A Travellerspoint blog

Marseilles - a gritty city on the cusp of rebirth

Arriving late, arriving early and a lesson in Boullaibaise!

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2013!  That's when we should have come here.  That's the year that appears all over Marseilles -- on signs and billboards and construction project signs. The entire city seems under re-construction.

First, though, our rental car.  Turns out we were only 8 minutes late arriving at the rental place.  The agent was very pleasant and had all our paperwork ready, so it was a very quick transaction.  Alas, they did not have the Audi that we had ordered, but instead we got a brand new (only about 200 miles on the odometer) Citroen DS3.  No matter.  With its red body and white roof, it was cute and oh so French.  Tres chic!

As we left the rental place, we tried following some maps and directions I had printed out, but after our first turn,  err...  roundabout - Europeans LOVE their roundabouts -- we realized we were going in the exact opposite direction.  Oops!  I guess we needed to turn on our iPad's GPS.  On to Marseilles.

On first entering Marseilles, you are keenly aware that this is a working class city.  First off, it is huge with 1.5 million people, and so, as every large city, does not exactly exude charm. Urban sprawl and graffiti is prevalent, as are the warnings about theft appearing in our guide books.

As you arrive in the Vieux Port (Old Harbor), however, you realize that this city is trying to reinvent itself. All along the waterfront, which is a long U-shaped harbor, the entire street and sidewalk is under reconstruction, with a new street and wide pedestrian promenade being paved in fresh cobblestone.  When this area completes its latest incarnation (how many after 2600 years?!?!?), it will be a stroller's paradise.  But for now, it makes it a nightmare to navigate by car, and cuts off the waterfront completely from the many "waterfront" hotels and restaurants. I guess we are a year too early.

When we first arrive, we are struck by the way the reality of experiencing a place in person does not quite compare to the photographs one has seen.  The apartment buildings that you didn't notice in the background now seem so much closer.  However, our hotel, La Residence du Vieux Port, and our room are directly on the waterfront, and as we get settled, we begin to feel the ambiance of the area rise in direct opposite correlation to the setting of the sun.

photo 4 (from email)

photo 4 (from email)

At night, Marseille's harbor becomes beautiful, with the church on the hill in the background all lit up, including it's enormous golden statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus, along with the uplighting of the twin forts and ramparts guarding the two sides of the entrance to the harbor, and all the buildings along the waterfront.

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We go only 2 doors down from our hotel and have an incredible meal at Miramar.  It is the only restaurant with white tablecloths on their outdoor tables.  That, along with its prices, should have been our first clue that this was going to be a special meal.  The next clue was when they brought out two good-sized canapés with sliced truffles on top, before we had ordered anything.  I thought they were delicious, and even Jim, who hates mushrooms, thought they were "not bad".  Next up was an "amuse-bouche" of cool and creamy pea soup - again, not ordered.  Our entrees were tres delicieux - filet de boeuf (amazingly good!) and daurade (fish) la Provençal.  Then came a pre-dessert, again on the house, a pistachio creme with a brown sugar top crust.  Dessert was, of course, fantastique - a citrus soufflé and a molten chocolate cake with strawberry confiture and vanilla ice cream, which was almost too pretty to eat!  Overall, one of our best meals - ever!

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The next morning we walked along the fish market:  a few stalls set up every day at the end of the harbor with the fishermen's wives peddling every creature from the sea that their husband's had caught overnight and brought in first thing in the morning:  all kinds of fish, octopus, cuttlefish, eels, lobsters, varying mollusks, even starfish and seahorses.

We did the touristy thing and took the Petit Train, a small "train" (like the Conch Train in Key West) along the harbor and the fort and the beaches, then up some winding and steep roads all the way to the top of the hill and the church, La Notre Dame.  From up here you get great views of the city and the sea and the nearby Frioul islands.  You can also get a better sense of the enormity of the statue of the Madonna.  Inside the church, the baroque ornamentation is stunning juxtaposed with all sorts of sailing paraphernalia and pictures, along with little wooden model ships strung up one over the other and hung from the ceiling - all a testament to the long history of fishing in this port city.

