Marseille – The French Connection, The Count of Monte Cristo and “The meeting place of the entire world” (Alexandre Dumas)

I had reservations about coming to Marseille to be honest. It seems to be a real mixed bag down here. There are some dodgy areas to be sure. I guess every large city has them whether they’re in the south of France or not. But I’d seen the French Connection, and heard about its ancient history and was curious.

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Gene Hackman in French Connection II, and some cute french cars…

By now I was on day 14 of my 21 day road tour around France, and fatigue was setting in. Because I’m only staying in a place for 2-3 nights maximum it can be difficult to make connections, and it’s also tiring. The same conversation about myself. People are very curious about this solo, female traveller with appalling French. But they are curious in a nice way and I have had the most wonderful reception from the people here. Do try to speak some French, it gets you a long way and then most people speak a little English so you can have a decent conversation.

Anyway, onwards 2.5 hours from Nice towards Marseille. I stayed at the Belle Vue Hotel which overlooks the old port and is a wonderful place to people watch. Don’t expect luxury but the rooms all have a wonderful view, which is what you pay for. Having said that, they are clean, the staff are very friendly and there is a wonderful bar where, if you’re lucky (and I have been, twice so far) you can get a balcony table and watch the world go by. Breakfast is E10 and a good, traditional, continental fayre. Definitely worth a look.

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Not a bad view from my window…
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My hotel window, overlooking the old port and the Notre Dame de la Guarde – the Basilica of Marseille…
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contemplated getting one of these myself, to shelter from the blistering heat
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Off to Chateau D’If on the hourly boat, the sea breeze bringing welcome relief from the afternoon heat
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Fun to watch fellow solo travellers wandering around, taking selfies…and becoming a bit of an expert myself 🙂
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waiting for the boat to take me back to mainland Marseille… and joining in the fun of offering to take photos in return for ones of myself which include both hands…

             

I love Marseille. It’s a place where you can see people from every corner of the globe. There were jazz musicians playing next to African musicians; the smell of all of the different types of food was mouth watering.

When I’m on the coast, I eat fish. What better food to eat than one which has made it from ocean to table within a few hours? Solo dining in France is easy peasy. It’s tourists that seem to have a problem with it. I enjoyed countless numbers of lunches and dinners with only my fellow waiters/waitresses for company. It’s a great opportunity to try out your French, (I speak French, they speak English, that way we both get to practice), and waiting staff are the perfect people from whom to extract local knowledge about where to go, where not to go, and where to get the best deals. Try it. They won’t bite. And you might even get an extra sneaky glass of wine if you smile sweetly enough… 🙂

On the subject of dining for one… some rules:

1. The view. Get a table with a view. Preferably in a piazza, plaza or somewhere where people and the world wander by. You’ll have no need to open that book that you’ve brought along with you.

2. Friendly waiting staff. They will entertain you, treat you and if you’re lucky, take a great photo of you with yet another glass of wine and cigarette…

3. Eat early. By early, I mean around 7 ish. The restaurant will be quite empty and you will have the pick of the tables. Also, you are unlikely to annoy the maitre d’ with your insistence on having the premier table in the restaurant…by yourself…for the whole evening.

4. Dress nicely. The maitre d’ is likely to enjoy having you sit in prime position in his restaurant as you make it look good. They don’t underestimate the value of having good looking customers sitting at their  tables, so take advantage.

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Moules et frites… naturellement. Courtesy of Sarl Collins, 42 Quai du Port 13002 Marseille France A decent quay-side restaurant. Nothing fancy, just good food, decent wine, low prices and a fabulous view of the world going by…
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Yes I was at a table. For one. Eating. By myself. Get over it…
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The scary looking Maitre D’ seemed suitably impressed with my nonchalant table for one…and entertained me with a rendition of Nessun Dorma, accompanied by the obligatory accordionist

Marseille is a cosmopolitan melting pot.  Economic conditions and political unrest in Europe and the rest of the world brought several waves of immigrants during the 20th century: Greeks and Italians started arriving at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, up to 40% of the city’s population was of Italian origin; Russians in 1917; Armenians in 1915 and 1923; Vietnamese in the 1920s, 1954 and after 1975; Corsicans during the 1920s and 1930s; Spanish after 1936; North Africans in the inter-war period ; Sub-saharan Africans after 1945; the pieds-noirs from the former French Algeria in 1962; and then from Comoros In 2006, it was reported that 70,000 city residents were considered to be of Maghrebian origin, mostly from Algeria. The second largest group in Marseille in terms of single nationalities were from the Comoros, amounting to some 45,000 people. Souks jostle for position next to huge Cathedrals topped with golden statues of the Virgin.

