On the train in Norway

For better or worse, my first impressions of a country are often lasting ones, which is why taxi drivers who pick up passengers at airports or international train terminals should quit trying to rip tourists off; do they not understand how awful a first impression they make? Which leads me to Norway. I was heading to Bergen, but since I was feeling slightly guilty about what a bad environmental footprint my business class flight to Denmark had left, I forewent the quick, 2 hour flight and opted instead for the much more environmentally friendly, politically correct, 2 days on a train.

First Impressions: Oslo:

My train ride to Oslo began in Copenhagen, going through a tunnel under the Oresund Strait to Sweden, arriving late in Gothenburg; too late to grab a bite to eat at the station, before catching another train to Oslo. Once on it, the immigration officers barely glanced at my passport before grilling the younger Spaniard beside me about why she was going to Norway and the equally young Swedish fellow about his means of support. I’d like to think their disinterest in me was due to my Canadian passport but I suspect it had everything to do with my few grey hairs and wrinkles.

The train arrived in Oslo 45 minutes late to a pounding rain storm, at 10:30PM, with many apologies by the train staff (for being late, not the rain). Google Maps said the hotel was a 7 minute walk from the station and as I had no Norwegian cash to pay a cab driver (little did I know that everybody and everything takes credit cards here), I put on my raincoat and started walking in what I hoped would be the correct direction. Luckily it was, and equally lucky, Oslo and the whole of Norway, is extremely safe. Despite my vulnerable state, dragging a suitcase whilst staring intently at a phone trying to follow directions, I felt no fear walking around central Oslo at the late hour. I arrived at my hotel 15 minutes later – I have no idea how Google Maps figures out its walking time, but I am always about twice as long as what it says it will take – and checked in.

No restaurants were open in the vicinity and I hadn’t eaten since lunch, so I asked the hotel clerk if, by chance, there were some biscuits or cookies I could have. She told me to wait while she checked in the kitchen. She came back a few minutes later with a plate filled with a piece of cake, a cut-up orange and some mini-croissants. How to make a great first impression!

To Bergen and The Flåm:

A bit of a confession here. The real reason I was taking the train to Bergen has nothing to do with my environmental sensitivities (or lack thereof), but my desire to take a ride on what is often described as one of the most scenic train rides in the world, The Flåm. I could have done it from Bergen, but that would have involved a flight and an expensive day trip and I was in no real hurry and always anxious to save a few dollars. So I booked a 4 hour train ride to Myrdal station where I would ride the Flåm Train to Flåm and back again before catching another train for the 2 hour trip to Bergen.

The train to Myrdal was comfortable. The buffet car had extra large windows, where I spent time admiring the scenery – all trees and mountains and lakes. To my chagrin, snow was visible atop a mountain, but it turned out to be a glacier so snow even as early as September 8 was not unexpected.

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A preview of the scenery to come

The Flåm railway starts at the Myrdal station and runs for 20 kilometers, descending from 867 meters above sea level at a 5% gradient, whatever that means. It is steep. There are 20 tunnels, 10 cute little yellow stations and a viewing platform at the largest waterfall. More waterfalls, a glacier and beautiful Norwegian woods are passed during the hour long journey down; speed not being of much importance.

On schedule, an hour later, we arrived at the town of Flåm, a Mecca for outdoor enthusiasts with hiking trails, cycle paths and fishing among the attractions. None interested me, so I stayed on the train and went back up again.

Bergen:

Located on a fjord inland from the Norwegian Sea and surrounded by mountains, Bergen is a spectacular city. The Gulf Stream keeps it warmer than its altitude would suggest, but with that warmth comes rain, a lot of it. Bergen is known as the rainiest city in Europe, with over 200 days of rain every year.

By some miracle, I managed to be in Bergen for 3 days without any rain, so I was quick to take advantage of the sun. First up, a 6 minute ride on the Floibanen funicular to the top of Mount Floyen to enjoy the views. I was fortunate to buy my ticket on-line, allowing me to skip the already long purchase line and save $.50 on the $14.00 fare. The funicular was full, but the views made the ride worthwhile.

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Bergen from above

Going down, I managed to snag a front row seat with a pair of Calgarians, who had just finished their cruise. Bergen is a popular stop on Baltic cruises and 2 ships were always in port when I was there, along with their crowds and guides holding a stick with a number at the top. By the time I got to the bottom of the funicular, the line-up snaked for a block and probably 1,000 people were waiting.

Next stop was the intriguingly named Leprosy Museum, but it was closed as of September 1, whether for the season or renovations I never discovered. Thus thwarted, I walked to the port area, known as the Bryggen, where food stalls were set up offering all manner of Norwegian food, including reindeer and whale burgers. The prices were frighteningly high: a salmon, potatoes and vegetable plate cost upwards of $40, while the more expensive shrimp and crab dishes started at $75 and went up, all for essentially a fast food experience. Norwegian prices were bringing out the cheapskate in me. I ate a hearty (and included with the hotel room) breakfast, took a few oranges for lunch and managed with a hot dog for dinner costing about $9.00. Back at the Bryggen, a public toilet cost $2.00, credit cards only.

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Sample plates for sale at the Bryggen

I can chintz on food, but don’t mind spending money on museums and guides, so I happily parted with $25 at the Hanseatic Museum to wander the museum and take a guided tour.

Now for the inevitable history lesson as told by the guide. Bergen has been populated since the Ice Ages, but its claim to historical fame is as one of the main centres of the Hanseatic League, north German merchants who set up trading routes throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. Bergen’s attraction to them was stockfish, dried cod from the northern Lofoten islands, which could be stored for up to 30 years, useful as far away as Portugal when their crops failed or their catch was bad. In return, the Lofoten fishermen needed grain, since none grows that far north. It was a perfect match.

