Saturday, June 15, 2013

Guest Blogger - M.L. Longworth

Our guest blogger this week is M.L. – for Mary Lou – Longworth:

For background, Mary Lou was born in Toronto in 1963; which, as it happens, is where my wife and I were living when our first daughter, Kristina, was born in November of that year. (The same month, coincidentally, that J.F.K. was killed in Dallas, but I will skip right past that.)

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:

Murder in the Rue Dumas    Death at the Chateau Bremont    

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.

The ring road that used to encase the old port has now narrowed, and two of its former lanes have become a giant sidewalk at the north end of the port. There’s so much more room now to stroll, and to enjoy the view of the boats, the sea, and the medieval forts that flank the mouth of the harbor. At the NE corner sits one of the many new structures that have been commissioned by the city; a flat-roofed open pavilion (thereby keeping the view of the port) with a mirrored roof, designed by Manchester-born super-architect Norman Foster. The photograph to the right makes it clearer:

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:

For hundreds of years this part of the port has also been inaccessible. Now you can walk around to the front of the museum, passing the white Villa Méditerranée, a performance space designed by the Italian Stefano Boeri, and walk along a huge newly-built square that overlooks the sea.

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:

But all is not new in Marseille; far from it. The city was founded 2,600 years ago by the Phoenicians; and so on Sunday we walked in the ancient Saint-Victor neighbourhood. We stopped at the Café de L’Abbaye for a traditional pastis, an anis-flavored liqueur:

The view from the café:

The Abbey Saint-Victor, built on a hill on the east side of the old port, was founded in the 5th century by Jean Cassien, a monk from Romania. A basilica was built of the site at the end of the 6th century (now the crypt), and the high church's construction, which is what we see now, above ground, began in 1040:

The fascinating, ancient crypt was closed due to renovations, but will reopen in July this year. There is plenty to see in the basilica, including this 5th century sarcophagus to the right.

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:

A Transhumance! And, on the other side, these:

Birds eating grapes on the vine. And outside, opposite the church on a tiny square overlooking the port, was this: a vineyard.

I looked at that vineyard and across the port to the Fort St-Jean and realized that I'm just another visitor to this city; a city where people have been coming and going – in the past by boat, and now by car or TGV– for two thousand years. And the Marseillais continue to build their city: new museums, a vineyard, renovating an ancient crypt. They don’t care that Parisians and Aixois make fun of their odd expressions and strong accent; they remain themselves: fast-talking, gregarious, and generous in the best sense of the word. The owner of the restaurant La Cantinetta, where we had dined the previous night, joked in his broken English with our American relatives, causing them to exclaim that Marseille was their favourite city in France. As we were leaving he grabbed my shoulders and gave me the bise – a kiss on both cheeks. And in a way, we all became Marseillais that night.

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