Our trip to Marseilles begins with a 1+ hour drive along the toll highway run by Vinci, the French construction company that runs all the toll highways in France (and all the parking lots in Paris). Vinci also runs the parking lot where I work. Anyway, our first destination is the beach…a nice little public beach where, if you get in early enough to find a place to park, you can stake out a place in the sun and grab your snorkelling gear and go tropical fish spotting. Or people watching. There is quite an assortment of people here, women in hijabs mingle with topless women, babies with big pink bellies as well as hairy middle-aged men with big pink bellies.
As the mouth of the bay widens, the beach is replaced by a rocky shore that is closed to swimmers and beachgoers, offering the owners of the expansive villas on the hilltop with a bit more privacy for their million-euro villas. By lunchtime the heat is unbearable unless you’re in the water. We have lunch at the nearby restaurant. The 1 km walk in the 37 degree heat to find my rental car almost kills me.
We head off to Marseilles proper, or specifically the Vieux Port section. This area was, not long ago, a dirty slum that was to be torn down — it being one of the few older areas of town that wasn’t bombed out or blown up by the Germans during the last great war. The municipal government decided to tart it up by refinishing the dirty brown buildings and encouraging artists to take over the abandoned spaces. The place now is the scene for one of the most popular French dramas, Plus belle la vie where the real life neighbourhood known as Le panier (The Basket) is portrayed as the fictional neighbourhood of Mistral. The neighbourhood is very gritty, the people very real but you can tell its on the cusp of transformation with artsy shops alongside substance abuse recovery centres.
Nearby there is a magnificent set of buildings that used to house the sick and poor who were ministered by various religious orders. We don’t have time to tour the inside so we move on to tour the rest of Mistral/Le panier. We make our way up and down the neighbourhood until we arrive at the old port which is now mostly reserved for pleasure craft and the odd Coast Guard ship. In the distance, on the hillside, is a very old church, Notre Dame de la Garde. There is no shortage of old churches in France. Further down there not one but two forts…one fort guards the northern approach to the port while the other overlooks the more vulnerable southern approach. At one point, it is obvious, this was a very important port.
Returning back to car park, we pass by the Cathédrale La maj0r, a 19th century Byzantine church that is reputed to be one the best examples of this architecture in France. Too pooped by the sun and the beach, we pass on the opportunity to visit the cathedral and make our way to our cars, pack up our cameras and head back onto the highway back to Manosque.