The Hanseatic merchants set up their own communities and followed very strict guidelines. By the 14th century, they had set up in Bergen, living communally in wooden houses on the dock. The area was fenced, only men were allowed in. Wives and children remained in Germany. Marrying a Norwegian woman was forbidden, not for morality reasons (the brothels were located on the other side of the fence) but to ensure potential heirs were German. Apprentice merchants learned to read and write and lived in dormitories. None of the houses had living rooms or kitchens, instead meetings were held in assembly halls, where the Hanseatics socialized, prayed and ate together.

Today, the houses, passageways and assembly halls standing date to 1704, rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1702 and are an UNESCO world heritage site.

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The Hanseatic Houses in Bergen

Final Thoughts:

Although it has been only 3 days, I am loving Norway, except for the prices. Beautiful scenery, clean, and modern, everyone speaks fluent English. More importantly, everyone seems kind and patient and happy. If you don’t have a train ticket, no problem, the conductor will sell you one. Looking lost? Someone will ask if you need directions. Hungry? They’ll find food for you. My hotel has free laundry – just ask at the front desk for detergent. No one seems to be in a hurry; someone asked me to cut in front of him at a hot dog stand.

I suspect it is because this is a very wealthy country (it has the world’s largest sovereign fund from its oil and gas revenues) with a generous social net. It is also mostly middle class, with very few poor or obscenely wealthy people. Trains have only second class cars and there aren’t many homeless people or beggars. I’m sure there are studies done by someone that shows Norwegians are very depressed or have the highest divorce rate or something awful, but this is the first country I’ve been to in a long time that I have felt I could live in. But only for 3 months of the year because it is bloody cold and wintery for the rest of the time.

 

Next: The Hurtigruten

 

 

Touring Copenhagen

After spending August in Canada, I boarded my flight for Copenhagen. Departing on time at 7:20 PM, the pilot announced we would be landing in Copenhagen a full hour early, at 7:30AM Danish time. The flight crew were thrilled with the early arrival, but it meant the overnight flight was only 5 hours, 2 of which were taken up with a very slow dinner service followed less than 2 hours later by a breakfast. There had been little time for sleep and I hadn’t had any.

The Hop On-Hop Off Bus:

“You are very early,” the receptionist at my hotel said when I tried to check in. “Why don’t you store your luggage and go do some sightseeing?” Since I had no other plans and he wouldn’t let me check in (it was only 9:00AM), it seemed like a good idea. I walked back to the Central Station, bought a ticket for the Hop On-Hop Off Bus and hopped on.

The bus drove through central Copenhagen, the commentary pointing out famous sights: the Parliament, Amailienborg Castle where the royal family lives, the newly constructed Opera House, the Central Bank building, the National Museum and Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest amusement park in the world. The oldest, Bakken, dating from 1573, is just north of Copenhagen but a lot smaller and not on the Hop On-Hop Off bus’ route. As amusement parks are not really my thing, I passed on both of them.

The highlight was a stop at Copenhagen’s iconic statue, the Little Mermaid. Inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, him being one of two of Copenhagen’s most famous citizens (the other being the existential philosopher Kierkegaard), the statue was commissioned in 1913 by Carl Jacobsen, the son of the founder of Carlsberg, the beer company. The Jacobsen family is one of Denmark’s richest and its name was mentioned numerous times as having commissioned art, buildings and roofs. Back to the Little Mermaid, she has been decapitated twice, stolen once and rumours abound that the current edition is not the original. Nonetheless, she is Copenhagen’s most visited tourist sight and the second most overhyped sight in Europe, behind Brussels’ Manneken Pis. I dutifully walked up to her, took a photo, then took many more photos of tourists taking photos.

A few hours of sightseeing and some catnaps on the bus later, I walked back to my hotel, checked in and crashed.

The Walking Tour:

The next day, I, along with a much too large group of about 40 others, joined Penny, a transplanted American, for a walking tour. She provided a brief history of Denmark: hunter-gatherers, farmers, Vikings who eventually adopted Christianity, Middle Ages replete with fiefdoms, the plague, continuous battles against Sweden over domination of the Baltic Sea (with the goal of taxing the merchant ships sailing through) and union with Norway for 300 years beginning 1523. It has long had a monarchy, Lutheranism became  the state religion, a constitution was adopted in 1849 at the urging of the then reigning king and absolute monarch, Frederick VII. It separated from Norway in 1814, gave up 4 of its colonies (in India, the current U.S. Virgin Islands, Ghana and Iceland) and was occupied by the Nazis during WW2 after surrendering following a 2 hour battle. Interestingly, it had sold the US Virgin Islands (then named St. Thomas) to the US in 1917 for $25 million, so Trump’s current offer to purchase Greenland from Denmark is not without precedent.

Slightly longer was the explanation about the Danish revival architecture that dominates the city centre. Copenhagen was devastated by two fires in the 18th century, resulting in a dearth of old buildings and a plethora of regulations designed to avoid further fires. Streets were broadened to serve as fire barriers, bricks were used in all construction and no building could be higher than the church steeples, not as a sign of respect for religion but for the practical reason that the steeples doubled as watchtowers during fires and nothing could impede the sight-lines of the fire spotters. Thus, most buildings are 5 stories or less.

Nyhavn Canal and its adjoining waterside streets made up the former red light district, inhabited by sailors, prostitutes and Hans Christian Anderson whose name comes up a lot in Copenhagen. It was cleaned up and gentrified in the 1970’s and is now occupied by restaurants serving authentic Nordic food for the tourists, beer and wine bars and boats owned by the city. It is also colourful, quaint and pretty as a picture, of which I (and the thousands of other tourists) took many.

