I felt like a decathlon athlete as I stepped off the train from Nice to Marseille. I had my most comfortable walking shoes on, a checklist of all the important sites to visit in my hand, and after a relaxing two and half hour ride, I was ready to tackle France’s second largest city. Life in this port was already hectic with buses and cars whizzing past me and what looked like hundreds of people occupying the sidewalks. Still I was ready to dive right in. I perused my inventory of important landmarks once more, carefully numbered so that I could travel from one to the next quickly. I stretched my calf muscles, adjusted my backpack, and took a quick swig from my water bottle. I had eight hours to conquer Marseille’s round-up of historical monuments and no time to waste.
According to guide books I had read and my limited time frame there were eight places I needed to visit in order to understand Marseille and fully embrace the city’s vibe. I had them ordered from closest to furthest from my train depot: the old port, the fortress of Chateau d’If, the Cathedral de la Major, Saint Victor’s abbey, Notre Dame de la Garde, Borély Park, Palais Longchamp, and the Museum of Beaux Arts. By walking and taking the many local buses in the city I had estimated that I could check off each of the items on my list and still have enough time to catch some quick meals along the way. I had a return ticket for the evening so whatever I didn’t finish would remain unseen, but I was convinced I could match the frenetic pace of this seaport and emerge a winner.
I speed walked my way to the Old Port where fishing boats and svelte yachts were crammed together like so many sardines in a watery can. A brief glimpse of what life was like in Marseille showed me old fishermen fixing their nets and selling their catches, seagulls attacking anything that smelled of fish, and boats being washed. I heard various shouts as I passed the rickety ice tables packed with strange looking sea creatures, but I couldn’t stop until I heard the call from the ferry driver taking tourists to Chateau d’If. This defensive stronghold was a famous prison and the subject of Alexander Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. The crowds were teeming on the island housing the historical penitentiary, but I managed to squeeze my way to see an empty cell, the communal cistern, and the view from the rooftop. Time was ticking and I had to catch the next ferry back so that I could head towards the Marseille Cathedral.
Marseille’s official basilica is the Cathedral de la Major, a striped marble behemoth topped with several domes. I took several snapshots before continuing to the city’s other important church, the Notre Dame de la Garde. This limestone basilica has been vital to the sailors of Marseille who have their boats blessed at the cathedral. Since it sits on top of a rocky peak, there is also a great view of the city from the Notre Dame. I huffed and puffed my way up the steep incline and by the time I arrived at the summit, I could see by my watch that I had just enough time to take a photo of the green-gold altar before running back down the hill. My next stop was only twelve minutes away, but the day’s heat had addled my nerves. I was covered in a flop sweat and had skipped lunch to give myself more time. As I approached the abbey of Saint Victor, the city’s commotion got the best of me.
I no longer wanted to conquer Marseille or see another site.
All I wanted to do was find a chilly place where I could rest my aching head and throbbing feet.
The interior of Saint Victor’s provided me with exactly what I was looking for. The tenth century abbey’s impassive stone walls hid the sun and heat. Inside the simple chapel a wave of cool air rushed over me. I touched the cold ancient walls and felt their strength flow through me. Even the rustic wooden pews felt refreshing. If I could rest here for a moment, I felt I could tackle my checklist again. No one else was in the church so I laid down on one of the benches. I must have dozed off because the next thing I heard was someone asking if I was all right. I opened my eyes to see an old man in a cassock bending over me. I sat up and apologized to him, explaining that I was a tourist feeling unwell. From beneath his robes the man produced a small water bottle, then beckoned me to follow him. Apprehensively I obeyed as he led me down steps to the abbey’s crypt. Here the air was heavy with the silence of ages and as cold as a freezer box. This was, the clergyman explained, not only the original portion of the Saint Victor’s but also the coldest. I drank in the damp nippy atmosphere.
“What do you think of Marseille,” the man asked. I didn’t know how to respond so I rattled off all the places I had crossed off my list. He raised his eyebrows and replied, “Impressive that you have seen all of that, but how do you find our city?” I hesitated to answer.
“It’s big,” I finally said “and busy. There are a lot of things to see.” He looked disappointed by my answer.
“There are certainly a lot of things to see,” he agreed, “but you haven’t experienced Marseille.” Although upset by his words I had no rejoinder. “Forget your list,” he continued “and relax here at the abbey. When you’ve had enough come find me upstairs.” As he left me in the cavern like grotto, I looked at my watch. The time had flown out of my control. Despite my careful planning, I had an hour and a half and three sites left. Even if I had wanted to I could not have finished my inventory of Marseille’s landmarks. Resigned to the inevitable, I roamed around the abbey studying the pockmarked pillars, curlicued capitals, and tendril cracks. When I heard the muted bell peals I headed upstairs to find the clergyman. He was sitting at a table by the main doors.
“I have to catch my train now,” I told him. “Thank you for letting me enjoy the abbey.”
“What do you think of it?” he asked.
“It’s beautiful in its simplicity,” I replied, “I’m amazed at how some of the old architecture and artisan work has escaped the hand of time.”
“That is how you must remember Marseille, then,” he answered smiling.
“I will.” I nodded “Thank you again for your kindness.”
“Take time to enjoy the rest of your journey,” he said “and remember: travel isn’t about the conquests but the memories.”
I never forgot his advice. I had set out to devour Marseille but failed to capture its spirit. In the gloomy solitude of a time-worn church I stopped cataloguing my way through the city and savored the moment given to me. My travel plan now is to embrace the essence of each destination and appreciate its personality. Like people, each destination is distinctive with its own quirky characteristics. Some reveal their charms through museums, others through architectural features. Some showcase themselves through natural landscapes, others through a history of man’s achievements. Whether spending the whole day at the beach or in contemplation of archeological artifacts, I try my best to relish the significance of where I am. I focus on what my senses teach me. I may miss many of the “must-see” locations, but I always discover the charisma of a destination and leave with unforgettable memories.
Once a powerful abbey in Provence, the 5th century church of Saint Victor hides a unique statue of the Virgin inside the depths of its crypt. On February 2nd, Christians gather to celebrate Candlemas at Saint Victor’s, the commemoration of the day when Christ was presented to the temple in Jerusalem by his parents. At each Candlemas the walnut statue is taken out on a processional parade accompanied by faithful pilgrims.
For more on Marseille and the artists it inspired check out our e-book French Riviera: Artist’s Paradise.