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One end of the street…
15 august procession of the assumption marseille
…and the other end of the street.

A wonderful place to sit and watch life go by. As in any place, just hang onto your wallet…

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a city that definitely never sleeps…

Today I took a boat to the Island where Chateau D’If is located.  It  was Marseille’s equivalent of Alcatraz and where the political prisoners were taken during the Napoleonic times. It’s also where they threw 3,500 Protestants (Huguenots) in gaol.

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France’s equivalent of Alcatraz in the USA
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I’m Catholic so they let me go…

Chateau D’If is also the setting for the fictional novel by political writer Alexandre Dumas, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Edmund Dantes is put in gaol for crimes he didn’t commit and spends many years at Chateau D’If. In the same way that people think that Sherlock Holmes existed, they generally believe that Dantes did actually become a prisoner here. It is also supposedly the place where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. Both fictional characters however there were many political and religious people who were sentenced to stay here, and died before their release. It’s well worth the boat trip to visit and see the graffiti left by prisoners as well as the cells:

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Better than Banksy in my opinion
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Much smaller than it first appears…
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Too hot in the summer, freezing in the winter, many prisoners died from the conditions

By the way…Did you know…. the French national anthem stems from a song that a group of Marseille revolutionaries, who walked to Paris, sang during the road. The song became know as the Marseillaise and became the anthem. There you go…. 🙂

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Marseille revolutionaries walked to Paris singing a particular song…which later became the French national anthem.
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La mer….

 

I had to begin my post about Nice and the French Riviera with this delightful song, which always makes me think of the south of France…

Travelling solo can be tricky, especially when you only stay one or two nights in each place. It’s more difficult to form connections with people as it takes a while to get your bearings and confidence. That’s when organised outings can be useful.

So, I met JJ in Monaco, when I went for my little ride in the little red car. He actually lives in Nice which was my next port of call and so we arranged to meet up this morning, for coffee (cigarettes obligatory), at Wayne’s Bar (www.waynes.fr), his local and the place to go if you want to converse in English…

The great thing about meeting local people is that they can give you local knowledge. I expressed an interest in spending the day at the beach but wasn’t overly enamoured with Nice. It’s nice … if you like tourists, gift shops and souvenir shops.  However the shops are open all day long , which can be a relief after my failing to remember on each occasion that France closes at 12pm for lunch…until 3 or 4pm…

So I was recommended a place called Juan Les Pines… a 20 or so minutes train ride between Nice and Cannes. I could have driven but was told the parking would be horrendous…which was absolutely right. So, in my bestest (which is diabolical) French, I found the tram to the train station and then the train to Juan Les Pines.

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Nice Ville train station, waiting for the train to Cannes which stops at Juan Les Pins

 

And I did it. I have to admit feeling a sense of pride when I actually found myself at the beach (sand, Nice is pebble), with a baguette and a coke, sunbathing with all of my clothes on. Because you see, my skin hates the sun. Thanks to my Irish heritage, I break out in hives and a curious lobster like complexion if I don’t apply Factor 500 and wear the equivalent of a bed sheet on the beach. Which generated more than a few curious stares from onlookers – all French – all gorgeous (not many chip butties are eaten in these parts) and all bronzed. Not to mention the fact that I was a female, alone

 

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topless sunbathing… it’s not for everyone…
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I did bare a shoulder… eventually!

 

If you want to be a female solo traveller…get used to being looked at. Not out of any animosity, just total curiosity. But there’s no hiding the curiosity with French people. They will stand and gawp at you quite openly. I ‘m surprised I haven’t been carried off to the local zoo at an exhibit…

 

 

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Those storm clouds eventually scared everyone off the beach…

 

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Chilling in the afternoon sun…

 

My last night in Nice was great fun. JJ introduced me to his wonderful daughter Leia and in turn, I was introduced to some great (if a little crazy!) guys at Wayne’s bar. Do go here for a drink. It’s good fun (can be loud after 10pm) and it’s an English speaking bar so you can seek out people to talk to when you have tired of conjugating the past tense in French. The beer gives you courage to have a joke but please be prepared to explain yourself – British humour is different and we tease an awful lot (well, I do anyway). People can take us literally. I tell people that if I am smiling when I say something then I am joking. Then they will do the same thing with you! Just don’t get too drunk otherwise you put yourself in a vulnerable situation, which is very easy to do…

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Lovely French guys at Wayne’s Bar.