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Nyhavn Canal

Copenhagen is not all pretty, older buildings. Modern architecture runs the gamut, but tends toward the boxy, sleek look in black and silver. It is not universally admired; one, the Blox, is routinely called the ugliest building in the world.

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The Ugliest Building in the World?

Copenhagen has embraced the multipurpose building. Its brand new opera house (replacing yet another candidate for world’s ugliest building) has a high diving platform on its roof (divers dive into the canal) and the recycling plant is in the process of adding a ski slope to its roof.

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The new Opera House/Diving Platform

The Foodie Tour:

Noma has been voted the best restaurant in the world four times. It champions Nordic food and the eating local movement, has a tasting menu starting at $300 and a waiting list for reservations of about 35,000. Needless to say, I didn’t eat there. But I did take a food tour and sampled some Danish delights.

Danes love their herring and I couldn’t resist the herring smorgasbord, a buffet featuring more types of herring than I ever envisioned: fried herring in a vinegar/sugar dressing, creamed marinated herring, smoked herring with egg yolk, herring of my dreams, Crown herring, herring in curry dressing, capers herring, rolled herring in a white wine dressing, marinated herring with onions, marinated red Matjes herring, blueberry herrings with vinegar, marinated herring with apples and potatoes. I tried one of each; my favourite was the herring in curry dressing.

Another famous Danish favourite is the Smorrebrod, an open faced sandwich made with a thick slab of rye bread, buttered and topped with a variety of toppings, the more expensive the fancier. I dined on the rather tame smoked salmon, onions and egg salad Smorrebrod, but others come piled high with shrimp, chicken, vegetables, sauces, limited only by the chef’s imagination. Housewives used to bake the rye bread daily, then top it with the prior night’s leftovers to make lunch.

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 Smorrebrod

Our food tour included a beer stop – Copenhagen is proud of its beer tradition. Beer was the beverage of choice in the past few centuries since it was healthier than the filthy water that served as the city’s drinking water. Carlsberg beer is one of Denmark’s largest exports, along with LEGO and Maersk shipping containers. I skipped the beer to save the calories for desserts. Contrary to its name Danish pastries are not Danish, but Austrian. In Denmark, the thin, heavily buttered concoction filled with fruits and cheese is referred to as an Austrian pastry. Instead of trying an Austrian’s invention, I indulged in Koldskal, a summer treat made with sugared yogurt and Flodeboller, a chocolate covered marshmallow puff.

Danes love their hot dogs, loaded with everything and accompanied by chocolate milk. Our guide explained years ago, hot dog vendors were prohibited from selling fizzy drinks, so they came up with selling chocolate milk as an accompaniment. Including vegetables (onions, peppers and pickles) on the hot dog means one gets all four food groups in one meal, but I partook mostly because hot dogs, at $8.00 each, were one of the cheapest food options around. I couldn’t bear the thought of paying a minimum $14 for a glass of wine, so my days in Copenhagen were alcohol free.

Christiania:

In 1971, some mothers tore down a fence surrounding vacant army barracks on the island of Christianhovn to obtain access to a playground for their children. Soon, squatters moved in to the barracks, perhaps in protest to Copenhagen’s housing shortage, refused to pay rent, taxes or anything else, established a self-governing commune close to the center of Copenhagen and named it Christiania.

Today, 850 residents still live there (down from 1500 a few decades ago), but an agreement reached with the Copenhagen government in 1994 requires them to pay about $300 monthly for rent, taxes and utilities, still a considerable bargain in this city where average rents are about $3,000 per month. Christiania still tries to live by its own rules, but continual agreements with the Danish government have watered down its independence.

Its ideal was a place where each resident was responsible for the well-being of the community. It strove for economic self-sufficiency, banned cars and welcomed alternative lifestyles like LGBT, yogis and meditators. A lot of its restaurants are vegetarian and organic. Still car free, its paths are decorated with a mishmash of art, sculpture and plants.

Originally, Christiania did not prohibit drugs, so not surprisingly, drug addicts flocked to the area, creating a huge problem. But the residents managed to clear them out, and the only remnant is Pusher Street, where small booths or tables display marijuana in packages and fat cigarettes. The police turn a blind eye to this illegal activity and all are welcome so long as two rules are followed on the street: no photos and cash only.

In other areas of Christiania are weird houses, playgrounds, shops, a skateboard park, everything needed for a community. It is also Copenhagen’s 4th most visited tourist sight, somewhat diminishing its non-conformist attitude. In a nod to the residents, tour guides are not allowed to bring groups into Christiania (too many used to point out the junkies), but walk them to the entrance, explain the rules (have fun) and turn the tourists loose inside.

Concluding Thoughts:

Copenhagen is a pleasant city and the mostly fluent English speaking Danes polite and helpful to tourists. I did a few other tours, took a boat cruise through the canals and the Baltic Sea and visited the National Museum. I had only one sunny day before, as if the weather gods realized it was September, the temperature cooled, the rain became a constant and the strong winds thwarted my desire to cycle on the bike paths that line most streets. Prices are obscene; taxis cost $40 for a 10 minute ride and sit down meals were a minimum of $30 without a beverage. But it was easy enough to find alternatives. The airport train to the city was only $7.00, grocery stores sold fresh fruit and vegetables and walking is free. There is a lot to see and do, but without the gigantic tourist crowds of cities like Paris and Amsterdam. An enjoyable city.

Next: Norway

 

 

Arles: About Van Gogh

It is September and I am back on the road after spending a month in Canada, but I would be remiss if I failed to pay homage to the final city I visited in France, Arles, during the last week in July.

Provence, at last:

July was meant to be my month exploring different cities and villages in the French region of Provence, but for reasons that escape me, I ended up in regions outside of Provence more often than not. Determined to at least end in the right region, I picked Arles as my final stop.

