Marseille, Cassis and the Calanques

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August 3rd 2015
Published: May 31st 2017
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I wake with a knot in my stomach. Today we are booked on a tour, and it includes a boat trip. The last time we went on a tour that included a boat trip Issy ended up wanting to kill the captain, most of the crew and half the other passengers. Hopefully this tour will be slightly better.

Issy decides she wants to conserve her energy for the tour, so I set off for a quick walk around Lourmarin on my own. I go into the twelfth century Chateau de Lourmarin. Some of its rooms are set up as they would have been a couple of hundred years ago, and others have museum pieces on display. It's very attractive, more akin a large house than a castle, and provides good views from the second floor over the village and the surrounding countryside.

I walk back through the village. Someone has been taking their pet pig for a walk, and they've left it outside a restaurant with its lead tied around the leg of a table. I don't think I've seen anyone take a pig for a walk before. It looks quite happy; it has its head down and is running its snout over the ground looking for any crumbs that someone might have dropped from the table.

We leave for Marseille in plenty of time to get to the start of the tour, but as we get closer to the GPS seems to lose its sense of direction. I'm not quite sure of the value of a GPS without a sense of direction but we paid a lot for it so I'm sure there must be some. Within a few metres of telling us to turn right in several kilometres it tells us to turn around. I'm not sure this makes a lot of sense, but we decide to persist. We make the U turn and go around a long circuit until we find ourselves back where we started. We repeat the circuit three times looking for clues as to what we're doing wrong or where we should really be going. I'm starting to lose my sense of humour. All this time I thought that only watching football and playing golf made me want to throw my toys out of the cot, but it seems that I can now add listening to the inane rantings of a GPS to this list. I find myself wanting to do unspeakable things to it, which probably isn't all that helpful.

We spy a sign out of the corners of our eyes pointing to the hotel that we need to get to to join the tour, but this takes us around the same familiar circuit yet again. It's now only a few minutes until the tour is due to leave, so we decide to park the car and walk to the hotel. Issy's phone tells us that it's only a few minutes away by car, but this is via a tunnel under the harbour. It seems however that pedestrians aren't allowed in the tunnel, they need to walk several kilometres around the harbour. We find a taxi rank. If a taxi turns up in the next few minutes we might just get to the hotel in time, but we seem to be in a taxiless part of town. I ring the tour company. They say they can wait ten minutes for us. A few minutes later they ring back to give us the option of joining a later tour. Disaster averted yet again. We breathe a sigh of relief.

Our tour guide is Marie, and our fellow tourists are a couple from Toronto. We start our tour at the old port. This looks very familiar, and we soon realise that this is where we spent half an hour driving around in circles listening to the inane burblings of our beloved GPS. Marie tells us that Marseille was founded by Greek sailors. In World War 2 it became a key departure location for refugees, as the Nazis found it very difficult to find people here in the maze of streets. They eventually solved this issue by blowing up the whole area with dynamite, and it then had to be rebuilt shortly after the war ended. We stop briefly outside the twelfth century Marseille Cathedral, which looks very similar in style to the Siena Cathedral, with its familiar horizontal black and white marble stripes. The tour is supposed to include another old church, but we're not sure the mourners at the funeral that's in progress would appreciate the intrusion of a bunch of picture-snapping tourists so we move on. Next stop is a large war memorial overlooking the beach. I'd never associated Marseille with luxury, but the restaurant next to the memorial seems to suggest otherwise. Its patrons are dining on sunlounges under umbrellas, and taking occasional dips in the very inviting looking emerald blue water.

We climb a hill to the Basilica of Note-dame de la Garde, which is on top of the highest hill in Marseille and dominates the city's skyline. The views from here are spectacular. Marie tells us that it's generally recognised as the symbol of Marseille, and was the site of a pivotal World War Two battle after which Marseille was retaken by the Allies. The original 13th century church on the site was destroyed in the 16th century, and a fort was then built here in the 17th century. The current church is built on top of the fort, and was consecrated shortly after it was completed in 1864.

We drive along the coast into the Calanques National Park and on to the village of Cassis, which is a based around a small yacht-filled harbour surrounded by restaurants. It sits below some massive cliffs which Marie says are the highest in Europe. It's clearly very popular with both tourists and locals; the streets and beach are packed. We get into a small boat for a cruise around three of the spectacular Calanques, otherwise known as the ‘fjords of the Mediterranean’, all of which are surrounded by tall white cliffs.

We drive up to the top of the cliffs above the village. We could see a single small cloud forming on the highest cliff in an otherwise cloudless sky from down in Cassis, but it seems to have become much larger by the time we get to the top, and strong upward air currents seem to be enlarging it even more as we watch on. It looks really spooky. It's obscured most of the view that we came to see, but is a great sight in itself. We assume this is a common phenomenon, but Marie tells us that she's never seen it before.

It will be too late to eat by the time we get back to Lourmarin, so we decide to eat in Marseille instead. We find a restaurant with a menu in both French and English. The waiter speaks some English as well, so for the first time in three days we'll have some idea what we'll be eating before it lands on the table. We decide that we will never again take menus and waiters that we can understand for granted. I order mussels in a blue cheese Roquefort sauce. It's very rich, very French and very nice.

We program the GPS to take us back to Lourmarin, but it seems that it hasn't magically regained its sense of direction in the past few hours. It tries to take us onto a freeway which either doesn't exist or is closed for maintenance, but every time we fail to get onto it the GPS takes us in a big loop so that we can try and fail again. It's now dark, we don't know which direction is which, we don't have a map, and our only available navigation tool seems to be working off a faulty roadmap.

We decide to just drive on in any direction to get way from the endless loop, but no matter how hard we try it always keeps taking us back to the same non-existent Freeway entrance. Along the way it also decides it might be amusing if it took us along a street that is reserved for trams, into a construction site that it decides is a roundabout, and the wrong way down a one way street. It's not helping that I can't see; the windscreen keeps fogging up and we can't work out how to clear it. An angry local then pulls up next to us and tells us that our lights are on high beam and are blinding everyone. I expect to be arrested any minute. We hear a siren behind us. This is it; I'm about to be arrested and the GPS has made me break enough road rules to warrant several years in jail. I wonder if Issy will visit me in jail; I hope she doesn't have to rely on the GPS to find it. Luckily for us the siren is an ambulance. We try to break out of the loop, but find ourselves back in the port next to the restaurant we were in a few hours ago. This all seems real, but it must surely be a nightmare; hopefully we'll wake up soon.

We think that the GPS has retained just enough of a sense of direction to tell us whether we are travelling north, south, east or west, so we hatch a cunning plan to just keep driving north along whatever roads we can find, in the hope that if we're able to get far enough away from the GPS's imaginary Freeway it might have a better chance of finding us a route that consists of actual roads. We get back to Lourmarin at 1am. It was supposed to be a one hour drive and we've been in the car for four hours. We're both brain dead.

I dream that I'm reading a newspaper. The headline reads GPS Murdered. A GPS has been found murdered in Marseille. The body of a Marseille GPS was pulled from the harbour at 1pm today local time. A police spokesman said that the body had suffered severe trauma and appeared to have been struck with a blunt instrument multiple times, before being thrown into the harbour. A sixty year old Australian male from Melbourne has been taken into custody and is helping police with their enquiries. There are no other suspects. The man is understood to have made a full confession, but has shown no remorse for his actions. Australian consular officials are assisting the man.......I wake up. Alas it was only a dream.

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