29 August 2011


Cannes is a town east of Marseille, at the Côte d'Azur. Yesterday I got in a train and went there for the day. TGVs are pretty tight and not very elegant, with carpet on the floor, walls, and ceiling. Seats in first class are wider but that's about it. It also doesn't go very fast because the tracks are very curvy, following the valleys and shoreline, so the trip takes two hours. The windows were too dirty to see much.

Cannes has three sections, stretching along the curve of the bay: downtown in the middle has many fine old buildings, although not as fine as in Marseille. It's basically a shopping area. The view of the sea is blocked by a monumentally ugly concrete monster that houses the film festival, a casino, many shops, and the tourist office. The French are never afraid to spoil a beautiful view with big piles of concrete but in Cannes they have really outdone themselves. To the east is a more modern residential area that is completely uninteresting; at the sea it turns into an imprenetable chain of giant highrise hotels. Some of them look nice, like the old Carlton, but most are concrete blocks that look tolerable only in comparison to the festival building. The hotels own the beach and charge heavily for access. The beach is sandy, but not very wide and very crowded. Not attractive.

To the west of the center is a hill with the old fort, which is now a museum. It's a beautiful old building with thick stone walls, and a high tower in the center of its courtyard. The museum is quite nice, not huge but with many interesting exhibitions spanning the globe from Nepalese masks to historic Cannes souvenir paintings. The view from the tower is a beautiful panorama of the city and its beaches, and the countless glitzy megayachts in the harbor.

In the afternoon I went on a boat to Saint-Honorat, one of the two islands near Cannes. The boat there takes only 15 minutes, much of which is spent navigating a path through the countless boats parked between the islands. One of the islands, Sainte-Margherite, is larger and mostly a nature reserve, while Saint-Honorat has been owned by an order of monks for 1600 years, who still grow food here. Most of the monastery is closed to visitors, but they have a beautiful church (outside; inside it's pretty bare) and a big fortified tower that was used to defend the city. The views from up there are beautiful.

05 July 2011


Yesterday I woke up in the morning, and everything was quiet. Too quiet. The server was down, the clocks were blank, and the ice cream in the refrigerator was quietly melting. The building had lost power sometime during the night, and so did the one next door. Fortunately I had hot water. I went to work and figured, there is a bank in each building (Marseille has more different banks than ice cream parlors) and they'll scream at Electricité de France until something happens.

Unfortunately I didn't remember that all banks are closed on Mondays. Bankers seem to love long weekends. So I came home and still had no power. My French lesson was held in darkness, with the light of two flickering candles.

But there was hope. In an uncharacteristic burst of efficiency, EdF had sent a van with two electricians to investigate. I told one of them about the problem, and soon watched him open a manhole in the sidewalk and disappear into it. During the next hours I kept looking out; the manhole was still open when I went to sleep. I half expected the Marseillaise do what they always do, drop bags of garbage down the hole, but no. My teacher had seen people drop bags with garbage on the sidewalk, right out the window, from the eighth floor! Only in Marseille...

All the time the other electrician was sitting in the van, doing nothing. Probably management. Or some very important function that only his union understands.

Sometime around midnight, four hours after the electrician got to work, the power came on again. The next morning I admired his handiwork: a thick tube was snaking out from our fusebox through a half-open window out to the street, vanishing in a hole under the roof. Very professional. But effective. I now have power again but I am afraid that they'll cut it again to fix their fix, and all my virtual machines will once again go to the big server in the sky.

I now have a solid block of molten and refrozen cassis ice cream, sadly all but inedible. Maybe I should put it on eBay.

18 April 2011

Mountain climbing

Sometimes it's difficult to follow through with a Sunday hike in Marseille. In the morning, many large roads were closed for the marathon, so the buses didn't go. After the runners passed, the buses continued to not go because of several little strikes; someone is always on strike down here. I didn't actually get to leave until noon, and had to connect several times to reach the end of the road at the seashore.