Arles attracts tourists for 3 main reasons. First, it is a typical Provençal city, with an historic centre filled with stone houses sporting colourful flower pots, narrow winding alleyways, pretty squares where restaurants serve traditional Provençal cuisine heavy on fresh vegetables and meats infused with local herbs, museums, art galleries galore, the requisite pedestrian walkway through the old city center and oodles of French charm, all next to a meandering river, whose bridges had been medieval and quaint until the Allies bombed them during WW2. The surrounding countryside is also typical Provence; vineyards and sunflowers, stone farm houses and churches in the center of small towns built atop hills, where cobblestone streets are the norm, every restaurant has a large patio and bakeries adorn every block.

The Monuments:

The second reason to visit Arles is the monuments, six remnants from the Roman era. Standing in the centre is the Ampitheatre, the 20th largest such structure according to a plaque inside the entrance. Modelled after the much larger Colosseum in Rome, the Arles Ampitheatre could hold 20,000 spectators to watch gladiators fight and chariots racing. It has been revamped and renovated to hold bull races (bull fighting is no longer permitted) and concerts.

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Inside the Arles Ampitheatre

About 2/3rds of the structure is original and after paying the entrance fee, I walked around it and up its tower to admire the views, before moving on to the next monument, the Theatre, a few hundred feet away.

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Part of the Arles Theatre

Nice enough, but what intrigued me most was how the ancient monuments had been integrated into the medieval city. Find a parking spot, walk under an arch in the Roman walls, walk up a winding street barely wide enough for a car and run smack dab into an Ampitheatre or the remains of the Forum across from a cluster of restaurants or next to a shop.

From the Theatre, I made my way to the Crypts, located in a building beside the Hotel de Ville or city hall. Alas, my entrance ticket was only good for 2 monuments, a point not made by the original ticket seller and I was too cheap to start buying individual tickets to the remaining monuments, I walked to the Baths of Constantine and took photos through the fence, but gave the Forum and the Ramparts a miss.

Vincent Van Gogh:

The third reason to visit Arles is the artist, Vincent Van Gogh. I had become enthralled with his life and art at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and wanted to learn more about him. Arles is one of the best places to do it.

Some background here about Van Gogh. He was born to a minister’s son in The Netherlands in 1853. He tried to follow in his father’s footsteps but it didn’t work out, so he turned his attention to art. Dogged by ill health and financially supported by his art dealer brother, he moved to Paris at the age of 33 where he met the artistes challenging traditional notions of art. There, he developed his impressionist style of painting, dominated by thin brushstrokes and faithful descriptions of light and movement. Finding the Paris climate unhealthy, Van Gogh moved to Arles in February, 1888 and stayed for over a year. In Arles he cut off his ear off in a fit of rage after arguing with fellow artist Paul Gauguin. A year later, in 1890, Van Gogh discharged himself from a psychiatric hospital in nearby Saint Remy and committed suicide.

Van Gogh’s time in Arles was prolific. He completed 200 paintings, tons of sketches and penned numerous letters, many of which are on display in Amsterdam. In Arles, the tourist board offers a nightly Van Gogh tour, which I joined with 20 others. Our guide gave us a brief biography, then started walking us to different sights that Van Gogh had lived in, been inspired by or painted. Where Van Gogh had painted a subject, a reproduction and explanation of the picture was displayed. Thus, at the public park, we saw Entrance to the Public Park in Arles.

The Van Gogh cafe is the Cafe Terrace at Night, obviously having undergone a name change. and overpriced for the food according to the guide.

By the Ampitheatre, near the ramparts, we could look into the distance and see the countryside, inspiration for The Oliveraie and Sunflowers. We walked to the river, the watery subject of Starry Night over the Rhone before finishing the tour at the former hospital where Van Gogh stayed recuperating from his ear slashing incident. Here, he painted the The Hospital in Arles.

Van Gogh tried to return to his former lodgings (the yelllow house, now destroyed) following his hospital stay, but the townsfolk, fearful of another of his psychotic episodes, signed a petition which compelled the police to shut down his house. He stayed with his doctor for a few months before leaving for the asylum in Saint Remy.

Immersive Art and Van Gogh

At the Carrieres de Lumieres in Les Baux-de-Provence, just a 30 minute drive from Arles, Van Gogh’s paintings are the star of an immersive art show, deigned to give the audience an holistic experience – seeing, hearing, touching – the art. In an old stone quarry with 40 foot high walls and much appreciated natural air conditioning in the +40 degree heatwave hovering over southern France, I sat down on a block of rocks and watched as giant reproductions of Van Gogh’s greatest works were projected onto the walls, the floors and the ceilings. Music accompanied the show, people walked around and touched the walls, children danced with the flowers and the stars in Starry Night twinkled above.

For an hour, I was completely bedazzled by the changing artwork and the haunting music, although the song Please don’t let me be Misunderstood was a bit too literal for my liking.

It was a good end to my month attempting to stay in Provence, basking in Van Gogh’s interpretations of the scenery, the farms and the flowers I had been enjoying first hand.

Next stop: Copenhagen

Carcassonne: The Medieval City

Continuing my futile quest to remain in Provence during July, I again found myself leaving Provence for the region of Occitanie, the southern most area of France, destination Carcassonne, a fixture on everybody’s prettiest towns in France list. Less than 4 hours and more than 40 Euros in tolls from Lyon, I arrived there in the midst of France’s second heat wave of the summer. Thankfully, both my car and hotel had air conditioning.

Geography:

Carcassonne is located in the plains beside the river Aude, where the 16th century Canal du Midi links the Mediterranean with the Atlantic. Two hour boat rides on the canal by far more modern vessels are offered starting at 10 Euros. Occitanie has its own language (Occitan), a Romance language closely related to Catalan, and a history replete with attempts by Spain to conquer it, and vice versa. Barcelona is only 300 kilometers away.

