"AC/DC - Bum notes in Marseille"


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Published: March 26th 2010
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9th June ‘09:

The view from Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde is superb; this morning's view from the pews, however, has been arresting. Whoops, she nearly caught me photographing her bottom just then. With rapt concentration, I point the camera on a particularly alluring stretch of blank wall, feigning to notice her as she looks round.

Our eyes meet, and I smile innocently, as though taking a picture of her bum is the furthest thing from my mind. Still, this is the place to repent - the Basilica has been a place of worship since 1214. Master Peter lived as a hermit on this hill in Marseille, and he built a small chapel. As pilgrim numbers increased, the chapel was enlarged.

There are two ways to reach the Basilica: intrepidly on foot, or on a naff miniature train. Yes, I agree, the train is for wimps. It drives up the hill, giving running commentary and allowing photo stops, but there is probably no mention of the barren, rocky path encircling the edifice. Take this if you fancy a satisfying 1km trek through cacti, magpies, and dog poo.

Whichever route you choose, you still have to wade through French horn players to reach the summit. This particular busker is an accomplished player, actually, delivering an effortlessly coruscating performance. He plays a flawless, sombre French melody, with not a beret or garlic clove in sight. He has a sound embouchure, too. I know these things, you see; the horn, while a funny sort of instrument, is played in the same way as a trombone.

Yes, you blow a raspberry, puckering the lips and contracting the muscles around the mouth. The instrument transforms and amplifies that buzz into a pure, unadulterated tone. Well, it ought to, but it’s easy to put a lolling tongue in the airstream, resulting in a strangled, unfocused din.

The French horn is an enigma to other brass players - trombonists, tubists and trumpeters - because it has two sides to it. Oh, I wish I hadn’t started this now because this is a complicated and possibly spurious discussion. What is certain, though, is that the mouthpiece is absurdly small, nothing like the roomy trombone mouthpiece; I can't even get my lips in it, let alone produce a note. It’s a bit like a ham-fisted double bass player using the same left-hand spacing on a violin.

I've included a musician because I'm leading seamlessly (ish) into the French National Anthem, otherwise known as “La Marseillaise”. The tune came about, according to the tourist leaflet, after the 1720 plague wiped out half the population. But which plague? Could it have been a plague of French horn players? The leaflet doesn't specify.

The city's people then became famous - what, just for surviving a plague of French horn players? - and marched on Paris to join the Revolution in 1792. The song they sang - “The Hymn to the Army of The Rhine” - became known as La Marseillaise. So there you have it.

The basilica is a great place to eke out an afternoon. The haunting melodies continue as I look up, squinting at the huge gold statue on a pedestal. And I mean huge. The wrist alone of the Child Jesus measures a whopping 1.10 metres in circumference.

Gazing over Marseille, corseted by a ring of hills, and stretching 70km along the Mediterranean coast, I decide that the city may not be a huge toilet after all. And as for the seamier side, buying grams of talcum powder from Tunisians isn’t compulsory; take a boat trip instead - to the 16th century island fortress made famous in “The Count of Monte Cristo”.


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