Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Days 4287 to 430: Marseille

If you've read this blog from time to time and noticed the comments section, you'll see that someone by the name of Piltup fairly regularly makes remarks, often to add a little extra background, sometimes to agree with what I've written, occasionally to politely disagree. A few people have asked me if I know this shadowy figure, to which I reply in the negative. He's just a random internet person, therefore possibly just a computer-generated algorithm, who happens to like history, architecture, and the sizing up of potential World Wonders. Well, it turns out he's real, he lives in Marseille and was around for a few pints.


Danielle and I arrived in Marseille on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, checking into a petite but clean and perfectly-located apartment found via Airbnb. We've used Airbnb only a handful of times on this trip, with very mixed results. It's a great resource, but you have to choose carefully. Sharing with others can occasionally feel... awkward. One older couple we stayed with some months earlier were perfectly friendly, but existed in a state of paused silence, as if something should be about to happen or be said but never quite did. We felt like teenagers creeping up to our attic bedroom. The man, again very friendly, liked making his own art. My advice: never stay with someone who makes their own art. They'll insist upon showing you it, and you have to smile and say how lovely it is. Within minutes of arriving, he was showing us his book of fairly graphically nude African ladies, embellished in multicolour. "Oh, how lovely," Danielle said, the consummate professional, as she flicked through the pages.

But here in Marseille, there were no such issues, and we had the apartment to ourselves. We settled in and I sent a text message out to Piltup. We'd agreed to meet for a pint that day. He replied swiftly and within an hour, we were all sitting having a beer. And there went Sunday.

Well, it wasn't just a day of drinking, we had some culture as well. Nearby was the Abbey of Saint Victor, an 11th Century construction with origins from centuries before and embellishments from centuries after. From the outside, it looks like a typical blocky medieval fortification, no-nonsense and sturdy. Inside, it looks like a fairly spartan stone church. It was once a lot fancier, but it was entirely stripped down during the French Revolution, and as with many religious buildings in that era, the recently-visited Papal Palace in Avignon included, turned into barracks and stables. As it happens, one of its abbots later became pope - Urban V - during the Avignon years.

The crypt was an unexpected delight, cave-like and packed full of ancient sarcophaguses, or sarcophagi, or whatever the plural of this kind of thing is. My automated Google spellchecker seems to prefer sarcophagi, but I don't like that. Sarcophagus-sarcophagi... it's like saying the plural of bus is "bi". Or maybe not. Anyway, the crypt was good, very atmospheric, and some of these sarcophag-etc were from the 4th Century, so pretty old.

Monday was our full day of exploration of Marseille, and Piltup had given us some tips. Marseille is the oldest settled city in France, originally settled by Greeks in 600 BC but with human habitation found from thousands of years earlier. The Romans took over in 49 BC and the city thrived. Not much exists from back then though, and even much of the medieval area was lost during the Second World War, deliberately burnt to the ground by the Nazis, officially for sanitary reasons, really because it was a Jewish area. In that regard, and in several others, I found that Marseille resembled Thessaloniki in Greece. Both are port cities with ancient histories, both are cities that have had much of the physical evidence of that history destroyed. The Jewish population of both cities was eliminated by the Nazis, and the cities suffered greatly due to fire (whether by the Nazis or otherwise) in the last century. As a result, both cities are plagued with the monstrous tower blocks of the 1950s and 1960s, huge, ugly concrete things like acne spread across a pretty face. But despite all that - and this is where I found the cities most alike - there is a palpable sense of something happening. Both cities have a presence. They may not be blessed with looks architecturally (although neither are they redundant), but they have a natural geography by the sea and up slopes that gives a physical character and outline. There are plenty of rough edges but both are lively cities with character, a kind of roguish charm. If they were footballers, they'd be tough defenders, prone to wild hacks and red cards, but also with the occasional surging run and glory goal. You'd want them on your team. I liked Thessaloniki, and I liked Marseille.

No doubt the scenic set piece of the city is the Notre-Dame de la Garde, perched on the hill overlooking all of Marseille and the Mediterranean beyond. Built in the 19th Century on the site of an old fort, still quite visible, it is a striking addition to Marseille's skyline and its most iconic feature. It is full of quirks inside, particularly the naval theme that sees many pictures of ships and even model boats hanging from the ceiling. Piltup did his own Piltup Corner some time ago which covers it more fully, so I advise a look there, but I can confirm: it's really nice. On a lovely sunny Monday morning, both Danielle and I were thoroughly charmed by the neo-Byzantine Notre-Dame. So were the 12+ coachloads of tourists I'm sure.

Some time ago, Piltup had pushed for the Notre-Dame de la Garde to be included on my list of potential Wonders. It would be a respectable candidate, but my list isn't about finding a top 100, it's about a top 7, and in the end I have to be discerning about what I include, lest the rest of my life is spent chasing potential Wonders around the world. Nonetheless, as he was pleased to hear, I can confirm that the Notre-Dame is definitely much better than the Sacre-Coeur.

Marseille was made European city of culture last year, as part of an overall renewal of the city over the last decade or so. As a port city, it has that grittier edge, but redevelopment has also brought out its beauty. Despite the concrete blocks doing their best to invade the scene, Marseille still has plenty of attractive architecture, old and new. There's the old 17th Century forts right by the harbour, with a flash new modern museum attached. This whole area was, until very recently, a car park, according to Piltup. These days, it's a delightful open area for tourists and locals to stroll by the sea.

And a flash new office building designed by Zaha Hadid. All curves and glass, and alone in a sea of stone and concrete, this was a gamble - and it works.

And right by the port is the Port Vieux Pavilion, a simple overhead canopy of highly reflective stainless steel. Apparently, a lot of people were unsure about it, but I think it works great. It was designed by Foster & Partners, who did stuff like the Millau Viaduct and London's Gherkin, so they seem to know what they're doing.

On Monday evening, we met with Piltup again, and drank in one of his local boozers to close our time in the city. Two days - although just one day of actual sightseeing - wasn't enough, but our Airbnb place was booked for the following night. Marseille has to go on our growing list of places we'd like to return to, and it was a pleasant surprise for a city I knew little about. It has the perfect of balance of being a great city for tourists to visit without catering too carefully for tourists - it has other things to do with its time. Marseille has its own preoccupations, and is a very real city for that. And Piltup, as far I could tell, is real too and not computer-generated in the slightest.

Still something funny about the guy I can't quite put my finger on...

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to print this article out and nail it on the door of the Sacré Coeur, Martin Luther style!


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