Saturday, June 7, 2008


Today I saw the Mediterranean Sea for the first time. Marseille is a port on the Côte D'Azur, 790 km (490 miles) from Paris. The extra high-speed train makes the journey in an amazing 3 hours, which is like going from Boston to Baltimore (or even a bit further) in the same amount of time. The landscape through which the train passes changes gradually from the flat post-medieval agricultural land around Paris to hilly, wooded regions with lots of cattle (all that cheese clearly has to come from somewhere) and finally to a distinctly Mediterranean landscape of limestone mountains, scrub pines, olive trees, grapevines and sun. I've left the camera's upload cable in Paris, so no pictures till we get back, but a few thoughts on the place.

Marseille is a lot grittier than Paris: the dress is more casual, the faces are more multiethnic, the architecture more Mediterranean, the graffiti more prolific (and political), the crowds (or so we are told) less strictly law-abiding. There are many Africans and Middle Easterners living here, and there probably always have been. The feel of the place is more run-down, more lived-in, with shutters banging loose and laundry hanging out to dry. The local travertine, used in building, is usually covered with stucco and painted, so that houses are a faded yellow or orange or turquoise, and everywhere there is urban grime.

The center of the city is a superb natural port which the Greeks quite sensibly snapped up as soon as they saw it in the 6th century BCE. As Massalia, and later Massilia under the Romans, it was part of the first Roman province outside Italy (hence, Provence), a major exporter of wine, on the wrong side of the power struggle between Julius Caesar and Pompey, and an outpost of early Christianity; later it became a Visigothic city, a Carolingian trading post, and one of the first French ports of call for the Black Plague. It's now, as it has been for 2600 years, a working port, overseen by the basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, which overlooks the harbor from the southern massif.

The main street of town, leading down to the Old Port, is called La Canebière, after the merchants who made and sold rope made from cannabis (ahem, hemp) for the rigging of ships.

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