Our alarms erupted at 4:45 AM. My brother Tom and I had 45 minutes to reach the subway that would take us to the Gare de Lyon for our 6:14 AM train south! I admit this was fundamentally unfair to Tom; he had only arrived in France two days before, and jet lag hadn’t really unclenched its grip. He gamely pulled himself together, though, and soon we had reached the train station on the southeast part of central Paris.
Even if the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) is almost as old as I am, it’s still a thrill to ride. Paris and Marseille are 660 km apart (just over 400 miles), but the TGV can cover that distance in 3h20m. Tom and I didn’t have the direct route, though; instead, we were taking the train to Valence and then changing to a different route to reach Avignon, where we were staying for the next two nights. We would do day trips from there to reach Marseille and Orange.
The trouble was that I got clever on the way to Valence. Since the train we would take from Valence to Avignon continued on to Marseille, why not buy tickets that would allow us to stay on board all the way down? We had a 33-minute layover at Valence that should allow me enough time to make the purchase. Well, we got the tickets purchased, but the time required meant we reached the departure platform as the train for Marseille departed. I had a few moments of self-flagellation, but soon I got down to business. We could still take a direct train to Marseille, but we needed to wait for the 9:45 opening of the ticket office. Once it opened, we exchanged our tickets for the 11:20 train to Marseille instead. Tom used the time to sleep in a relaxation chair. All is well that ends well?
It can be a bit unfortunate that one makes a first impression of a city when traveling by train based upon the area around its train station. In my experience, that usually means more than a little rust, weeds, and graffiti; in this Marseille was no exception. Because we needed to board our train north to Avignon around dinner time, our exploration of Marseille would be squeezed to four or five hours.
Helpfully, I had learned that bus 82S would pick us up at the train station, wind through the old city on the north side of the port, and finally drop us at Plage des Catalans, a public beach on the Mediterranean Sea. Unfortunately, the first bus for that route was out with a mechanical problem. When the second bus pulled up, we started to board but then learned we needed to be able to pay the fare in coins (“monnaie”) rather than notes. I hustled into the train station to buy some M&Ms for change, and then we were onboard.
Despite living in Lyon for a couple months in 1994, I had never been to Marseille. I was surprised to learn that Marseille is built on the bones of Massalia, a Greek colony settled by people from Phocaea (in modern-day Turkey) around 600 BCE. The Romans liked the location, too, adapting the name to “Massilia” when Julius Caesar took the city in 49 BCE. During the middle ages, Marseille was France’s premier port on the Mediterranean, and today it is the second most populous metropolitan area in France (though it has less than half as many people as does Paris).
Brothers to the Beach
The first part of our city tour on Bus 82S was a bit discouraging. The phrase “sun-blasted” lingered in my mind, and the neighborhoods seemed somewhat uninviting. When the bus emerged to follow Quai de la Joliette southward, though, we saw the sun, the water, and some beautiful architecture along the waterfront. The all-star was definitely the Marseille Cathedral. After a steady diet of Parisian Gothic, the seat of the archdiocese in Marseille was a welcome change for me. I was surprised to be reminded of Sacré-Coeur in its Byzantine-Revival style, and the striped layers of bricks made me think of Italy’s churches.
When the bus followed the outline of the rectangular port, Marseille really shone. The masts of the flotilla were just everywhere, and restraurants and other businesses were doing great business. We had a bit of a surprise at the east end of the port; a protest from labor unions seemed to be underway. Our bus managed to pass through without much difficulty, and we soon passed the south side of the port to climb a ridge that was surmounted by a fortress of some sort, and boom! We had arrived at the beach, just like that.
