I finished reading To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf today and I was struck by a sentence about sleepy train travelers staring at the houses, horses, and people they are speeding past, knowing that they have to keep their eyes open because they will never see those things again. I feel that way a lot as I cross France by train, fighting against sleep as my eyes drift from the book in my hands to the countryside that blurs outside the window. Then again, there are places I thought I would never see again and then I find myself returning, like when I visited Clermont-Ferrand in 2005 and studied abroad there in 2006. I hope that Marseille is one of the places I get to see again, but I tried to keep my eyes open and record as many images in my head as I could, just in case.
I got to Marseille on Saturday and met five other assistants at the train station: A.J., Jamie, Kat, Leslie, and Maria. We checked into our hostel near the station and then walked down to Vieux Port. I’d heard French people say that Marseille was dangerous and not pretty, but the view from the harbor was stunning. However, it’s definitely different from anywhere else in France and some of the areas of town weren’t exactly clean or beautiful, but I could tell there are efforts being made to make the city a more inviting place for visitors. As the second-largest city in France, and also the home to a significant immigrant population, Marseille is definitely an engaging destination (even if some French citizens might disagree).
Marseille is on the Mediterranean, but we didn’t get much sun. In fact, it rained almost the entire time we were there. My umbrella became progressively more broken with the heavy wind and both of my boots had holes in them. Despite the fact that my feet were soaked at the end of each day, I had an excellent time.
I think this trip was the perfect example of how you can make the most of a vacation even in the worst weather as long as you’re with cool people and keep a positive outlook. So we paraded around Marseille under a rainbow of umbrellas and attempted to dry our socks on the heater at night. It’s more memorable that way, anyway, and shoes always dry.
After wandering around the Fort St-Nicolas, we went to the Parc du Pharo for a view of the city. I believe we got galettes and cider after that, but it might have been before. Either way, I had a delicious galette with artichoke hearts. There was also a stop for ice cream, despite the cold, and I had a scoop of Coconut Macaroon. The rain only got heavier, though.
We decided to try to find the Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure and wandered through the streets as the lights were reflected off the wet pavement. Little did we know that A.J., who was leading our group, really wasn’t taking us anywhere and just wanted to explore and climb up the steps through the cascading water. I almost think I could have kayaked down the hills of Marseille that night. Anyway, it was still fun and we had drinks in the hostel before ending our first day.
On Sunday we took a boat out of Vieux Port to the Château d’If. The island fortress, which was later used as a prison, was built by François I to protect Marseille. Most visitors know it as where the fictional Edmond Dantès was imprisoned (and later, spoiler alert, escaped) in Alexandre Dumas’ Le Comte de Monte-Cristo. The hole where he moved between his cell and his neighbor’s is even there, although I’m not sure if it was put in after the fact or if it actually existed. Fiction and fact seemed to blur at the Château d’If and there was as much about the fictional characters as there was about the Huguenots and other people who were actually prisoners there.
The Château d’If definitely has an Alcatraz feel, and I think the weather was about the same as when I visited Alcatraz. Waves were crashing against the rock and there was a cold wind and freezing rain. We had met a couple of Texans who were traveling around Europe for a few months and so our group was now at eight.
I wonder if anyone stays at the Château d’If at night. I imagine it would be incredibly lonely and creepy. Maybe I will use it in a novel. Anyway, by the time we were ready to get the boat back to Marseille the weather had gotten really bad. I don’t think I’ll forget being freezing cold in the rain on a tiny island then getting on a little tour boat that rocked on the waves back to the city.
We spent some time warming up and before buying some cookies, including navettes, a local specialty. The navettes are boat-shaped and commemorate when the three saints named Mary (including Mary Magdalene) came to shore in Marseille with help from Lazarus. It’s really hard to tell where the truth starts and the legends end in Marseille, but I think that’s part of its charm. Our next destination was the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde on the top of the hill in town. We thought we had it worked out and took the metro so we wouldn’t have to hike, but we hilariously went exactly the opposite direction. On coming out of the metro station, we could see the basilica directly across from us on the other side of town. We did eventually make it over there and watched the sunset from the cliffs behind the church.
The last day we had a few hours before our respective trains and took a walk to see the Chateau d’Eau in Parc Longchamp. The fountain wasn’t on, but it was still worth the walk to see the grandiose structure. Then I ate a mushroom fougasse before catching the train back to Valence. And I kept my eyes open the whole way, watching the Provence countryside turn into the Rhône-Alpes.