It is also the region where grapes have grown forever, or at least since the 5th century BC by the Greeks. Sparkling wine was developed here 150 years before Don Perignon figured it out and it is home to Cassoulet, a dish made with white haricot beans, pork fat and duck in a slow cooker called a cassole. I had one for dinner in Carcassonne; delicious yes, but no one could explain to me how a dish heavy with white beans, which were first brought to Europe in the 15th century from America, became synonymous with France.

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Cassoulet

History:

Carcassonne is really two cities, the “medieval” city perched on the hill and the modern city (mostly 18th century) below, beside the canal. The medieval city has been around since Neolithic times. The Romans built a fortress on the hill; their walls are still visible. It was captured by the Visigoths in the 5th century, the same Visigoths who also sacked Rome in 410AD.

In the 10th century, Carcassonne became a favourite stopping point for crusaders off to the Holy Land. Also during this period, the count of Trenceval built the chateau that still stands and ruled the area for a while. Early heretics of the Catholic Church, the Cathars, were headquartered in Carcassonne, causing it to become the center of the French Inquisition in the 13th century. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, various armies tried to penetrate the city, but failed due to its constantly updated fortifications.

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Carcassonne’s double walls

Finally, Napoleon decommissioned it as a military base and it fell into disrepair, its stones used for buildings in the new Carcassonne below. It was even ordered to be demolished in 1849. An uproar ensued and Eugene Viollet-le-duc, an architect who also installed the recently collapsed spire on Norte Dame in Paris, took up the fight to save the city and renovate it.

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Medieval Cacassonne from a nearby bridge

The Medieval City:

In 1853, restoration began. Two rows of walls; the interior Roman ones and the exterior medieval ones ring the city, along with 52 towers. Inside, a labyrinth of cobblestone roads and meandering alleyways are flanked by “15th century” houses and shops, their telltale second floors overhanging the streets in order to reduce the tax burden calculated on the ground floor space. A now clean and dry open sewer runs down the street centers, previously used to steer refuse and other undesirable stuff away from the city.

The Trencevals built the cities largest house- the Chateau Comtal – currently a museum with guided tours. A large, decommissioned  church, the Basilica of Saint Nazarius and Celsus ,is believed to have been begun in the 6th century, renovated by the Carolingians, blessed with Cathedral status in the 11th century and took its Gothic shape in the 13th century. It, too, was renovated by Mr. Violet-le-duc.

His restoration is not without controversy. Slate tiles dominate the roofs, even though slate is not quarried anywhere in the vicinity. Many of the towers are pointed, another feature not found in medieval architecture. The city does not advertise itself as an authentic reproduction, but as a re-imagined medieval city with a few idiocyncracies. It’s a fair enough description, with the 15th century houses now home mostly to souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels. Fifty residents still inhabit the old town, but with running water, proper sewage and electricity. As an UNESCO heritage site, it has no (visible to me) air conditioning and it is closed to traffic after 9:00AM.

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Re-imagined entrance with pointed towers

It is also the second most visited monument outside of Paris in France, with Mont. St. Michel in first place. Tons of visitors, mostly French, braved the 40+ degree weather to wander the city during the 3 days I spent there, their kids running around in full length medieval dresses brandishing plastic swords and shields, and everyone drinking from the fountains and wells. Ice-cream was the bestseller.

My walking tour offered by the Tourism Centre was underwhelming, with the guide showing up 20 minutes late, then racing through the old town to ensure she still finished at the specified hour. She spent  an inordinate amount of time explaining Cathar religious philosophy and how it differed from that of the Catholic Church. I won’t bore you with the details, a courtesy I wish the guide had also extended. Suffice to say, the Cathars were the main targets of the French Inquisition and were effectively extinguished through conversion, torture and execution. Their lasting legacy is, oddly, their repression by military means, which eventually led to the unification of the Carcassonne region with France rather than Spain.

Final Thoughts:

Carcassonne is striking, from the first view of the ramparts in the distance, to its interior buildings, roads and squares. Yes, it evokes the sense that one is wandering through a medieval city, although the hoards of tourists did much to dampen my enthusiasm for it and I was a tad disappointed to learn much of the renovations dated from the 19th century. But on my final day, I rose at 6:00AM and went into the old city, without the crowds and just meandered about for an hour, trying to take myself back 500 years. Aside from the occasional delivery truck driver, it mostly worked and made it worth the visit.

Auvergne-Rhone-Alps: Valence, Annecy and Lyon

It is probably obvious that if one wants to spend a month tootling around Provence, one should double check to ensure the cities where non-refundable hotels have been booked are in Provence. It is likely equally obvious, from the title or if you have read this far, to realize I failed miserably in this task. It wasn’t until I passed a road sign declaring Auvergne-Rhone-Alps before I realized I was no longer in Provence, although the foothills of the Alps, the chalets and the fondue restaurants should all have provided a clue. A quick check on the map of France confirmed that none of my next 3 cities were in Provence, but there was no going back unless I wanted to lose those non-refundable charges.

In any event, the cities I had chosen each had their own attractions. Valence simply to break up the drive between Avignon and Annecy; Annecy as a highly recommended pretty Alpine city and Lyon, the second largest city in France (Marseille disputes this but no one had a definitive answer) and self-described culinary capital of the world.

