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.