In the afternoon, we took a drive out of the city and travelled the coastal roads to nearby  Cassis, where we found a fun road called La Route des Crete, which takes you to the next town of La Ciotat.  This road is a twisting, turning roller-coaster of a road that winds its way high up in the hills, with overlooks atop sheer cliffs that drop straight-down, a thousand feet into the sea.  The views over the coastal towns and the Med are breathtaking.  Jim got a little nervous as we took pictures and I stood near the cliff's edge (no guard rails, of course).  The route was fun to drive in our little Citroen.  As we returned to Marseilles, we commented on how surprised we both were at how arid this area of France is.  We expected lush green, but instead were greeted with a landscape more reminiscent of Arizona, and in some areas, there are large red-rock formations, like in Utah.  Actually, it's nice to go somewhere and have your preconceived notions and expectations wiped clean.

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As the sun set and we watched the "golden hour" begin from our hotel balcony, the soft pastel hues of the buildings intensified and the water started to turn shimmering gold.  We couldn't think of a better place to be (certainly better than a crowded sidewalk restaurant overlooking a construction project), and so, ordered room service -- cheese platter, the city's famous Boullaibaise, and dessert -- to enjoy right there on the balcony.

[Side note:  Boullaibaise is the famous fish stew that originates from this city.  On most menus, there is typically "Boullaibaise" and "the real Boullaibaise".  I had to ask: what's the difference?  Boullaibaise is made with at least 5, and as many as 12, different fish, and never shellfish.  The "plain" Boullaibaise is made with fish chunks and costs between 28-35 Euros.  The "real" Boullaibaise is made with whole fish, is for a minimum of 2 people, costs as much as 70 Euros per person, and must be ordered 24-48 hours in advance.  Who knew? ]

We decided that we were glad we came to Marseilles, and that the location of our hotel and the sunsets over the harbor were enough to wipe away the grit of this big city.  However, we did feel that 2 nights were plenty, and so, cancelled our 3rd night, and headed on to the Cote d'Azur.

Posted by jim-n-mark 02:11 Archived in France Tagged la des route cassis marseilles cotes boullaibaise ciotat Comments (2)

Observations from an Unworldly Traveler

This is likely going to make me (Jim) an idiot traveling in Europe

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This was an email written by Jim to his family. Because his family knows him well, from his eating habits to his love of cars, many of the observations where those they would understand. Yes...they may make me (Jim) come across as unworldly, but the more I travel the more I realize that I am.....and that is OK.

Hello ShepDogs:

Well I thought I would drop a line to all to let you know how things are going. I know some are reading Mark's web log and keeping up with it as he updates it.  He seems to have a real flair for writing.....and he has even more flair for international travel!  I find myself the shy, embarrassed and a timid traveler in lands where I don't know the language. Can you imagine - me in the background with nothing to say?  Mark walks up to everyone without fear and manages to know enough of the language to understand them and they understand him.  I just stand there and am clueless on what the conversation is.  I knew when we went to Germany with Mom that Mark was conversant in German.  But watching him in countries where he doesn't know the language is amazing.  He walks up to a parking meter in French and says "the parking is free from 6:30pm to 9 am and from 2 pm to 4 pm". I walk up to the meter and cannot figure out anything it says and just pump a fist full of coins in and hope I am right.  As most of you know Mark spent many summers in Europe, many at his grandmother's in Germany and later traveling other countries after high school.  This early introduction to many cultures has benefited him later in life.  I beleive I likely do not possess the patience to learn a new language as I approach 50.   Just when I master my Hola's we are in a country that says bonjour and I end up telling a Frenchman hello in Spanish which further compounds the language barrier when I start speaking in English.

Food.....many on this list would be hungry through much of Europe.  If the frustration doesn't get to you trying to figure out what to order; surely what arrives at your table will not be what you had in mind. Spain - all of you would be hungry....there is no food there a Shepard likes.  If you go bring a box of cereal.  The only thing I knew and enjoyed was a croissant at Starbucks each morning.  France is better.  Mom was right that this is a cuisine capital of the world. We had a 5 course meal where I ordered filet of beef (I deciphered Filet De Boeff and Mark confirmed for me) and Mark ordered a fish I cannot pronounce and have never heard of.  The meal was wonderful and courses arrived that we had no idea what they were.  All were good and all of you would have enjoyed what they brought except the truffled mushrooms....terrible. I also had lasagne....because it is spelled the same in French.  One item on a menu listed a strange word with pomme frites which I have become comfortable with as french fries (why are they not French Fries in France?). When I pulled out my handy translator on my iPhone turns out the unknown word is MOLD!  Mold and French Fries.....what is this country thinking?  I am sure Italy will hold some more frustration at meal time.  Who knows maybe I will weigh less at the end of this trip.

Manners.......rudeness is a way of life.  Kelley would be mixed on this.  A country that shows it's emotions, good and bad, would be right up his alley.  But he may also find himself coming to blows on many occasions as they do not give in.  We saw a restaurant owner go off on people that sat at his cafe tables with ice cream from next door.  Not only did he unleash a tirade of anger at the people, after they left he then continued his tirade at one of the ice cream shop workers.  He was so unhinged I made Mark stop and sit next door so I could watch.  His fit of complete and visible ongoing anger was making the guests of his own restaurant uncomfortable but he did not care.  Mind you I have no idea what he was saying, but there truly was no need to know.  His body language, volume and gestures told you every thing. Drivers are no different.  Especially motorcycles.  They pull around you and into oncoming traffic with the finesse of Evil Kinevel.  I don't know why we don't see more wreaks and carnage on the streets.  I can only imagine what Italian drivers are like.

Cars....not a single minivan sighted.  Forget about Lexus LS, Infiniti I30, Saab, or Acura.  There are streets you couldn't get down with cars that big.  Everything is tiny, ugly and obscure brands you have never heard of.  They even have a car here called Picasso.....and he would be appalled.  We are driving a red Citroen which is clearly not a successful knock off of the Mini Cooper.  Kelley's Bug would be right at home here but strangely you don't see any of them here.  I could not live here just because of the cars.  We saw a Corvette yesterday that is completely obscene looking against the back drop of tiny cars.  I have not seen a car wash which explains why their cars look like they do.  Police and Fire vehicles....when they go by with their funny sirens and tiny cars I expect Inspector Clousseau to pop out of it...makes me giggle every time I see or hear one.

I had to take a quick break from writing this for a shower as it is time for us to go...which brings a last observation for the day. Europeans install these  complex toilets into the wall with all kinds of buttons to micro mange the size of your flush with designs on saving valuable water.  Then you step into their showers and they unleash a freakin Niagara Falls that just about knocks you over in the shower.  Does that really make sense?  I LOVE their showers which makes make me wonder why Europeans don't use them more.........
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Posted by jim-n-mark 01:03 Archived in France Tagged france Comments (0)

Arriving in France with a Bang!

Or,  the French are dying to see us.

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I will admit upfront that the above titles are in very poor taste, and I apologize now.  But when life hands you lemons, you have to make lemonade, and laugh a little at life's misfortunes.  Now that I have your attention....

As we were ordering a refreshment in the train halfway along on the way from Barcelona to Nimes, where we were scheduled to pick up our rental car, the train braked suddenly and harshly.  By the perplexed and worried look on the bar maiden's face, we knew this was not normal.  After coming to a full stop and a few indecipherable announcements in French and Spanish, we possibly discerned that there would be a 2 1/4 hour delay due to an accident.  Looking outside we saw traffic turning around, unable to cross the tracks that we were blocking.  Hmmmm?  Strange. A car accident?  We certainly didn't feel anything.  After more foreign announcements, I finally asked a train employee if they spoke English and what was going on.  The answer was not good:  suicide.