Valence:

Everyone is entitled to their mistakes, and Valence was mine. It’s a pretty city with an historic old town, but when I googled Things to do in Valence, not a lot came up that didn’t involve a day trip to Lyon, Avignon or Annecy, cities already on my agenda. No walking tours were on offer and I had had my fill of historical museums. So I did what I always do when uncertain as to the sights. I looked up TripAdvisor, programmed its Top 10 things to do in Valence into my GoogleMaps walking application and started at # 1. It is a bandstand made famous in a French program I never heard of and was surrounded by fencing preparing for an evening rock concert. # 2 was Park Jouvet, conveniently located next to the bandstand. It was a nice park and I was enjoying the shade of a tree near a park bench until the band in attraction #1 started rehearsing, completely ruining the serenity of the park.

#3 was the Maison des Tetes, a 16th century house with Tetes or “head” carvings, hence the name and #4 was the Cathedral, closed for lunch:

The Things to do List wasn’t proving particularly engrossing. I gave up and walked down the two pedestrian streets, reminding me I had some shopping to do (replace Apple headphones I had lost) and laundry. Valence was as good a place as any to get those things done, so I did.

Annecy:

Nestled in the Alps around a lake (Lake Annecy, what else?) lies the city of Annecy. It calls itself the Venice of the Alps, thanks to canals that run from the lake through the old city. Venice has little to fear as competition; Annecy has only two canals, they are only a few hundred meters each and neither gondolas nor gondoliers are present. What Annecy’s canals have are pretty as punch bridges, cobblestone paths on either side of the canals for walking and restaurant patios and the Palace d’Ille, formerly a prison, now a museum.

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Annecy Palace d’ Ille

Three days a week, local farmers and merchants set up a market on the cobblestones, slowing pedestrian traffic to a shuffle. Food of every sort is available, including my go-to lunch, roasted chicken, and my newest favourite, white peaches so juicy and sweet you’d think sugar was added.

Twice a year, Annecy gets inundated with tourists flocking to its annual fireworks festival – the biggest in France- and its Animation Film Festival. Neither were on when I was there, so Annecy was just very crowded with mostly French tourists coming for their week at the lake vacation.

On a hill overlooking the old town is Chateau d’Annecy, a 12th century fortress and chateau used by the counts of Geneva for protection and a residence. The buildings are a museum, but I entered the main one to be greeted by an exhibition on the woodcarving techniques used for making flat bottom boats that plied Lake Annecy, complete with a life size replica. As shipbuilding is not something I find fascinating, I quickly exited and went to the real attraction of the Chateau, its panoramic view of the city and lake.

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Annecy view from the Chateau

The lake itself is emerald green. Measuring about 42 kilometers in circumference, it is home to Annecy at one end and thousands of holiday homes perched in the foothills around the lake. A bike path circles the lake, but the gentleman in the bike rental store warned me to go only halfway to avoid the hills at the other end. I took his advice and had a lovely 15 kilometer bike ride (each way), passing through farms where the tingling sound of cowbells announced the presence of cows, cottages, tents and caravan parks all filled with people enjoying the beach and every manner of water sport, from paddle boats to canoes to water-skiing.

I spent an idyllic 3 days in Annecy, going for bike rides each day, walking along the lake and dining in the restaurants along the canal.

Car versus Public Transit

I was debating whether having a car was preferable to using public transit. For a single person, it was much more expensive after car rental, gas and tolls, but it allowed me more freedom to see the countryside and visit small villages which would have been near impossible to reach by public transit.

It wasn’t all positive. As I needed hotels with parking, I wasn’t able to stay in or near the old, car free, city centres, my usual preference. I had made peace with GoogleMaps, so getting lost was not a problem and the French are relatively courteous drivers (in comparison to, eg, the Albanians). I was even starting to appreciate the ubiquitous roundabouts.

I was going back and forth on this issue as I drove from Annecy to Lyon. To save money and to enjoy the countryside, I turned on the “Avoid Tolls” feature in GoogleMaps and was rewarded with picturesque villages, fields of grapes and sunflowers and an absence of trucks. At one point, I exited a tiny village and started up a high mountain on a single lane road with a thick fence made of stone to protect the cars from the precipitous cliffs. At the top. I passed through a rock tunnel and emerged into the sunlight to be greeted by the most fabulous view, the  lake of St. Germaine la Chambotte far below in the valley. As I wasn’t able to stop at the top of the mountain, the photo was taken in a turn out about 1/3 the way down.

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St. Germaine la Chambotte

After this view, renting a car won hands down!

Lyon:

Lyon, like many other cities, is shaped by its geography. Its highest hill, the Fourvière, was first inhabited as a colony during the Roman period. Below the hill is the oldest part of the city, the areas of St. John and St. George, which boast more Renaissance buildings than any other city except Venice. Next is the River Saone and between the island separating the Saone from the Rhone River is the typical neo-classical French city with wide boulevards, Haussmann style buildings, parks and squares and a main pedestrian street called Rue de la Republic. On the other side of the Rhone is the new city, with 20th century high rises and parking lots and a large immigrant community.

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Lyon Panoramic with rivers visible if you look closely

Lyon’s early fortune as the capital of Gaul floundered with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Always a trading hub as a result of its rivers and closeness to both Italy and Switzerland, it regained its earlier prominence in the Middle Ages as the center of silk weaving. Francois Jacquard, of the Jacquard weave, used punch cards on his looms to replicate tapestry patterns, the precursor to the punch cards used by computers in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The silk industry disappeared from Lyon with the import of cheap Chinese silk, but a few shops still demonstrate the looms and resulting silks.

Also during this time, the aqueducts which had supplied Roman Lyon dried up. People living in the town needed easy access to the rivers, made difficult because the houses were built right next to each other, with no roads leading to or from the rivers. To solve this problem, over 600 tunnels or passageways were built under, between or through buildings, providing direct paths to the waterways. These passageways, or traboules as they are called, still exist today and many are open to the public.

