Marseille, settled by the Greeks as a trading colony called Massalia some 2,600 years ago, is France’s second city. Neither of us had been here before, and it was quite the eye opener. Just a short train ride from the very cute – chic, even – Aix-en-Provence, the minute we stepped out of the train station you could feel the change. It was almost as though we were no longer in France, though that’s a bit of an overstatement. Still, the links with the Mediterranean cultures of North Africa were palpable. At one point Mark was off having coffee at a café while I was in a park reading and he texted me “I am having coffee in the Middle East. I’m not that far from the hotel, but…”One of the changes for us back in the West is that we’re acting more like tourists again – going to museums and churches, even shopping. So on Thursday morning we headed off to the Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean, annoyed that it didn’t open until 11:00 AM (we’re morning people, and besides, in lots of French restaurants if you’re not in by 1:30 PM you don’t get in, so an 11:00 opening time is cutting it a little close). What do we discover when we get there? May 1, it turns out, is a big holiday in France. In fact, May 1 and December 25 are the only two days of the year when the museum is closed. That meant that most of the restaurants and everything else in the city was closed that day, too. What is with these people, don’t they ever work??
And then to add insult to injury, when we finally did go to the museum the next day, it was a big disappointment. Great architecture and great space, but way too broad and disjointed; trying to be a little bit of everything, it never really told much of a story about Mediterranean civilization.
The other big activity of our stay – besides meals, of which there were many great ones – was an eight- or nine-mile hike up in the Calanques, a rugged coastal area just east of Marseille and France’s newest national park. The bartender at the hotel where we stayed told us the cliffs were the tallest in all of Europe, and you can always trust your bartender, right? He was certainly right in that the cliffs were high and the views spectacular. It was a great hike until, nearing the peak, we noticed that the blue skies had all been replaced by clouds. Not long after, instead of a beautiful hike along the Mediterranean coast, we were being pelted with strong winds and a light but cold rain. Not quite idyllic any longer.
So that was Marseille. We never ended up having bouillabaisse. We learned that you either get a kind of crappy imitation, or you spend about $100 per person for the real thing. And then because of the May Day holiday, we couldn’t even get into the one restaurant we wanted to try it in (it was closed). Maybe next time.
From Marseille it’s onto a ferry boat for a 24-hour cruise down to Tunisia. Stay tuned.