A two hour delay meant we would not make it to Nimes in time before the car rental agency closed, which meant we couldn't drive to Marseilles where we had unrefundable hotel reservations.  After about 30 minutes, they announced it may only be an hour's delay, which meant we would make it in time.  I called the car rental agency to find out what our options were, and got someone who spoke very little English, so I had to call HQ in Paris.  If we did not make it in time we had options but they were expensive: a train to Marseilles plus an additional 155 Euros (about $200) to pick up and return the car in a different city.

I overheard someone trying to explain in English to someone else what had happened. Apparently, there was a funeral procession, and someone was so despondent that they threw themselves on the tracks in front of our train!  How horrible and sad!  We hoped this was not some sort of omen, as this did not bode well for the rest of our trip.

Another announcement that the police had arrived and were removing the body from the tracks, and that it would be a 2 hour delay.  Turns out it was an hour and 45 minutes, putting us at our destination train station at exactly the time that the rental agency closed, but it is an eight minute cab ride from the train station to the agency.  Talk about cutting it close!  After a few more phone calls to Paris, the agent agreed to stay late and wait for us.  Lucky for us.  Not so lucky for the poor soul who was lost.

Posted by jim-n-mark 23:38 Archived in France Tagged train suicide Comments (0)

!Hola, Barcelona!

Land of tapas, rioja, Gaudi & Modernisme

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Arriving in Barcelona, we came upon our unusually named hotel, U232, and found it to be very nice with a strong, masculine decor of black walls, wood accents and sisal carpet - very smart looking.  The name, U232, comes from the address #232 on the Carrer (street) de Comte d'Urgell.  The only issue was that we booked it without first doing any real research on the city of Barcelona itself.  Had we done that, we probably would have booked a place closer to the action of "The Ramblas" or the "Barri Gotic" (more on that in a moment).  But although the location was not ideal, Barcelona's excellent subway system, the Metro, made getting around fairly easy.

Since we arrived first thing in the morning, we had plenty of time to explore the city.  To get a feeling of what the Spaniards, err... sorry, the Catalunyans... do, we walked down the main pedestrian thoroughfare, The Ramblas.  A little clarification here...  Barcelona is in the region of Spain called Catalonia, or Catalunya, and the Catalunyans are fiercely proud of their heritage and consider themselves separate from Spain.  Sometimes you can even see banners hanging from people's balconies that proclaim:  Catalunya is NOT Spain.  They even have their own language, Catalan, which is as different from Spanish as is Italian.  I noticed that it shares some characeteristics with French, which makes sense as it borders France.  Most official signs and things like restaurant menus are in both Catalan and Spanish, but most advertising, metro signs, etc. are just in Catalan.

As we walked down The Ramblas, we recalled all the warnings we had heard about the prevalence of pickpockets in Barcelona, and we remained alert to any oncoming shady characters.  Continuing down this long Catalunyan version of the Champs Élysées, we found things like an ancient Roman necropolis (reminding us that Barcelona was founded by the Romans in 1 BC!), and outdoor pet market selling birds, gerbils, baby ducks,turtles, etc, and La Boqueria market, with stall after stall of fresh produce, candy, nuts, herbs & spices, cheeses, meats, every kind of fish, shellfish and everything else that comes out of the sea, and lots of Iberian ham mounted in special bronze cradles so that it could be easily sliced right off the hoof.  We actually saw these thoughout the city in restaurants and tapas bars, as Iberian ham is a delicacy and staple here.