From there I went hiking. I wanted to find the trail along the coast but couldn't find it. The one I did find went uphill, which didn't worry me because the coastal trail the week before went uphill at first too. But then it got really really steep, almost vertical up a narrow gully with some footholds hewn into the rock. Up was ok but I didn't want to return that way so I kept going even after it became obvious that I was on the wrong trail, one that went inland into the hills. I followed the yellow trail markers, up a few more difficult climbs, until I met the red trail. There are beautiful views there over the sea far below and the valleys and peaks all around. The path is rocky but sometimes covered with slippery gravel. The trees are deep green, with steep white walls rising from the sparse forest all around me. There were few other hikers, and they all had better boots than me... I could hear several groups of climbers scaling the vertical walls of the hills.

I didn't have a map but a GPS unit and my cellphone with GPS and Google terrain maps. Neither was showing the trails, unlike the trails last week. I was trying to following Google's altitude lines, but had little choice but climbing all the way to the top of the highest hill at 425 meters because leaving the trail is impractical. My cellphone battery had run out by then but fortunately I no longer use my iPhone and so could swap in a fresh one. The view from the top of the Massif Marseilleveyre is magnificent - there is a ruined church up there overlooking the other hills, the valleys, and the sea with small rocky islands. "Hill" is a misleading word here - these are not gently rolling hills but steep white pinnacles with near-vertical walls near the top; most are far too steep to have trails going up. On the other side there is a stunning view of the Marseille bay and the city, stretching far into the distance.

I met some hikers up there who did have a map and knew the way down to the edge of the city. I knew this would turn out scary because Google's altitude lines were packed really closely there, but after a while there we met a father with two children, and I figured that if they can do this so can I. The vertical sections were even steeper than the early ones, they were longer, and there were more of them. They must be climbed like a ladder, but it's difficult to look down and find footrests and handholds and to plan a route because the walls are so irregular and hidden from sight. Often I had to feel the wall with my boots. It seems very dangerous, and there are no chains or cables to hold on to, but it's doable. There is never a point where it's not clear what to do next. Eventually I reached the forest at the bottom; the trails are still steep and rocky there but can be walked easily. I had lost sight of the children long ago because I kept stopping and taking pictures of the gorgeous landscape.

Deceptively easy at first:

But then the trail gets down to business:

The narrow valley I had been climbing:

A view of Marseille from the other side of the highest mountain:

Climbing down is hard:

Made it, back in civilisation!

16 April 2011

Hide and Seek

The public transportation system in Provence is very good, unless it's on strike. But figuring out how to get from point A to point B is maximally difficult. You are basically expected to use the web site lepilote.fr. Suppose you want to go from rue de Rome to Luminy. Every sane trip planning site lets you enter the those two stops, or a street address so it can tell you about walking distances as well. But lepilote.fr is not sane.

First it asks you which company you want to use. There are 18 of them (in other menus 14, no idea where the rest fell by the wayside). Most have names that give no indication where they operate, such as "Omnibus" or "Bus du Soleil", and there is no map. There is never a map until you have figured it all out by yourself; then you get the map as a reward. So you guess. RTM is a good start.

The next question you get is which line. Again, that's a stupid question - like the choice of company, that ought to be lepilote's job to figure out! You are now on level 2 of this text adventure game, so you get a hint: it tells you the names of the final stop at each end. For example, RTM line 1 goes from La Rose Métro to La Rose Métro. If you don't like it, you have 125 more lines to choose from. For example line 145, which goes from Métro La Rose to Métro La Rose.

So you guess. I know Marseille a little. Bus line 21 has several variants, one going from Gare Saint-Charles to Luminy (we are in luck, Luminy is a terminus) and the other from Castellane to Luminy. It makes a lot of sense for a bus to use rue de Rome to get from Saint-Charles to Castellane, so let's choose bus 21. I hope you appreciate that I am trying to make this puzzle as easy as possible.

After a few more clicks, after doing all the work, the site finally admits that yes, it indeed has maps. You can't display them because lepilote.fr hasn't discovered that it's not 1989 anymore and the world wide web does pictures now, but you can download the map as a PDF file. Only for that one bus of course, other buses are not shown, that would be a different PDF.

But wait, lepilote.fr also has a search mode. If you click the microscopic Recherche Guidée button, the game master shows you three doors: near a place, schedules, and itineraries. I chose the itinerary door. (Might as well.) Here you can enter start and destination addresses, which gets you to a screen telling you, so sorry, but those addresses can't be found. This step cannot be skipped, if you just want to get to some small village, and are lucky enough that it's in the very short list of villages, you still need a precise address, which probably won't be found. So you start trying out major roads until you hit one that it admits may exist. In my case, it found Cours Julien. Well, actually it didn't; it said that it can't figure out "Cours Julien" and offered 22 possible interpretations, with #8 being "Cours Julien".

And then a miracle happens and it finds RTM bus 21 all by itself. Tomorrow is the Marseille Marathon and I think that inspired it to calculate the walking times.

I then tried a less trivial route, going to Gémenos instead of Luminy, and had to use Google Maps to find a road that exists because "town center" or "anywhere in town" aren't valid destinations. This is a trip I have done several times before; it involves a connection between two bus companies. This blows lepilote's tiny mind and it says, sorry but you can't go there from here, game over, would you like to submit a bug report (signaler une anomalie)? Shudder.

Marseille is quite hilly, but they dug two métro lines (undergrounds). Sometimes that means that the stations are very very deep underground. The system was built in 1977, the decade that taste forgot, so we are talking about a very, hm, vivid color scheme here... Yellow, orange, and brown, with a touch of beige, why not. But it's modern and efficient, and not expensive: a single ticket costs 1.50 euro, and there is a two-ride special that costs 3 euro.

05 February 2011

Macabre souvenirs

Three weeks ago I was making fun of Christian rituals, like people suspending ship models from the ceiling of their cathedral to ask for good luck. This blog's mission is irreverence but it seems this got a reaction in High Places.

So Our Lord God was Not Amused and sent two of His Angels to earth to lead me to The Right Path so the Heavens will Rejoice and the Angels will Sing and Justice will Smite This Blog. The Angels were two Well-Dressed Young Men bearing The Message of God, in the form of the Book or Mormon, and Spoke mostly in Capital Letters. I felt like Lot except I didn't have any virgin daughters to send out to "be known" by the mob, and I am not into repeated incest. (Read the story in the bible but keep reading after the salt pillar bit. That's the only righteous god-fearing man in Sodom? You'll be shocked; proves that the bible should be X-rated and pulled from Amazon's shelves.)

Anyway, I had a very lively discussion with the angels, who spoke English. I firmly believe that the claims made by those people are not above rational analysis and religion does not have a special exemption from probing questions. My two poor angels didn't do too well I am afraid, their arguments were completely circular and whenever one of their claims collapsed they were sandbagging behind some really weird convictions "they knew in their hearts to be true". Wishful thinking, all of it. After half an hour they remembered an important appointment and left in a hurry. I hope they won't get their wings clipped. Maybe if the gods blogged more we wouldn't have this problem.

(Reminds me of a similar event when I was a student and some Jehovah's Witnesses stood at my door and asked, "what would you do if you had but one day to live", and I crashed their brains by answering, "die.")

So I packed my camera equipment and sought spiritual guidance, or, failing that, some good photo opportunities, at the church of Saint-Victoire south of the old harbor. It's a massive fortress without too much in the way of decoration. But they have a lovingly arranged collection of relics mounted in gold and velvet containers, including a skull and a varied collection of bones and bone fragments.

Now is this stuff weird or what? No wonder people brought up with this sort of thing aren't thinking too clearly. But the Marseillaise are almost spartan when tuppering their relics, look at this monstrosity I found in Siena, Italy:

30 January 2011

White stuff

Marseille is located in the south of France, right on the Mediterranean Sea. The coast is known as the Côte d'Azur, the blue coast, and people come here to enjoy the warm and pleasant summers and year-round pleasant temperatures. The coast is dotted with famous sea resorts like Cannes, Saint-Tropez, Nice, Monaco, and numerous others. Therefore, there is absolutely no reason to prepare for winter. The buildings have only very perfunctory heating, cars have summer tires, and I am told that the city does not own a snowplow. That's ok because it never gets cold here.

Except when it does. Last week it snowed. In Marseille, the snow barely reached the ground and ended up as an a little ice on the cars. But the inland villages and hills found themselves covered in snow, which quickly formed a solid ice sheet on the roads that stayed on the ground for days.