Plage des Catalans was a popular destination on our day. Tom and I walked around the site a bit. A lookout point to the south side of the beach gave me the chance to photograph the Frioul Islands, one of which features a 16th century fortress that was the setting for Dumas’ novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo.” We came to the beach, though, so that Tom could indulge himself in a swim in the Mediterranean Sea. In just a few moments, he was ready for the water, while I guarded our backpacks. In no time at all, he was ready for his “James Bond” moment:
Honestly, after his wading time, we were a bit unclear on how we would spend the rest of our time. We had plenty of time before our train back to Avignon, and we could use the bus or the metro to return to the station. We were intrigued by the huge fortress on the hilltop to our east, so we started trudging eastward. Sadly, it seems that Fort St. Nicolas had not reopened to tourists, but it would be an amazing place to photograph the city. As is true with fortifications from throughout Europe, Louis XIV designed the 17th century fortress to protect the city and also to protect itself from the city (don’t forget that the revolutionary national anthem is named after the people of Marseille: the Marseillaise).
What really blows my mind is that the French constructed a high bridge between this high point and Fort Saint Jean on the other side of the channel into the port. The “Pont transbordeur de Marseille” spanned 165 meters, 80 meters above sea level, and it was completed in 1905. Unhelpfully, the Nazis blew apart the northern support in 1944, and the bridge has not been replaced.
3km back to the station
Once we descended from the fortress, we were in the popular port zone. I stopped to photograph the National Theatre of Marseille (featuring a big banner reading “OCCUPY”), and two young fellows wanted to be part of the image. I was a bit dumbfounded when we encountered the Musée du Savon; who knew we needed a Museum of Soap? I thought it might be fun, but Tom thought we should continue along the waterfront. I would not have imagined that we would soon be standing in front of a Steak ‘n Shake, but there it was before us.
Our walk along the port took us past a pile of busy restaurants, and other pedestrians were everywhere. We passed the triumvirate of KFC, McDonald’s, and Burger King to reach the northeast corner of the port. The facade of Église Saint-Ferréol les Augustins was a stately but brooding presence at this corner of the commercial district. The protest (“manifestation”) we had seen nearby earlier in the day left posts on a nearby wall that read “Patriarcat = Dicktature” (“patriarchy is dictatorship,” with an emphasis on male dictators). Apparently the church has recently been occupied as part of protests.
The historical site I most wanted to see lay behind the church. The Port Antique or Garden of Vestiges is surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean Center for International Trade, the Marseille History Museum, and the Centre Bourse (hotel and business center). The ancient port, opened to the public in 1983, was re-discovered in the course of a large-scale construction project for the neighborhood. It represents three layers of construction: the Hellenistic (4th century – 1st century BCE), the Roman (1st century BCE – 3rd century CE), and the late (4th century – 8th century CE).
It’s natural to ask where the water is, since we call this a “port!” Over the last two thousand years, the shoreline has descended by approximately 40 meters. Of course, if we look over a truly long period, we would find that during the Ice Age, so much water was frozen in the poles that water levels were far lower in the Mediterranean than they are today, unmasking the entrance to the Cosquer Caves, a premier site near Marseille for the cave paintings of early humans.
If we had an extra two hours in town, I would have gladly visited the history museum, but we wanted to be sure we caught our train. Since we still had the time to enjoy the walk, Tom and I meandered up the hill along Rue Barbusse. We had a bit of a surprise when we suddenly encountered the triumphal arch at Porte d’Aix. The construction of the arch began in 1823 under Louis XVIII (whose reign as king was interrupted by not one but two periods of Napoleon as emperor) and completed in 1839 under the last king of France, Louis Philippe I. Today the area has become a popular lounge for young people.
From there, we followed Rue des Dominicaines and Rue des Petites Maries back to the train station. We were proud of our long walk, even though a bus or metro would have saved some time. I was happy to discover that the hilltop position of the train station gave a good view of Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, a “Romano-Byzantine” church crowning the tallest hill in Marseille. I laughed to discover that its 23-year-old architect, Jacques Henri Espérandieu, was a Protestant! The church appears conspicuously in the opening scenes of the French Connection.
We boarded our train up to Avignon, and Tom was asleep in moments.