Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Day 59: Marseille Smells

I felt negatively about Marseille even before I arrived. A number of people told me that it wasn't safe. Though, fresh out of Brooklyn, I wasn't especially worried. My optimism soon ended. While I was in Nice, a fellow CouchSurfer I met just came from Marseille; he told me what happened to him. Three guys pushed him to the ground, strangled him, and stole his backpack. His story was shocking, but I was still wanted to see Marseille.

When I got to Marseille, after 15 minutes of walking around I was ready to leave. Bottles, wrappers, and other trash littered the streets. Everything was dirty, the people were weird, and it smelled foul. Looking at Marseille out my host's 11th story window, I joked "It's the Brooklyn of France!" Unfortunately, I was correct.

Marseille truly is the 'Brooklyn of France'.

Despite my initial judgement of Marseille I ended up staying just short of a week. I had a feeling that if I stayed longer in Marseille I would find more I liked about it. CouchSurfing made Marseille not only suck less, but not suck. The spectacular people that I met changed my mind about Marseille.

The person who I got closest with in Marseille was my host, Natasha – a Ukrainian firecracker! Despite being a registered sky diver with over 60 jumps, she's incredibly down-to-earth. She was raised in a small town in Eastern Russia, where her dad was fulfilling his military service. When she was nearly ten her family took a seven day train ride on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Kiev I thoroughly enjoyed her company but she was unable to show me around Marseille because of her classes. I knew that if I was going to change my mind about Marseille I needed to meet some locals.

The 'American' dish I made for Natasha. Risotto is kind of American, right?

CouchSurfing to the rescue! I sent out a handful of requests to locals, looking for someone who wanted to play tour guide. People are much more willing to show me around than let me surf their couch. I set a meeting up with this dude Vincent, for the next day at 15.00.

Vincent is a goofy guy. A Parisian in his early 30's, Vincent is always looking to have a good time – we got along like Nutella and crépes. He showed me around Marseille and added dialogue about his personal experiences. We cracked jokes the whole time.

The first day:

Vieux Port
For those who struggle with French, "vieux port" means "old port." The fishermen of Marseille have called this harbor home for centuries. Today it is utilized for angling and recreational purposes. While I was waiting for Vincent there were two guys practicing crewing, gliding up and down the length of the port. When Vincent and I took the free ferry across the port, he told me about a fish market where fishermen sell their catch every morning.

The Veiux Port of Marseille.
The free ferry across the port was fun.

The Panier
The old part of Marseille is referred to as the "Panier," which translates to "basket." The Panier is a maze of twisty narrow streets with beautiful pastel colored buildings. There are a number of museums and churches that are worth seeing. We explored the arched courtyard of La Vielle Charité, along with the Marseille Cathedral.

An archeological site in the middle of a city!
La Vielle Charité in the Panier.
Marseille is the cultural city of 2013 so they're building a lot of culture.

The Forts (Fort St. Nicholas and Fort St. Jean)
Two massive forts stand proudly at the entrance to Marseille's harbor. We explored both of them. At one point, I was telling Vincent about interesting I found these defenses in many European cities – from the walled cities I saw in Italy, like Siena and San Gimignano, to these massive forts in Marseille. Since we have nothing of the sort in the US, I said to Vincent "I can't imagine what it would be like to defend your home from invaders who are trying to kill you." He laughed and told me that these forts were built during the French Revolution to defend the city from its citizens.

Notre Dame de la Garde from the Northern fort.
The weather represents the city well.
A statue of a ship wrecked by waves right by the Southern fort.

The Seaside
We covered a lot of ground on the first day, walking from the Panier to Marseille's South Western shore. As darkness fell I was glad that I had someone to walk with. Later on I found out that this was a wealthy area, in fact we weren't far from Vincent's new apartment. Walking along the sea was a pleasure, hearing the waves bash against the rocks.

Marseille from a distance.
A war memorial arch along the seaside.
I loved these lights. It felt like another town.

Later that night, Natasha tried to teach me the Ukrainian alphabet but I learned more about her culture through her cooking. If Ukrainians' culture is as good as their food, I can't wait to visit. Experiencing meals from different countries has been one of my favorite parts about traveling. Trying to think of 'authentic American food' is too difficult so I came up with a fun idea. For every new host, I will cook a meal that my last host cooked for me. For example, Yves taught me how to cook risotto, so I made risotto for Natasha, Natasha taught me how to cook borscht, so someone lucky in Montpellier will get to enjoy it also. I think this concept is truly American. Just wait for the cook book!

Her borscht was commu-tastic!

Day 2:

The Fish Market
Marseille's daily fish market is open at 8 AM, by the Vieux Port. The fishermen work in small boats with only one or two people and then sell their own fish. Rather romantic given the unsustainable state of the world's fishing industry. Vincent told me about an old dude that's famous for selling dried seahorses and small shells for luck. I guess he was asleep because I didn't see him!

Wake up! It's time to go to the fish market!
Back to work you scallywags!
"Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope!"

Notre Dame de la Garde
Only two months into my trip and I've already seen more churches than I can keep track of, but I will remember Marseille's Notre Dame de la Garde. Built at the peak of a ridiculously high hill, it was an observation point to help keep fishermen safe.

A church with a purpose!
Baby Jesus wants a high-five!
Notre Dame's gorgeous interior.
The walls are covered with paintings of ships at sea.
The virgin and baby are covered in silver.
An alter outside – how could I resist?
Nutella and crépes.

Return to the Sea
The second day that I hung out with Vincent, we returned to the seaside. We walked down on the rocks, and got our shoes soaked by a few waves. Seeing the sun set over the sea was insanely beautiful. I've never seen any interaction between the stars and large bodies of water before but now I want more!

The sea was intense. I love water.
L'escalier de la mort!
Graffiti can be fun.
My first sunset over the sea.

Later that night we went to a club that Vincent had been talking about all day. His promotions of a "heavy metal bar" weren't appealing but I was excited anyway. Four of us from the college, and four local Couchsurfers lined up at the door of a non-descript building. No signs, nothing – it looked like an abandoned house. The door opened and one by one we were let into a small vestibule where a woman was collecting money, handing out membership cards, and typing names into a computer. We both had a good laugh when I told her my last name was "Connard." When 50 people packed into the small club, it was like a sauna. Thankfully tonight was Salsa night. Vincent taught me the basic Salsa step and we all had a blast dancing the night away!

Marseille is a dirty mess, but I had a blast when I was there – thanks to everyone that I met. The city definitely grew on me, and the grime became more of a unique characteristic than a nuisance. I recommend Marseille. It is truly one of a kind. I had a wonderful start to my week, but the best experience was yet to come... I put a CS group together to explore the Calanques the next day...

Au revoir!

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