The world can still surprise you. Marseilles in the Provence region of France will let you in on many.
It was the winter of 2013 and the harsh weather forced us into chasing an elusive Mediterranean sun. Destination – Marseilles. Strong gusts haltered our wind-beaten Volvo and the six-hour drive across the Spanish border became more intimidating. It could have been like a scene out of the movies; our car felt like it was a Lilliputian dinghy out on the open sea, tossed and buffeted constantly from side to side. Driving up to France from Barcelona, the infamous French mistral wind was true to form.
While my travel partner continued to skillfully maneuver the four-wheeled vehicle, I was searching for any sign that would direct us to the city. Moments passed, emerging from a distance, the coastal road juxtaposed with pedestrians and cycling tracks that bend around the sun-bathed coves. The sight of the sweeping marina which spreads over the entire 57kilometer coastline came as a sudden relief. Then there was the citadel of St. Nicolas, welcoming every visitor with exuberance and panache. No doubt, we made it to France’s sun-kissed south.
To the ancient Greeks from Asia Minor, it was the “Phocaean city”; to the inhabitants, it was their Massalia. Since the last wave of Greek settlers came ashore circa 600 BC, the vieux, or old port of Marseille has witnessed the tides of significant history, trade, cultural revolution, conflict, empire and civilization. Its nearby villages were endowed with grape vines and olive trees but it was its deep recessed harbor that made France’s second largest city famous.
Originally called Massalia by the early Greeks ofPhocaea who founded the city, its cavernous port became the Phocaean’s nucleus of maritime hustle and was the city’s strongest personal identity. The site eventually grew into a vast waterfront and morphed into one of Europe’s essential gateways for sea routes leading west and to the outside world. More than ever, it is a vibrant maritime heritage that bubbles over with tales of change, adventure and old world charm.
Somewhere in this prodigious region, lies a beauty that stands still. After all, this is the oldest city within modern France. I dubbed this as a place, where the mistral blows hard and angry (for it incessantly blows all year round up to 90 days or so), but time seemed to be always transfixed.
From where I am standing, gazing out from the windows of the Hotel Sofitel Vieux Port, one suddenly becomes a part of Marseilles’s theatrical drama. The question is; what role will you play? Even the room of our hotel, its décor and pieces of furniture created a Mediterranean scene reflecting a marina atmosphere inspired by yachting. Going up to the top floor, resembling a ship’s deck, is the restaurant Les Trois Forts, that surprises everyone’s palate by its unique combination of Mediterranean salts and spice menu.
Looking at the external world from inside, through the thick double-glass panel of my windows is a free ticket to the imagination. On a rocky knoll dappled by light, filtering through a cumulus cloud, is the glorious sight of an imposing 18th century imperial adobe built by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte III, the Pharo Palace. It offers a magnificent glimpse of the city and also a hotspot for young emerging artisans armed with paintbrushes and canvases.
If you gaze in the opposite direction, you will catch a compelling vista of the Fort Saint-Jean with its colossal Square Tower. Once a military complex, it’s now a museum, where people can walk around to and fro over the two bridges that connect the old historic city to its contemporary scene.
The thought of exploring the hidden wonders that lurk behind its mighty walls excite me. Not far away, is the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica. By the window, it all seemed to come to life. I needed to catch my breath before I could move on to the next wonder.
Behold! It’s the Château d’ If; the 16th century brooding prison-fortress atop the Frioul Islands, just off the vieux port of Marseilles, where political prisoners, anti-royalists, victims of religious persecution and revolutionaries were enslaved. But perhaps, it’s most famous prisoner of all was the fictional character, Edmond Dantès of Alexandre Dumas’ classic 1844 novel the Count of Monte Cristo.
Could it have been different seeing the other side of Marseilles in person? Probably yes, but seeing its ethereal form through a window is unexplainably delightful. The mistral started to blow ferociously as the clouds came rolling in fast. It was a drama and splendor in one; until a ring from the phone got my attention and I finally noticed the time.
It was already four hours since we arrived at the hotel, but it only felt like thirty minutes had passed. I looked around and a sense of great relief and excitement swept over me.
Tomorrow it will all be different; and unlike Alexandre Dumas, who never actually visited the Château d’ If, I will be lucky to see things up close – the port, the fortress, the prison, the church and be seduced by world-class museums, galleries and performing arts in this European Capital of Culture (2013). Truly, the world has always something in store for everyone and Marseilles in the Provence region of France caught me by surprise.