Traffic immediately became a swirling chaos. Some of my colleagues called in to say they'd be working from home because there is no way to drive to work, as long as several centimeters of this strange slippery stuff is on the ground. My Canadian friends found this very funny.

These pictures were taken near Aubagne, some 20km east of Marseille:

23 January 2011

The Count of Monte Cristo slept here

The Count of Monte Cristo is one of Alexandre Dumas' most famous books. It's about the sailor Edmond Dantès who, in the early 19th century, is unjustly imprisoned for fourteen years on the prison island of Château d'If, before escaping and taking revenge on his accusers. Great story.

Château d'If is an island in the Mediterranean Sea, just off the old harbor of Marseille. They'd be crazy if they didn't turn the place into a major tourist trap. So they've got a boat, the Edmond Dantès, ferrying tourists to the island. (Right now it's closed for construction, which will take an unspecified but large amount of time.) The island itself is rocky, like all the coast around here, with steep cliffs and a smallish fort, built to guard the entrance to Marseille's harbor with big cannons. The cannons were never used, and the fort eventually did become a prison.

It's really just a square building with a small square courtyard in the middle, and three round towers at the corners, one being taller than the others. The prison cells are dark caverns, but if a prisoner had the funds he could ask for a first-class cell that came with a fireplace, minibar, a window, and concierge service. Edmond Dantès, however, had to make do with the dungeons in the story.

Being fictional apparently didn't stop poor Edmond from digging an actual hole to the neighboring cell, an important part of the plot. They'll proudly show you the hole. To prove it's real they have TV sets showing segments from an old black-and-white movie based on the book. Edmond Dantès, As Seen On TV. In the story he takes the place of a dead fellow inmate and gets thrown over the walls into the sea, which I thought was very brave because I don't see any place where he wouldn't hit the rocks at the bottom of the walls. The TV displays do not attempt to address this problem.

Fortunately they didn't turn the whole island into a Disneyland. There are some historical displays, a gift shop, and a restaurant, but the island still feels like the forlorn rocky outpost that it once was. You can freely wander around, up to the edge of the ramparts; I didn't see a single Slippery When Wet sign. When I was there, it was mating season for the seagulls who were staging air raids on me. You can also visit several other similar islands, collectively known as the îles de Frioul, which are larger but just as forlorn and completely lack attractions. I am told bird watchers go there but my interest in birds doesn't extend beyond the edges of my plate.

14 January 2011

Notre Dame de la Garde

Marseille has lots of churches, but Notre Dame de la Garde is the mother of them all. It perches on top of a big hill just south of the old harbor, overlooking the city. It's Marseille's #1 tourist attraction. Getting up there is a long march up steep hills, unless you want to join the old ladies who ride up a ridiculous little toy train from the harbor. Personally I prefer the route through the Jardin de Puget, a small but pretty and relaxing park shielded from the city by many trees, with great views. Marseille is a little short on parks.

The view from the terrace up there is terrific. You get a panorama of the harbor, the little islands out on the sea, and the whole city of Marseille with the mountains as an inland backdrop. No point in Marseille is higher than Notre Dame de la Garde. The only problem is that ugly modern buildings tend to be higher than old buildings, so even though Marseille is an ancient city full of beautiful old buildings (at least downtown), from above it's the modern abominations that stick out. Here's the old harbor in the foreground, with the modern harbor in the background:

The church is nice enough outside. But inside it's one of the most beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful, church I have ever seen. So many churches are gloomy, echoing caverns, built to intimidate, full of imperial-looking marble statues keeping watch over the visitors; but this church is bright and cheerful with white, red, and gold.

There are some pretty weird details inside. It's a catholic basilica and catholics have this tendency towards superstition and gruesome souvenirs like mummified bones of saints, and I believe there are enough Certified Splinters of the True Cross to build a dozen crosses. But catholics have this peculiar nonaggression pact with objective truth so that's ok. There are various beautifully crafted relic containers scattered about this church, and little boat models are suspended from the ceiling. Not just ancient ones but also fairly modern ship models. Apparently that's a form of rain dance: you sacrifice a ship to the church to ward off misfortune, just like a caveman sacrificing a chicken to whatever vengeful gods they had in those days. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

While I am writing this I am backing up a notebook hard disk that has started to make worrisome noises; maybe I should have donated a disk in time? I can picture the stuff they'd hang from the ceiling if the sacrifice arrangements were still open for business: hard disks, iPhones, car clutches, Gawker accounts, mortgage-backed securities...

