From Monaco to Marseille
Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
45Trip End May 13, 2009
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We follow the road signs and are taken on this journey through tunnels and under hotels until finally we reach the main harbour. It seems to be solid wall-to-wall hotels, apartment buildings, and roads, although there do seem to be narrower streets where there is some pedestrian life.
We park in a large underground car park and walk down to the harbour along a path set into cliffs above the sea. The harbour is absolutely crammed with thousands of luxury boats. There are huge numbers of people, TV and press caravans everywhere, and temporary buildings with names such as Ferrari, Maclaren, Honda, etc and we realise that it's actually the weekend of the Monaco Grand Prix
It's fun wandering around the Grand Prix area - there are male petrol-heads (usually with pots and bad haircuts), Grand Prix babes with blond hair, short short skirts, and lots of make-up and jewellery, elegantly dressed men (possibly drivers or managers of the car teams), jet-setters wearing brand names (don't really know what they look like but it's a guess), etc - everybody seems to be a caricature of these types - does anybody ever look in the mirror? (probably some look in it too much).
We have a light lunch (a bowl of ice-cream for Yvonne and a glass of white wine for me), then walk back towards the car, taking a path that leads us to another, older, more genteel part of Monaco with large mansions, nice gardens and parks.
It's ridiculous to judge a place after only a few hours there (but Monaco is very small and you can see much of it in a short time), however to me it has a highly artificial and sterile feel to it, as if it exists only to pander to the unimaginative and rich (or should I say conventional and well-heeled), and has no place for the wide variety of human expression. No doubt there are some rebels there, but I imagine they are not easily found. The apartment blocks all seem the same, the hotels are all large and the usual brand names, the food is ordinary and over-priced (no doubt there are many exceptions to all this but I am speaking of the general impression), and I really can't imagine why anybody would want to come here
So we continue along to the French Riviera, stopping at Cannes for a short time so I can observe more of the rich and famous at play. We drive down to the sea-front and cruise along the boulevard but I am disappointed - it looks a little tawdry, much like many other sea-fronts in tourist areas - lots of shops selling sunglasses, swimming costumes and beachwear, restaurants, bars, etc. There are very few people on the beach and no-one in the water. A dredge is offshore - I imagine they have to dredge the sand from the sea every year, as it probably gets washed from the beach into the water, and I guess they bring in extra sand if necessary.
Coincidentally we were there during the Cannes Film Festival, so I guess the beach was deserted because everyone was watching films.
We continue along the coast and it's pleasant enough scenery, but it changes dramatically near a small place called Agay, as we pass the Massif de l'Esteret, a series of reddish-brown rocky knolls rising out of the green forest. I would like to drop in to St Tropez and Toulon but we are running out of time and head straight for our destination, Marseille.
We have the problem of finding our hostel, which is some way out of the central city and we don't have a map, and many of the streets are one way, and we mistakenly take the freeway out of the city, but miraculously we see a turnoff that, after many, many twists and turns manages to get us there, in the dark.
Marseille is the oldest town in France, being founded around 600 B.C
Massalia became a major port on the Mediterranean and was later taken over by Rome. It is also the city in which the Great Plague of the 18th century was introduced into France and Marseille itself lost half its population. Its other claim to fame is that the war song, La Marsellaise, sung by the French Revolutionary armies, became the national anthem.
Yvonne has been there many years ago and thought it a bit grotty and it still has a bit of a bad reputation, but I have wanted to go there for a long time.
We start in the morning with a noisette (French version of caffe macchiato) and pastries, then take a ferry to the island of If, which effectively comprises thousands of seagulls and Chateau d'If, a fortress built in the early 1500s to protect Marseilles. It was also used as a prison for hundreds of years and is most famous as where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned in Alexander Dumas' novel, which created the legend of the only man to escape from Chateau d'If.
An odd little aside is that is that the first rhinoceros seen by Europeans was given as a gift to the King of Portugal in 1513, who in turn wanted to make a gift of it to the Pope. On the journey by ship to Rome it stopped for a few weeks at the island, then drowned in a storm in the Gulf of Genoa and reached Rome as a stuffed animal. However, a French artist made a drawing of it which inspired Albrecht Durer to produce his famous engraving.
We explore the chateau, looking in all the cells (where a number of famous prisoners were held) until we come to one with a bare electric bulb hanging down and a phone in the corner, and a sign saying that only 1 person can go in at a time and to follow the instructions (and to trust the Black box Corporation)
The day is quite warm, which is unfortunate, as we climb up to the highest hill in Marseille (154 metres), on which is situated the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, topped with a huge gold statue of her. It's a relatively modern church, built in the late 1800s and it's gorgeous inside - gold and blue and red and white and other colours, and lots of model boats hanging in several places from the ceiling - clearly this is a church for a sea-faring city. An oddity is that the church has a draw-bridge, like a fortified castle.
From the hill we have wonderful views of Marseille, and we see several large complexes of modern buildings in the distance, set against the surrounding dry, grey mountains.
The city also has an apartment block designed by Le Corbusier, which we see next day on our way to Cassis. I had no idea the town of Cassis was near Marseille, so we pop down in the morning and end up having lunch there. It's a typical small town on the Mediterranean, similar to may others you would see in Italy, France, Spain, Croatia, etc. I only know of Cassis as the rich blackberry liqueur which is used to make kir royale (a dash of Cassis in Champagne, it's also good on ice-cream), but the main production is actually white wine and rose
After lunch we go to les Calanques, an area of eroded cliffs between Cassis and Marseille. At Cap Canaille the cliffs rise to over 400 metres and are claimed to be the highest cliffs in Europe (I must check that as when I went to Iceland last year they claimed to have the highest cliffs).
Thus ends our visit to the coast of Provence - our next port of call is the Camargue, not far to the west.
ps: just for a bit of light-hearted entertainment, while studying the map of France I found a number of place names that are amusing in English - Condom, Gap, Corps, Mens, Six-Fours, Die, Apt, Percy (if you don't believe me look them up).