After rambling down the Ramblas, we looked for a recommended restaurant, but it was closed (lots of places are closed in August), and just found a place nearby that introduced us to one of the most popular foods in this city, "pintxos" (pronounced "pinchos").  Pintxos are little open-faced sandwiches, about 2 bites big, enticingly decorated with toppings of various things like pâté, tomatoes and cheese, sardines (fresh, not canned!), seafood mousse, fried croquettes, sausage, and anything else you can imagine.  Many times you're not quite sure what you're eating, and it's a bit of a roll of the dice as to whether you're going to like it or not, but that's part of the fun.  Cold ones are displayed in little glass cases on the counter, while hot ones are passed on trays by waiters.  You take whatever looks good to you, and when you are full, the waiter counts the number of toothpicks on your plate to know what to charge.  This little place also introduced us to Txakoli (pronounced either Choc-oh-lee (by the bartender or Toc-oh-lee (by the waiter)), a wonderful white wine that is crisp and dry and quite flavorful without being too sweet. Along with delicious Rioja red wine, we had our vino selections for the next few days.

Continuing to learn from the locals, we returned to the hotel for a late afternoon siesta from about 4:00 to 7:00, before heading to dinner around 8:30.  Spaniards eat late, with lunch between 1:00 and 3:30, and dinner not until 9:00 or 10:00.  For dinner, we explored an area alongside Las Ramblas, the Barri Gotic, or Gothic Borrough, which is the oldest part of the city.  When you look at a map of Barcelona, it is easy to identify the Old City with its crooked little streets and alleys heading each and every way vs. the New City, which expanded beyond the original city walls in the 1850's, with its grid like structure of broad boulevards.  The Old City is fun to explore because you never know what is around the next corner.

As we explored, heading toward a recommended street that has several tapas bars (that's TAPAS, Nancy, not topless!), we had to go through some very narrow and dark alleys, which made Jim a little uneasy.  We also came across an unusual art installation (see picture).  As we headed down the tapas street, we were not really thrilled with these little bars, most a couple of steps down from street level (some sort of cozy, some with bright harsh lighting, some just dark and a little shady looking), especially when we noticed that one block over was a broad boulevard on the water with outdoor sidewalk cafes.

We ended up having tapas anyways, which was a bit of an adventure in itself since we weren't quite sure what we were ordering.  For example, I ordered "Fried Fish", which I expected were fried chunks of flaky white fish.  I was a bit taken aback when a platter arrived covered with about 50 minnow-sized fish, fried whole with heads and eyes intact.  Well, when in Rome....  I ate a few whole, then held onto the head while biting off the body.  A little fishy (no pun intended, or is it?), but not too bad.  I was also expecting the anchovies to be fresh, but they were brined  and in olive oil, just like in the US -- too bad.  But the whole grilled shrimp were delicious, as were the patatas bravas, and the other tapas we got.

The next day we devoted to Antoni Gaudi, the Modernist architect, and the Modernisme movement which is so prevalent in Barcelona.  From his Palau Guell building which started to hint at his forthcoming style, to the more extravagant Casa Mila and Casa Botella, it was clear to see where we get the term "gaudy" from.  Gaudi's over-the-top style is easy to identify with its melting ice-cream spires or, as Rick Steves (noted Euro traveller) said: his "cake-left-out-in-the-rain" stylistic elements.  Gaudi took his inspirations from nature, and their are leaves and vines and animals throughout his buildings.  He didn't believe in straight lines or angles either, but preferred flowing walls and rooflines.

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His Park Guell started as a high-end housing development, a type of gated-community designed to hold 60 expensive homes.  Alas, it was a concept a hundred years ahead of its time, and flopped with only 2 houses built, including his own which also acted as a model home.  Now, though, it is a public park filled with fantasy architecture, including the Hall of a Hundred Columns, which was supposed to be a market filled with vendor's stalls; an arcade with a curved wave-like wall evoking a surfer's perfect tube; a large terrace circumscribed by a curved bench with ergonomic seating; tightly wound streets climbing the hills; and two Dr. Seuss-like candy-colored gate houses with wobbly spires stretching to the sky.  Jim instantly recognized the Dr. Seuss connection, and in fact, he was an admirer of Gaudi, and drew his inspiration (literally) from the architect, drawing his illustrations in a very similar style.