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One of Lyon’s many traboules

During WW2, the traboules proved useful to both the French resistance and fleeing refugees, as the locals knew of their location but the Nazis did not. This also gave rise to one of Lyon’s darkest chapters, the tyranny of Klaus Barber, the Butcher of Lyon, who as head of the Gestapo in Lyons was responsible for clearing the passages, torturing and murdering thousands of French citizens along the way. Despite this, the US counter-intelligence agency recruited him and later assisted in relocating him to Bolivia. He was finally extradited back to France in 1984 to stand trial for crimes against humanity. His trial was held in the Appeals Court in Lyon, where he was convicted. He died in custody in 1991.

Lyon boasts it has 21 Michelin starred restaurants, but obtaining a dinner reservation for one on short notice proved impossible, so I did the next best thing. I signed up for a gourmet food tour, accompanied by 8 Americans and our guide, Olivier, a native Lyonnais. We started at a cheese store, where we sampled numerous cheeses including goat and sheep cheeses and those made from unpasteurized milk. Our next stop was at a Lyon institution, the Bouchon. Bouchons originally began in the 16th century as cheap eating houses for the silk workers. The wealthy Lyonnaise used the best parts of animals, thus typical Bouchon fare is heavy on chicharrons (pork rinds), offal and intestines, all considered waste by the upper crust. We sampled all three along with copious amounts of local red wine. The third and fourth stop featured similar foods, with the addition of beans and my favourite, saucisson brioche, a sausage cooked in a brioche pastry. We finished with ice cream and a very sweet praline cake, a fitting end to a 4 hour gourmet journey.

Next: More problems staying in Provence

Avignon: Popes, Lavender and Wine

After months of bus and train trips, group tours and trotting, suitcase in tow, from hotel to hotel, I was looking forward to 10 days in an Airbnb in Avignon, France, about 100 kilometers north of Marseille. I picked up my rental car, after enduring an hour long line at the Avis/Budget hut at the train station, and drove to my apartment. It was still hot in Provence – between 35 and 39 every day – but I had air conditioning and a pool so everything was tolerable.

Of Popes:

Avignon served as the papal seat between 1309 and 1376 when 7 popes, all French, decided Rome wasn’t good enough for them and moved the papacy to Avignon, in the south of France. Granted, it was a bit more complicated than that, but the result was the same. Avignon became the hotbed of Roman Catholicism and built a palace fit for a pope, the Palais des Popes. Although begun in 1252, it was renovated and added to until 1364.

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The Palace des Popes

Today, it stands as the largest Gothic structure in the world. I went in, with hundreds of others, beginning in the courtyard which was filled with ugly movable bleachers. A children’s assembly was taking place and us mere tourists were sheperded under the bleachers through makeshift aisle ways into the palace proper. We were outfitted with IPads, which, when pointed at the appropriate apparatus in each room, played a brief video about what the room looked like back in the 14th century. So in, for example, the mammoth dining hall, the video demonstrated foods and cooking techniques popular 600 years ago. The IPad was a nice touch, providing additional information and visual aids, but it also masked the fact that, other than the outstanding architecture, the palace was mostly bare, except for the tour groups. We walked from empty room to room – this was the chapel, that was the library- with little more than the size, the ceiling beams and the fireplaces distinguishing one from another.

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An inner courtyard (without bleachers)

An hour later, I exited the palace and walked, literally, around the old city’s ramparts. Begun as far back as in Roman times, they were doubled and heightened to 8 meters to protect the popes. Some are original, others reconstructed, but they frame the old city, circling it for 4.3 kilometres with 7 gates offering entrance. Next to it, on the Rhone, dozens of riverboats beginning their Rhone river cruise were ferrying their passengers into the city.

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A small portion of Avignon’s walls

Not only did the walls protect the Popes from all sorts of invaders, they currently act as a natural (or government issued) barrier to modern excesses like high rises and fast food restaurants. Inside the walls, a medieval feeling may still be invoked. Many of the roads were cobblestone, numerous palaces built to house the cardinals still line the streets and churches galore stand to be admired.

Regrettably, my timing was not conducive to aimless wandering down the pretty streets. It was Avignon Festival time, with the main streets blocked to traffic and occupied instead by booksellers and artists and pop-up restaurants. The Festival is also a French fringe extravaganza, so erstwhile artists handed out fliers to their plays and pasted thousands of them on every available inch of wall, fence or post, thereby completely ruining most photo opportunities. Not unexpectedly, the Festival drew massive numbers of people to the old city, in addition to the regular tourists and school kids. It was crowded and in the +35 degree heat, not too pleasant for meandering.

Of Lavenders:

One of Provence’s attractions is the annual blossoming of lavenders, an event I was hoping to enjoy. To date, roses in Bulgaria and tulips in Holland had bloomed unseasonably early so I had missed the best of both. Lavenders are considered to be at their prime between June and August in Provence, giving me a wide window of opportunity.

I duly checked Google for the location of the best fields – they are not everywhere – and set off in my rental car for Luberon, one of the premier places for lavenders. On my way, I passed a few fields and took some photos; a preview for what was coming I hoped. But when GoogleMaps led me to the Luberon park, it failed to take into account a barrier blocking cars from entering the park and from me proceeding to the Luberon fields. I contented myself with returning to the fields I had already passed near the town of Bonnieux – they were marvellous – before carrying on to Gordes, one of the 15 or 20 prettiest towns in France according to Fodors and The Guardian. Yes it is pretty, but I was mostly interested in its Lavender Museum.

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Bonnieux

I entered the museum to find a line-up to buy tickets, which I patiently stood in for 10 minutes before paying and being directed to the demonstration outside. A young man standing next to a still waited for a large enough group before giving a 10 minute explanation how lavender essence is obtained, in both English and French. It was remarkedly similar to how rose oil, which I had learned about in Bulgaria, is obtained: put kilos of the flower into a pot, add steaming hot water, allow to seep, drain the liquid and separate the oil from the water.

