After much time spent standing around with a huge rucksack at various train stations, bus stops and car parks – stopping at gorgeous cities like Bordeaux and Toulouse, which I sadly have no acceptable photos of – I eventually arrived in sunny, slapdash Marseilles.
I’m confused for a while that I’m still in France. I’ve just had an amazing summer in Cognac, and I’ve been driven through countryside that has lovely misty evergreen-stuffed hills and wild, barren mountains that I vow I’ll return to explore one day. Now I’m in a city that feels like it’s in the Mediterranean. And then I look at a map and realise I am in the Mediterranean. There is a rather long battle not to board the ferry going to Morocco and be done with it.
Marseille got a bad rap from people I explained my general plan to. Unemployment and illegal immigrants creating an impoverished culture where people are forced to scratch out a living through crime, begging and prostitution. The problem is that the same is true for London. But London doesn’t equip its police like Marseille does, so we can’t really expect crime-fighting to reach an efficient and ergonomic level until it does.
So like any amazing city I will have to miss out huge amounts and just talk about the things that I happened to have some reasonable photos to show you.
The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM) was a a truly amazing sight, not only because most tourists will first see it as they emerge from the end where some bright spark put the original museum inside the ruins of Fort Saint-Jean at Vieux-Port. So instead of wandering around a brand new building and looking at pieces of stone or jewellery yanked from the ground miles away, you wander around a real stone fort, complete with tunnels and low ceilings, various living quarters and storerooms now used for historical and modern art installations. You can stand out on the thickest wall facing the sea and understand how it felt to watch the horizon for invading ships. Not that anyone actually had to, as apparently Louis XIV built it because he noticed the people of Marseille, “were extremely fond of nice fortresses”. Well, who isn’t? Also there was a renaissance ship, to really confuse my brain.
So when you emerge at the other side, you are too accustomed to ancient walls and crumbling stone to really take in the sight. Two cuboid buildings, one white, one black, and the bloody Cathédrale de la Major dominating the view beyond. Then you spot something very odd about the black building, the one you are walking towards, crossing the walkway that stretches out to the exhibition centre like a jet-black tongue in the process.
I don’t even know how to describe the pattern that covers the entire outer shell, some official copy suggests its “algae” but I’m not convinced. Negative space for the win.
Inside this web of steel is the huge museum and art exhibition centre. I spent 2 days wandering around it.
The Notre Dame is on the highest point of the area and finding it by velo was great fun, just heading towards it and catching glimpses of the giant golden Mary every now and then. A local pointed out that cycling half a tonne of iron bike up a really steep mountain was not a fun adventure and I took their advice and walked the hundreds of steps up to the basilica, stopping to catch my breath and take in Marseille from above. As I was staying in Vieux-Port, right by the centre, I didn’t understand the scale of Marseille as a city. If London had a huge mountain range on one side and a sea lapping against the other you’d have an idea, the apartment buildings pushing out into both.
So the view from the top kicks the London Eye’s face in. Not much else to say really. It was the view inside that really blew me away.
Central Marseille wasn’t nearly as dodgy, dirty or chocka as London, and regular trams and bike stations (like, more than one per street) meant getting around was effortless. That is, if you knew where you were going – I had to wander around looking at everything mouth wide open, staring at buildings and squinting at maps and transport link information like a drunk.