 

Being arty farty… and as if by magic, the shopkeeper appeared…

I do like a bit of art. No, honest, I do. I don’t know why. My daughter is an Art/Art History student so I guess having all that arty farty stuff around has been rubbing off on me for the past couple of years.

Art was the raison d’etre of my first visit to Florence (not, I have to admit though, the subsequent ones…which were more about using my own imagination with a certain local chef…)

I thoroughly recommend using guided tours if: 1. You are a solo traveller ( a great way to meet like minded people in a safe and public environment) and 2. You have, like me, no idea what you are looking at.

Guided tours, such as those arranged by http://www.viator.com are the perfect way to really get to know about a specific type of art. The guides are experts in their own fields and have a passion for passing on this knowledge to others. I always try to use one when attending a gallery. However, none were available for the artists that I have seen in Nice (Matisse and Chagall) and Antibes (Picasso), so I had to rely on what I had learnt on previous tours, and the amazing information that I have gleaned from daughter no. 2 over the past couple of years.

It is said that artists come to the South of France for the light, and then stay. Well, I’m totally with them on that one. Today I understood why it’s called the Cote D’Azur. The brilliance of the colours is astonishing. It has to be seen to be believed, no photograph can do it justice. I’ve visited quite a few places over the years, on the Mediterranean but none have provided the startling clarity of light. It’s as though God’s passed a j cloth and some Windolene over the whole place so that it sparkles. The blues of the sea and the sky are enchanting. Do go. You’ll love it.

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No photoshop needed here at Antibes. No wonder Picasso stayed.

 

Anyhow, back to being arty farty. For an unquiet mind such as my own, art provides tranquility. Don’t ask me how it does this. It just works. When the mind is restless, as mine is quite often, spending time in a calm, quiet environment, staring at stuff, trying to understand what the stuff is trying to say (if anything), seems to provide a perfect distraction. Yes, I know psychiatric units provide calm, quiet environments too but I’m trying to keep out of those…

So I found the Museum of Matisse in a little town just outside of Nice called Cimiez. And I got him. I just totally understood why he was such a genius (no, stay with me on this one, I’m not about to dig out my wimple and turn all Sister Wendy).  I loved the way that I could see a bunch of squiggly lines on a white canvas and interpret it as someone dancing or someone happy. I loved the paintings with the colours that depict emotion. I didn’t need a book to tell me this. I just saw it. Maybe it’s a benefit of lithium?

 

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In my element. Art quietens my unquiet mind.

 

When you’re alone, your train of thought is just your own. No one is around to make suggestions to you about what you are looking at, it’s just your own interpretation. And the great thing about art is that there’s no right or wrong answer so your opinions are as valid as anyone else’s. And I always like to be right.

 

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Matisse; expressing le joie de vivre with such simplicity. Alternatively entitled: Me, when I’m right.

 

 

And before anyone says it, yes, Matisse could paint properly!!!!

For me, the picture above has more expression than the one below, yet is much simpler. I like this idea. Cut the crap and get to the point. Works for me.

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yes, it’s an early Matisse.

 

So I really liked Matisse, and I went to find him in the Cimiez cemetery to tell him so…

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Matisse. A top bloke.

 

Feeling inspired and full of arty fartiness, I made a move down the hill back into Nice, to the Marc Chagall museum. When I later asked my new French chums if they’d visited either museum, they just looked at me and said “Non. We live here”, which I guess is true. When you live somewhere, you tend to leave the touristy stuff to, well, tourists.

Marc Chagall was a Russian Jew who moved to France when young. He painted a lot of weird stuff, like people with their heads off, walking on their hands, that kind of thing. And whilst I liked his paintings, I couldn’t help but think of the children’s classic cartoon, Mr Benn:

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Marc Chagall
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Mr Benn at the Circus

 

Perhaps I’m not such a good art critic, after all…