The odd thing is that many people here are taking this seriously. In northern Europe, churches are usually tourist attractions or event locations or whatever pays for the upkeep, but the religious services for which they were built attract just a handful of old people. Not so here. A mass can actually fill up a church, and people come to pray.

Notre Dame de la Garde, like a pretty large percentage of all Christian churches, is dedicated to Mary, mother of God. There are way more churches dedicated to her (notre dame, our lady), where the faithful pray to her, than to Jesus and God himself, the other main characters in the Christian pantheon. In my book that makes her a goddess. They've also got hundreds of saints specializing in various vocations such as protecting travelers, available for praying to; they fill the role of demi-gods in older religions except that they are all born Muggles. But Christianity's founding myth is, of course, anathema to such interpretations because they've made up their own myths over the past two millennia. All this is very confusing. I just go there to take pictures, and take refuge in the fact that blasphemous questions are no longer answered with torture and death. What remains is the beauty of Europe's cathedrals.

There's also a crypt under the church, but it's quite plain and poorly ventilated, and gets hot and stuffy in the summer. Not much to see there. If you want to see a spectacular crypt, go to Siena.

08 January 2011

First day of spring

Well, it's actually one of the first days of the year, but it feels like spring. While the northern parts of France and Europe are mostly worrying what to do with all the snow, and preparing for flooding, we are enjoying the first days of spring in Marseille. The temperatures reached almost 20 degrees, and the sun was shining and quite warm. So, after shopping on the open-air markets of La Plaine and Marché des Capucins, I went to my favorite square just around the corner, Cours Julien. This picture is from last summer:

I was having a thoroughly southern French day there: lunch at one of my favorite restaurants, Le jardin d'à coté, daring to order an entrecote à point. The restaurants, like all its neighbors, has extensive outdoor seating space. I was sitting in the sun, wearing a T shirt, watching children play, families eat, old ladies having wine and coffee, and harried waiters ferrying food out as fast as they could, because all of their 20 or more tables were taken. The guests were enjoying the sun, having a good time, and in no hurry at all. An accordion player was playing French chansons that could be right out of le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (great movie btw if you like Paris). These pictures are from today:

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking about town, the harbor, up to the panier with its narrow crooked streets up and down the hill, and downtown. The Christmas shopping crowds are gone, and there are no tourists at this time of the year. Their loss.

I think I'll start a little series in this blog on parts of Marseille and surrounding villages I have visited. The burning barricades, smoking garbage piles, robberies, and other excitements are behind us; let's pretend that 2011 is going to be nice. At least until they start burning barricades and garbage again.

24 December 2010

Maggie where are you?

Today I left home for my winter vacation. The flight was supposed to connect in Paris because Marseille, even though it's France's second-largest city, has very few useful connections anywhere. It's a provincial airport, like all airports in France except Paris CDG, but unfortunately it has managed to attract very few budget airlines.

Early in the morning Air France sent mail, announcing that the flight is cancelled, thank you for your understanding, pleasy do not reply. What makes them think that I would understand anything? I went to the airport, and KLM got me routed through Amsterdam. KLM, even though it's owned by Air France now, knows how to deal with an emergency.

The emergency being, of course, the usual French blight hurting everyone who wants to get something done. Three days before Christmas the Marseille airport security was on strike, so noone could fly. Riot police got called in. That strike has ended but now workers at the factory that supplies the Paris airport with glycol were on strike, on December 24. Glycol is needed to de-ice airplanes; it's still very cold in Paris. So they cancelled half of all flights from France's central air hub.

Amsterdam is also in the grip of the harsh winter this year, and the airport is seriously busy and affected by the strain the winter is putting on all of northern Europe. But my connection in Schiphol was perfectly punctual. The Dutch know how to run a business.

I like France but I am beginning to lose patience with this dysfunctional country. Mrs Thatcher, where are you when we need you?