We had all of Marseille spread out below us today, once we got to the top of the hill where the basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde overlooks all of this ancient and very large port city.
This neo-Byzantine church was built in the mid-19th century, on a spot that has been a holy spot for millennia. An amazing, neck-craning edifice, it celebrates the life of the sea that was always the basis of the economy here.
Second only to Paris in size, Marseille is a giant mixture of many ages, and many cultures. Today, one can tour the Arab market and hear no French spoken. And the choices of cuisine are very broad, reflecting a diversity that is like New York in its energy. And then there are moments that are Parisian in their elegance. My perception of this city, formed as a youth by reading of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, had me concerned that it was a very rough and dangerous place. But, no – tourists are welcome, and the city knows what side its baguette is buttered on. (Even if the Count was indeed imprisoned on a nearby island at the Château d’If.)
One wonderful site (and sight) was La Vieille Charité, a poor-house finished in 1741, and occupied up to the middle of the last century. Le Corbusier helped stop its decay, recognizing the beauty of its design. It has been perfectly restored and is now an place for artists and galleries, and a wonderful place to walk around. The Pantheon-like church in the center was not open today, but the place was packed with young French school children on field trips. One group got into a discussion with Don. They quickly learned he spoke English, but when he asked them in French if they were studying English, they clapped their hands over their mouths and their eyes got big. (Know the feeling.) And when they learned he lived in New York City, they got very excited and asked for his autograph. Yes, one can be a star here with the under-12 crowd.
We strolled the older part of the city, stopped for a while at a cafe which is said to feature in a prominent French soap opera, and then turned a corner to find an amazing church looming over us. Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille. Also in the neo-Byzantine style, it is a complete surprise with an equally stunning interior. On exiting, the vista is overwhelmed by cruise ships, visible along the esplanade, along with several museums leading back to the old port.
Yesterday we spent part of the afternoon at our hotel pool, which has a wonderful setting. Today we did a lot of sight-seeing instead, lest we become – as our Nice taxi driver called them – “potatoes on the sofa.” Wouldn’t want that to happen.