Mary Lou Longworth now lives in Aix-en-Provence, in Southern France, and has lived there since 1997. She is the author of three Verlaque and Bonnet mystery novels set in Aix:
Mary Lou, as her post explains, is working on a fourth novel.
The substance of her post is a guided tour – if you will – through Marseille. (In English, btw, it’s Marseilles.)
And now, for a first-hand look at Marseille by M.L. Longworth.
The New/Old Marseille
The current draft of my fourth book opens with a retired school teacher, Eric Monnier, looking back at Marseille from a boat out at sea. It’s at once beautiful – the old port, the limestone cliffs. hill-top Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde watching over the city; and ugly, too – the city can be dirty, noisy and chaotic. But what Monnier likes about Marseille is the city’s indifference to tourists. It makes no attempt to appease, much like Genoa or Naples. What you see is what you get. That is, until 2013, when Marseille became the European Capital of Culture.
For years we have been going to Marseille to eat; its restaurants outshine those in Aix-en-Provence. No contest. But we usually eat, and the drive back to Aix. Last weekend, though, we stayed overnight, in a reasonably priced hotel in the old port, and soaked in the city's recent changes with awe and excitement.
A temporary visitors’ center, located behind the historic Town Hall is just as chaotic and mal organisé as one would expect from Marseille. But they were able to give us directions to one of the three newly constructed museums, the Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM); it’s a comfortable ten-minute walk down alongside the west side of the port, behind the Fort St-Jean. That day the museum's entrance was free, so the queue was formidable. We decided to visit another time, and walked along the fort which hugs the sea, to view the museum from the outside. For years I have been eyeing the stone benches that are built into the fort's wall, with their million-dollar view of the sparkling Mediterranean. I dreamt of taking a picnic basket filled with champagne and cheeses and cold cuts, and having a feast, basking in the sun. But the benches were inaccessible; that side of the fort has always been closed to the public. Now it is all open, and as we walked along the seaside, I overheard a woman say to her friends, who were visiting from Paris, that she too had always eyed those benches. There were about fifteen of us slowly walking towards the MuCEM, and as we rounded a corner and saw the museum, a spontaneous “Ahhhhh!” arose from our throats. Most of us stopped in our tracks; others scrambled for their cameras. The MuCEM is a gem, designed by the Marseille architect, Rudy Ricciotti:
Part of the reason we stayed overnight was to witness Sunday morning’s Transhumance, when thousands of animals (mostly sheep and horses) were to be paraded through Marseille's downtown streets. A transhumance does occur every spring, but in the countryside; it’s the moment when shepherds take their flock up into the hills, or mountains, for summer grazing. I loved the idea of transplanting an ancient, rural, tradition into a 21st century city. We stayed at the New Hotel Vieux Port and had a good view from the breakfast room's windows:
Lovely details, including Christ heeling a blind man (right) and the sacrifice of Isaac (left).
Have you ever had a vacation, even a day or a weekend away, when you start seeing the links between places, and images, and people? It was in the abbey that it happened; not exactly an epiphany, but one of those moments when, as E.M. Forster claimed, ‘only connect.’ I had gone into a chapel at Saint-Victor to look at a 5th-century stone altar that had been brought up from the crypt; it was beautifully carved, and as I walked around it I noticed this: