The French Connection

Published: July 21st 2016
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Vieux PortVieux PortVieux Port

Arguably the heart of Marseille.
Marseille has always had a sense of intrigue about it; France's oldest city is like nowhere else in the country, with its passionate people and its rough-'n-ready edginess. For me, its role in two of the best crime/spy thrillers of all time in The French Connection and The Bourne Identity only added to the city's allure.
Dirty and dangerous were two words I had heard used to describe Marseille a few years ago and it is not really on the backpacker trail, which is why I gave it a miss on my initial backpacking sortie through Europe- but the city has apparently had something of a renaissance, so now it was time to make amends.

The HI hostels were the only ones that I could find space at and I think I now why in the case of Marseille's; it is miles from the city centre (though it is reachable by Metro thank God) and there is zero atmosphere. There is literally no-one there half the time - not even staff. I had to check myself into my tiny 2-bed dorm. Just as well I had it to myself (which was actually quite nice) though it didn't really help in terms of meeting people. I
Basilique Notre Dame de la GardeBasilique Notre Dame de la GardeBasilique Notre Dame de la Garde

Perhaps Marseille's most iconic landmark.
probably would have just met old men in the other dorms anyway. The hostel was housed in a lovely old mansion though.

The first sight I visited in Marseille was the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde which is a lot like the Church Of Our Saviour On Spilt Blood in St Petersburg both inside and out. It is very Orthodox in design despite it being a Catholic church. Given Marseille's close relationship to the sea, many a votive offering has been made in the form of model ships, which hang from the church's ceiling; these would have been offered to the "The Good Mother" - the church is seen as the guardian of the city - by sailors for safe passage before setting off on their nautical journeys.
The views from the church are amazing; built on the top of the city's highest hill, you get a 360-degree view of the city and the harbour.

Clambering down from the basilica, I then hit Marseille's Vieux Port, which is arguably the heart of the city. With hundreds of masts on the calm water, the marina looks like a huge aquatic main square surrounded by pretty French neo-classical buildings and is a pleasant place for a
Palais de LongchampPalais de LongchampPalais de Longchamp

Palace that houses the Museum of Fine Arts.
coffee, a stroll or some food - or like a few Northern Irish, Hungarian and Albanian football fans, to watch the football al fresco on a screen outside a bar or a pub.
It was in fact right here in the port where Russian thugs laid into English football fans just three days earlier when the countries' two teams met here down the road at the Stade Velodrome. It was the worst football violence witnessed at a football tournament for 18 years - which ironically, was also here in Marseille and also involved English football fans. Thankfully I missed all the fighting and everything was a bit calmer now.

The Fort St Nicolas is one of two forts guarding the entrance to the Vieux Port with the other being the Fort St Jean. The Fort St Nicolas was closed to the public but the Fort St Jean is an impressie structure established by the Knights Of St John in the 13th century. Next to it - and indeed one is connected to it - are two classy-looking museums in the Musee des Civilisations de l'Europe et de la Mediterranee (Museum of European & Mediterranean Civilisations) and the Villa Mediterranee.
Les CalanquesLes CalanquesLes Calanques

Looking over the series of cliffs and coves that make up Les Calanques.
lose by is the currently-being-restored-but-nevertheless impressive Cathedrale La Major.

Plage les Catalans offers Marseillaises somewhere to sunbathe and swim; I've been spoilt by Caribbean beaches of late so I won't say that Plage les Catalans is amazing but it's not bad for a city beach. The water is a nice colour even if it inevitably a bit dirty, considering that this is a port city.

The most ambient part of the city is Le Panier - a maze of narrow streets, street art, terrace apartments ad drying washing. It is Marseille's answer to Montmartre and parts of it even evoked Havana. The neighbourhood, just north of the Vieux Port, along with Rue de Republique, is perhaps the most photogenic part of the city.

I think that I've mentioned before just how much I love French food and after days of starving myself and eating cheaply/unhealthily, I thought it was time to treat myself.
I wanted to try the famous local speciality of bouillabaisse but it was expensive - 20€ was the cheapest I could find. So it was just perfect when I came across a French buffet restaurant including bouillabaisse for just 23€. Yeah, it was ridiculously expensive compared to
Le PanierLe PanierLe Panier

Marseille's answer to Paris's Montmartre and the city's most atmospheric neighbourhood.
what I paid for meals in Latin America but given how much I would've paid anyway, this was excellent value. I hadn't eaten all day so I was starving too - so this was the perfect solution.
I love a good pate, something I got into the last time I was in France, and the ones on offer at the buffet didn't let me down. There was also a chorizo one, which seemed to come off one supermassive sausage, doner-style. I was also reacquainted with andouillette - a smelly, pig-intestine sausage - and an old favourite in ile flottante, one of the first things I ever tried in France.
As for the bouillabaisse - a stew combining up to five different types of fish - it was a little on the bland side until you add rouille; a garlic and chilli mayonnaise which tastes as amazing as it sounds. This gave the stew a creamy texture and a lot more taste - it made it delicious. I was struggling to walk after all that food...

Doing admin is a pain in the arse at the best of times but it's even worse when you're on the road.
As I am going to backpacker-unfriendly places slightly off the beaten path
Calanque de SugitonCalanque de SugitonCalanque de Sugiton

A lovely, quiet spot for a swim in Les Calanques.
and because I have to buy train tickets in advance to get any sort of reasonable fare, so much planning has to go into each leg of my journey and I'm spending hours a day on my laptop getting nowhere. And that's before mentioning the blog! Given my lack of internet in Cuba and how little time I have had to blog in Europe so far, I am way, way behind. I really need somewhere to stop for a week but it's too expensive to do it here in France.

On my second day here in Marseille, I decided to mission it out to Les Calanques - a set of specctacular cliffs and turquoise coves. It wasn't that much of a mission in the end - it is amazing that such wilderness is so close to the city; one metro ride, a bus ride and a 45-minute walk. Although I should mention that it's 45 rather challenging minutes along stony trails, down steep rocks and through intermittent rain.
The view from the lookout above the Sugiton and Miraciou calanques was pretty spectacular - I'll let the picture do the talking.
From the lookout it was then a good 20-30
Vieux Port & Basilique Notre Dame de la GardeVieux Port & Basilique Notre Dame de la GardeVieux Port & Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde

View of the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde from the Vieux Port.
minutes down to Calanques de Sugiton - but it was just about worth it. The water was clear, calm and emerald green, set beautifully against the light beige rocks. And you know what the water also was? F*cking cold. It reminded me of that time I went ice swimming. A quick two-minute dip was more than enough - my feet were starting to go numb.
I would've hiked over to the biggest of the calanques - Calanque de Sormiou - but it would have taken another couple of hours and more steep climbs. Besides, I needed to be back in Marseille for...

Game Day. France were playing their second match of the tournament against Albania here in Marseille. Fans of both sides were out everywhere, adding more colour to the already colourful streets of Marseille. Chants of "Allez Les Bleus!" were springing up everywhere; on the Metro, in bars. I had my French football shirt on - I seemed to be the only one in the city with this particular away kit which is strange since it is the French teams best-ever away kit, which is why I actually bought it - I though the French had style) - but felt like
Fort St JeanFort St JeanFort St Jean

One of two forts guarding the entrance into the Vieux Port.
an imposter waiting to get my cover blown at any moment. That was what it was like supporting a team that is not your own among thousands of true bleus. Especially since I didn't even speak their language! But when in Rome...

I ended up down at the official UEFA Fan Zone which having been to the original fan zones of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, I knew they'd have a good atmosphere.
Although it seemed pretty deserted about half-an-hour before kick off, it soon filled up. It was a nice volume of people - a proper crowd but with more than enough space around. I was gonna need that space later...
The fans in Marseille have a reputation; first for having some mean ultras - fanatical "fans" who fight and cause trouble and who probably took part in the chaos between the English and Russian fans the other day; but mainly for having the most passionate football fans in the country.
Olympique Marseille - or "l'OM" for short - are France's most successful team and the locals are rightly proud of it.
It seemed that the clubs's youth brigade were all out in force in the fan
Stade VelodromeStade VelodromeStade Velodrome

French fans outside the stadium before their match against Albania.
zone. Groups of what seemed like teenagers starting chant after chant, pogo-ing up and down in unison to them. Even the girls were getting involved. Occasionally, the 'mosh pit' would turn into full-rage, 'circles of death'.
As always, La Marseillaise was sung by the whole crowd with gusto and would get sung at regular intervals during the match as well. "Allez Les Bleus!" would get a good airing too.
You didn't have to be French to understand that this was a Marseille crowd. When the substitute Lucas Digne was shown warming up on-screen, he was roundly booed because he plays for l'OM's bitter rivals from Paris, Paris St-Germain. Even more so, was President Francois Hollande when he was shown on-screen, although this was rather unsurprising.
When Olivier Giroud missed his fourth or fifth reasonable scoring chance of the match, the fans in the fan zone had had enough and started chanting "Gignac! Gignac! Gignac!"
The biggest cheer of the night - to that point - was when hometown hero and l'OM legend Andre-Pierre Gignac finally came on to replace Giroud.

It was the biggest cheer of the night.
France were struggling to break down a stubborn Albanian defence but
Fan ZoneFan ZoneFan Zone

The crowd goes wild inside the fan zone after France score in their match against Albania.
they were starting to create better and better chances. Finally, the Albanians could hold on no more and Antoine Griezmann finally made the breakthrough for the French. Inside the fan zone; cue pandemonium. If I felt like an imposter at the start, I was wildly celebrating now in the 89th minute, jumping up and down in the middle of the crowd, hugging strangers and even joining in with the 'circles of death'. And we did it all again a couple of minutes later when Dmitri Payet scored again with the last kick of the match.
I was thinking throughout the match that perhaps I regretted not stumping up the cash for a ticket into the stadium. When would I ever get another chance to watch the home team in action at a European Championship? Cool as it would have been however, it's unlikely I would have been able to celebrate with complete abandon like I did at the fan zone - not with those pesky stadium seats in the way. It would've been 100€ minimum I reckon, probably much, much more. I felt a bit better after the match and why not - local fans were chanting and waving their
Rue de la RepubliqueRue de la RepubliqueRue de la Republique

Row of grand terrace apartments on Rue de la Republique.
tricolours, cars were honking - even the crestfallen Albanian fans who knew that their team's tournament was probably over, got up for one more defiant chant of "Shqiperi! Shqiperi!"
Everyone was in a good mood on the way home.

Having walked 35km in two days and having stood up for the best part of two hours at the fan zone, I was understandably knackered the next day and missed the hostel breakfast as well as my planned visit to the island of Chateau d'If - famous as where the fictional Count Of Monte Cristo was locked up in the book of the same name.
I ended up at an English pub to watch England play Wales in both teams' second match of the tournament - and where Daniel Sturridge was responsible for pandemonium in the pub almost as crazy as it was in the fan zone the previous night by netting a last-minute winner for England.

Having already extended my stay by an extra night, I decided to extend it again by another so I could visit Chateau d'If, sort out where I was going to go after Marseille and to visit a friend!
I met Jeni while

Looking along the coast of Marseille towards Plage du Prado.
I was studying Spanish in Barcelona last year and she is now working at a 3-Michelin star restaurant here in Marseille.
The part of the coast where her hotel/restaurant was located was breathtaking. Right on the sapphire blue and emerald green sea, there is a corniche right below the hotel which is a set of rocks where people can sunbathe and swim with a walkway just behind it.
It was really nice to have a proper chat with someone to be honest; my time in France and before that in Andorra, has been lonely - perhaps the loneliest so far of the trip because I have had my own room for about a week and the hostels I stayed at weren't really conducive to meeting people. The type of people in the hostels also weren't really backpackers so I struggled to relate to the old folk, families and teenagers that were staying there. It was cool to catch up on what we had been up to over the last eight months since we'd seen each other over a beer.

After my meeting with Jeni, I then decided to follow the coast around back to the fan zone on Plage
Chateau d'IfChateau d'IfChateau d'If

Looking back towards Marseille from the island prison where the Count Of Monte Cristo was locked up in the famous book.
du Prado, which was an amazing walk. The cliffs and the water reminded you that you were in the French Riviera but there also shades of Brighton and the Cinque Terre too.
The beach itself isn't the most aesthetic you've ever seen - think grey, stones/gravel as opposed to the soft, white sand of say, Varadero in Cuba or Ihla Grande in Brazil.
The fan zone had the big screen showing Czech Republic vs Croatia and loads of activities and events were going on - including a game of human foosball - involving the armies of Icelandic and Hungarian fans who were in town for tomorrow's match at the Stade Velodrome.

I finally made it to Chateau d'If on my last day in Marseille.
Watching Belgium play Ireland in an Irish pub while waiting for my boat over to the island, I got talking to a couple of Scots next to me. As the conversation progressed, one of them said that he might have a spare ticket to the Iceland vs Hungary match and that I could have it for free if I wanted it! Such a shame that I had already bought my ferry ticket to the island - it would mean
Behind BarsBehind BarsBehind Bars

From a cell inside the Chateau d'If looking back towards Marseille.
I'd miss the start of the match and would still have to get to the stadium. But then again, if I gave up the 11€ paid for the ferry, I'd basically have paid 11€ for a 105€ ticket to a match at a European Championship. It was an if however - if there was no ticket available then I would've missed both the match and the opportunity to visit an island ironically called If.

The island has a main chateau still standing on it where real prisoners were kept between the 16th and 18th centuries. Originally built as a fort guarding the harbour entrance to Marseille, it soon housed mainly political prisoners as well as dissenters. The exhibitions inside provided more details regarding the Count Of Monte Cristo (I've never read it) and its literary impact on the world (it was the world's first international bestseller) as well as the novel's author, Alexandre Dumas.
The views of Marseille from the chateau are wonderful but otherwise a fort is a fort. I don't regret visiting it - but I'd probably have gone to the football if the Scot had a guaranteed spare ticket to the match available!

As well

In the Vieux Port.
as exploring the area around Saint-Charles and the Palais de Longchamps, I spent the rest of my time in Marseille trying to sort out where to go next - I had a real conundrum on my hands.
My original plan was to continue along the southern coast of France towards Italy but the French Riviera is more suited to George Clooney celebrity-types with their Ferraris and superyachts rather than the humble backpacker, so I had to decide whether it would be worth it. Perhaps it's a place better visited after I have made my millions.
An alternative was to head straight to Italy, to Turin - but feel that my time in France isn't ready to come to an end just yet.
My other option was to head up to Lyon - but finding reasonably priced accommodation and transport was proving difficult, thanks to Lyon also being a host city for Euro 2016.
So where would I end up and how would I solve these annoying problems?

You'll find out in the next blog entry!

A la prochaine,

Additional photos below
Photos: 26, Displayed: 26


Streets Of Le PanierStreets Of Le Panier
Streets Of Le Panier

Inside the (mainly) pedestrian and arty neighbourhood of Le Panier.
Street Art In Le PanierStreet Art In Le Panier
Street Art In Le Panier

The bohemian neighbourhood is full of it.
Architecture In MarseilleArchitecture In Marseille
Architecture In Marseille

Row of buildings on Boulevard Andre Aune.
Plage les CatalansPlage les Catalans
Plage les Catalans

Perhaps Marseille's nicest city beach.
Beach ViewBeach View
Beach View

Chilling in Calanque de Sugiton.
Plage du PradoPlage du Prado
Plage du Prado

Marseille's biggest city beach where the fan zone is located.

Marseille's signature fish stew.
Cours Honoré-d'Estienne-d'OrvesCours Honoré-d'Estienne-d'Orves
Cours Honoré-d'Estienne-d'Orves

Square lined with bars, cafes and restaurants just behind the Vieux Port.
Cathedrale La MajorCathedrale La Major
Cathedrale La Major

Still impressive despite the fact that it is currently undergoing a major restoration.
Le ChateauLe Chateau
Le Chateau

The prison on Chateau d'If that housed prisoners between the 16th and 18th centuries.

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