white of the building stone, the Arab/African influence.

Notre Dame de la Garde is full of ex-votos/thank yous left by sailors. My favourites were the strings of boat/ship models suspended from the ceiling. I really wanted these to take home with me. Look how sweet they are:

(This is Roisin just before we pointed our bikes downhill.)

We freewheeled all the way down the hill (I squealed ‘whee’ all the way down) to the port. Parked the bikes then got a metro back to the station, where we bought snacks to eat on the train. A perfect day - the only slight disappointment was that there were no handsome possibly murderous antique dealers waiting for me by the ferry terminal for the Ile d’If. I’ll wait here while you run out to the bookshop and buy yourself a copy of Madam, Will You Talk?

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