Marseille and le sud
October 21, 2010 § 1 Comment
It was dawn when I awoke in the small room we had reserved in Marseille, the second largest town in France after Paris, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. I dressed in my warmest fleece — though it was not too warm as I had been expecting beach weather — grabbed a couple mini pain au chocolats from the breakfast spread downstairs, and a tartine spread with blueberry jam, and struggled outside into the cold. I walked down rue Edmond Rostand, back under the arch welcoming you to the Quartier Antiquares, to the old port, where hundreds of leisure boats were tied up for the night. I took shelter from the wind at the Bar de la Marine, where I took a café crème at a small table alongside half a dozen old weathered men, who were reading the newspapers and making short comments to each other. Every time another man walked in, he would go around the tables shaking hands with them all, before grabbing seat. Obviously, a regular Saturday morning habit.
News of the French grèves topped the front pages of every paper, with an expected street demonstration in the afternoon, and the men commented that, in their days, they would never have asked to be paid for a strike day, which is one of the reasons people are still protesting. They handed me the women’s fashion section and then seeing that I was more interested in the news, gave me that one too. One man’s dog — a black furry little thing whom I initially thought was named Milou, like the dog in the TinTin comics before realizing that it was actually the bar patron whose name was Milou — came and sat beside me, quite still, just gently resting on my leg. And that is how the day woke in Marseille.
I walked by the water, taking in the fishermen haggling their morning’s take with passerbys and a couple of others selling good luck charms to tourists. I stopped at a market vendor for a hazelnut macaron, a rustic, hearty little cookie, which could not have been less like the refined Parisian macarons. For which I was very glad. I split two loaves of bread — one cheese-topped olive loaf and one flakey cheese twist — with a nice woman who wanted to try both at the Marché Castellane and then there was a slice of pizza, one of Marseille’s specialties, from a truck vendor on the Castellane circle. Next, we headed out to the Palais Longchamp and a walk around the area nearby, where we found the Eglise Saint-Vincent de Paul. A short Metro ride took us up back to the Vieux Port, where we intended to walk around the Quartier Le Panier.
However, as it was already the middle of the afternoon, the demonstrations were in full force. The grèves over the retraite conflict in France have come to a head, with on-and-off ground transportation for the past week —mostly canceled trains and the Metro running about half of the time —, thousands of people demonstrating in the streets almost every other day and the front pages of every newspaper in the country devoted to the multitude of issues, opinions and standpoints on the age of retirement and government finances. This can make it difficult to move around and between cities in France. While I admire the fact that the French public can be so impassioned over an issue of importance in their lives, so much as to take to the streets and demonstrate — I’m not talking the one-day protests you often see in the United States over one human rights issue or another, but real demonstrations with fire, chants, speakers shouting over the crowds and students bellowing campaign slogans to popular tunes — it is hard to not become increasingly frustrated with the situation. We took shelter by walking the length of the port to the Palais Pharo, climbing to the top and looking out over the Mediterranean waters. The wind was strong on the cliff, blowing in harshly from the shore and we soon decided to look for better shelter.
Dinner was bouillabaisse at Chez Michel on the cliff. Perhaps we went in with some grandiose expectations of bouillabaisse, and left a little disappointed with what is said to be one of the best ones in town. Perhaps I simply fail to see what the big deal is about fish stew.
The next morning, we took a bus up to Aix-en-Provence. A long lunch of tea and salads, with creamy fresh mozzarella, thick slices of salami and prosciutto and fig jam at Le Palantino. A quick stop for a cone of hot, freshly roasted chestnuts on the Cours Mirabeau. Most vineyard tours were closed as it was Sunday and lavender season is long over, so we opted for a 6 euro ride on the little train which took us more or less in little loops around the old town. Walking around on our own proved more fruitful: we stopped at La Cure Gourmande where they eagerly walk around with tins of sweets, shoving one cookie or chocolate after another at you for tasting. And really, who could deny them that. Finally a real lemon tart, without all that excessive sweetness that is meringue, at Paul Patisserie. Then it was to Les Deux Garçons, an old brasserie frequented by many famous writers, for a final cup of tea before catching the 7:15 p.m. bus back to Marseille.
Unfortunately, the bus didn’t have the same plans and was delayed until about 8 p.m. This meant a lot of time spent freezing at the bus stop in which we made friends with the boy sitting next to us. Turns out he was going back to Marseille for school — he is studying to be a watchmaker, which is his passion — after having been home in a small town outside Aix for the weekend. When we disembarked the bus in Marseille and were saying goodbye, his face light up like a little kid’s on Christmas and he declared that he had a present for us. A little bit of rummaging around in his bag later — during which I was sure he was going to produce either a watch, or a bag of candy — he produced a bottle of wine from his hometown of Luberon. And, as my friend said, you can go from loving the French, to hating them, to loving them again, all in a day’s travels.