The next stop was the famous "La Sagrada Familia" (The Sacred Family) church.  This church has been under construction for 130 years and will not be completed for another 20-30 years.  I came here 25 years ago, and at that time, there was no inner structure or roof, just some of the facades were done.  Now the main structure is complete, with only the main entrance facade and the large center steeple still to be built, and some of the stained glass still to be installed.  The outside is typical of Gaudi, with it's twelve outer spires, four inner spires and the Maria spire over the apse exuding the same dripping sand look.  The central Jesus tower is still under construction but will rise 560 ft. high, making it the tallest church steeple in the world.  The three facades of the entrances depict the life of Christ:  one is joyous and exuberant celebrating the Nativity and the birth of Christ, covered with figures, shepards, kings, and all sorts of animals; the opposite one is grim and terrifying depicting the Passion, with scenes of Christ's betrayal, trial, crucifixion and resurrection; while the third one, the main entry still to be built, depicts Glory, Christ's ascension and our relationship with life, God and the hereafter.

It was inside the church, though, that my jaw really dropped.  Breathtaking does not even begin to describe what we saw.  We agreed that we had never seen anything like it before in our lives, and I've been to a lot of churches and cathedrals all over Europe.  Words and even pictures cannot begin to describe what it is like.  The sense of light and airiness is palpable, with the colors of the stained glass more brilliant than I have seen anywhere else.  The inside columns start at the bottom like many fluted columns, but as they rise they branch off like the trunks of trees, rising higher and branching off again, with the ceiling hollowed out in jagged edged ellipsoids reflective of palm fronds.  The branched columns at the top form parabolic and hyperbolic arches, rather than the typical gothic arches, and was the result of  extensive study by Gaudi of the best way to support heavy loads without the use of buttresses.  The columns are of differing thicknesses and colors.  It is like walking in a forest.  The ceiling is colored in muted reds and blues and yellows and has glittering gold accents.  The choir area is suspended above and rings the entire cathedral with room for 1,000 singers.  The church is large enough to hold 8,000 people.  Sunlight filters in through stained glass, with modern interpretative designs, and colors that represent different themes like water (blues and greens), earth (yellows amid multi-colored glass), Heaven (reds and oranges).  Their are more ellipsoids containing artificial lighting mounted high on the columns evoking knots in trees.  Everywhere you go, you can't stop looking up, and I was starting to get a strain in my neck.  It is the most beautiful church I have ever seen.  The audio guide is a must as it describes everything you are looking at, inside and out.  Without it, you would miss a lot.  We spent only about two hours there, but we could have spent half a day.

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There was so much more to see and do:  the Picasso museum, the Miro museum, the Cantina Musica, the mountain of Montjuic, the newer harbor front and beaches, the Olympic Village, and side trips to Montserrat and Cadaques and Figueres for the Dali museum.  But our time was up.  It was time to say Adios to Barcelona, and Bonjour to Marseilles, France, our next stop after training it to Nimes and picking up our rental car.

Posted by jim-n-mark 23:31 Archived in Spain Tagged barcelona spain gaudi rambla sagrada familia parc guell u232 modernisme barri gotic Comments (0)

The Adventure Continues - Europe Bound!!!

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Our good fortune continues as our Endless Summer Epic Adventure is still going strong.  Up next: Europe!  - with our first stop in Barcelona, Spain.

Although we prefer not to fly American airlines intercontinental, a left-over credit made it worthwhile to fly Delta this time.  The flight was uneventful and over quickly.  Every time I fly to Europe it amazes me how quickly you can be there.  We always seem to make a big deal of it, or think it's difficult to get there.  But really you just sit down for 8 or 9 hours, watch a movie (or in my case go over some Spanish language survival lessons), take a nap, and voila, you're there!
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Posted by jim-n-mark 23:27 Archived in USA Tagged europe delta Comments (0)

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