Friday, January 23, 2009

Old Port, Vieux Port or Fortified?

Marseille is a working city with a working port where on the main square fronting the up-market restuarants, local fishermen sell their fresh catch of the day from stalls. It is also a city where there is a high level of unemployment and one of the symptoms of this is the graffiti that is evident all through the city and a very obvious presence of beggars - particularly near tram stops, restaurants and shopping centres. (excuse the unclear pics - Michael's hands were shaky!)

Like other French cities we have been to, Marseille is a mix of wide planned avenues and a jumble of twisted streets that climb up to the best vantage points - usually crowned with a Catholic Cathedral! Here though, we see the best examples of everyday living amongst the museums and historic sites. Each day we can look in the windows of the Patisserie, the boulangerie, the tabac and the small markets.

There are a number of museums here that we want to see, more than what we have the time for - guess we are going to have to make some choices! The Museum of Mediterranean Archaeology looks really good so this will be one to try to get to.

Dinner tonight was at Chez Noel on the recommendation of the receptionist at the hotel. It surpassed its rather ordinary demeanor and the local perchance for ordering pizza (although they are cooked in a wood stove), but we opted for something a little more special:
Salade de Sinner (Sinner Salad - octopus, mussels, scampi, scallops) Michael
Beignets de sardine ('donut' - lightly battered sardines with mustard sauce) Maria
Magret de Canard avec sauce aux Framboises (Duck breast with raspberry sauce) Michael
Tagitalle Pistou (Tagitelle with pistou sauce - olive oil, garlic and basil) with tomatoes - Maria

We took the little train up through the hilly streets to see the Basilica de Notre Dame de la Garde and then a boat trip out on the Med to the Frioul Islands (Pomègues, Ratonneau, If and Tiboulen) and Michael went up to Castle-If, which is perched on a small limestone island of 3 hectares. As the day was wet and a little blustery, this was quite a trip for me (who usually has no sea legs!) The Island is very impressive from the sea with the Castle looming out of the very bedrock of the island. This castle that was once a prison, and is the one on which the story of the Count of Monte Cristo is based.

The castle or Château d'If as it is referred to, was constructed between 1524-1531 as a deterrent to suitors with a penchant for invasion. As was the situation in 1536 when Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor whose personally led the invasion of Marseilles failed when he came up against the fortress.

If Charlie was peeved over the fortress, the populace of Marseilles were less than impressed when the Chateau was completed. In 1524 when the first walls were constructed to protect the access to the port, the residents referred to the edifice as "the troublesome neighbour". Upon its completion and subsequent installation of 200 soldiers and 22 pieces of heavy artillery the citizens of Marseilles protested unceasingly as they felt the fortress represented a central power intruding on their territory.

Within six years of the Chateau's completion it was utilised as a prison particularly for those "opponents of royal power" - namely Protestants. The first prisoner appears to have been the Knight, Chevalier Anselme, who in 1580 was accused of plotting against the Monarchy. He was soon to be found hanged in his cell. Over a period of 200 years the Chateau d'If had incarcerated approximately 3,500 Protestants.

It was not uncommon for families to have their sons incarcerated under Lettre de cachet. As was the case with Honoré Mirabeau who was imprisoned at his fathers' request in 1774. However Mirabeau's stay wasn't at all unpleasant as he rented a 'pistole' which was a comfortable and spacious room located on the first floor. The dungeons (which are inaccessible) are apparently windowless and without conveniences and were reserved for the poorer prisoners. Wandering through the fortress one is constantly reminded of its past history through the 'signatures' left by its detainees vide grafitti.

Albeit, the fortress is an impressive piece of architecture with spiral staircases, chambers, obliettes and cells. Due to the effects of the location and environment the structure is under constant maintainance. However there is an energetic project at present to render the external walls and towers.

From the sea, Marseille would have once been a Mediterranean picture - with high class hotels rubbing shoulders with traditional but smaller residential complexes that were painted in colours sympathetic to the sandstone cliffs that hug the city - soft tones of ochres, off whites, light oranges and the occasional pink. Nowadays however it is a different story, with these crowded out by box-like constructions erected in the 1960s and 1970s. The newer buildings are, at least, more sympathetic to the history. Today in the rain, it is not as pretty - although as we are pulling back in to port from the trip, the two forts flanking the entrance through the heads still look imposing and really impressive. As do the Cathedral and the Basilica high on the hill overlooking the City with the golden Madonna stretching her arms in protection over all.
There are an over abundance of pizzerias in Marseille and so tonight we collect a couple from one of the local shops. Ham and cheese, and minced beef with olives. Nice and not too filling. Certainly great bases that are not overloaded with too much filling. They only cut them in quarters, so you find yourself folding them in half enclosing the filling to eat them. Yumm-um

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