The brief explanation identified the difference between lavendin and lavender. The former is the more common plant, grows at low altitudes and doesn’t have the advertised health benefits of real lavender – curing insomnia, assisting indigestion, reducing blood pressure, eliminating hot flashes, etc. – it is used exclusively in the perfume industry. With the explanation done, we were directed to return to the ticket seller to obtain our audio phones for the museum visit. Another wait ensued before the single person at the ticket area gave me some headphones and I entered the museum.

Unless you have an interest in various stills, which I don’t, the museum is a bit of a bust. It consisted of a room containing between 40-50 different kinds of stills, with an explanation as to the history and special features of each. I walked through it in 30 seconds, into a giant shop selling everything lavender-related. The one thing missing was lavender plants. For those, I was told I would need to go back towards Bonnieux to see the plants I had already admired or, if I wanted to see the real lavender plants,  to drive an hour into the hills near Sault.

So I drove to Sault, along a winding, mountainous road, past grape vines and stone houses until I arrived in the Sault Valley and was greeted with a view of patchwork fields, some green and others the telltale purple of lavender. I stopped, took photos, walked along the side of the road and enjoyed the majestic beauty of the lavenders.

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Châteauneuf-du-Pape:

The popes left another enduring legacy besides the palace in Avignon. About 12 kilometers from Avignon lies Châteauneuf-du-Pape, a region and a town famous for its wines; I’ve been drinking them for years. Begun as a summer residence for the popes, the popes also planted the first vineyards in the region. Today, the Provence and Cotes Du Rhone areas produce some of Frances most beloved wines.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is another hopelessly pretty French town, with beige stone houses roofed with sienna coloured clay tiles, crowned by the ruins of the castle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Every second building was a wine tasting cellar or store. I stopped at the Brotte Wine Museum, only to find it closed between noon and 2:00PM for lunch. This is France after all. Since I was driving, I resisted the urge to indulge in a wine tasting and contented myself with a salad at one of the many patios in the town.

Next: Driving around France

 

 

Surviving Ryanair and Marseille

Surviving Ryanair:

Having decided to spend July in Provence, France, the first challenge was how to get there from Bucharest, Romania. A few search engines later, the best answer was a non-stop flight from Bucharest to Marseille, but on Ryanair, a low cost carrier notorious for its penny pinching, At one time it had proposed charging for going to the bathroom, but had backtracked on this particular idea amidst widespread condemnation.

I mentioned my possible Ryanair flight to my son, who had flown it extensively on his European jaunt. His initial reaction was hesitant:

“ You know there is no business class on Ryanair?” he prodded.

“Yes, but I’m not such a princess that I need business class for a 2 1/2 hour flight. Besides, it’s intra-Europe so all business class is crap. Even Lufthansa uses regular seats and just blocks off the middle one.”

“Okay, but they will nickel and dime you and you know how much you hate that. Best to buy every upgrade possible so there will be no surprises. And beware, they try and sell you lottery tickets.”

I took my son’s advice to heart and bought priority boarding, extra legroom in seat 1A, a checked bag to avoid issues about whether mine was too big and the whole one-way flight totaled  $175, far less than a flight from Toronto to Winnipeg. How bad could it be?

If you don’t like rants, it is probably best to skip the next part, but here goes:

First issue, the check-in counter in Bucharest doesn’t open until a miserly 2 hours before the flight. My ride had dropped me at the airport at 5:30PM and the flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 9:50 PM, meaning I had 2 1/2 hours to hang around the check-in counters at Bucharest airport. It was not the most thrilling of times, but I wasn’t mugged, there were bathrooms and the Brioche Doree shop sold both tuna sandwiches and small bottles of wine. Needless to say, there was no lounge access.

Check-in finally came, security was quick with nothing confiscated, followed by too many stores selling perfume and liquor, although why anyone would buy alcohol in Romania when they are heading to France is beyond me.  I arrived at the empty gate and waited, and waited, and waited….

The area filled up, the 9:50 departure time came and went and still, nothing. I checked the “FlightTracker” app, which told me the flight was now scheduled to leave a 10:25. No word from Ryanair. Then FlightTracker said 10:50. Still silence from Ryanair. Finally, at 11:00 PM, a plane arrived at the gate, two Ryanair employees showed up and we slowly began the boarding process, Our plane took off at 11:30, meaning I would arrive at 1:00AM Marseille time, definitely not my preferred time of arrival. I checked Google, which told me a cab to my hotel would cost 60 Euros (about $100), but I decided it had been a long day and I felt in need of a splurge.

The flight itself was full, but fairly pleasant, meaning no turbulence. After the obligatory safety demonstration and take-off, the flight crew only used French on the PA system, so when they came around with a cart and I asked for a bottle of white wine, the attendant apologized and said they were doing snacks first but he would be right back with drinks. True to his word, he was back with the bottle of wine within 10 minutes and it cost only 6 Euros, about $9. For reasons I cannot explain, he took a liking to me, and offered me wine, snacks and English translations of the only in French PA announcements every few minutes, completely the opposite of what I was expecting.  I think they tried to sell lottery tickets, but I had completely tuned them out as I didn’t want to make the effort to understand the French sales pitch. The flight passed quickly, uneventful and we landed in Marseille.

Being in seat 1A, I was first at customs/immigration and the officer could not get me through fast enough. He glanced at my passport, then at me and waived me through in about 10 seconds. No stamp, no swiping my passport through a machine, just complete indifference or very tired. So much for my Schengen concerns. Unfortunately, another Ryanair flight had landed just before us, so a 20 minute wait for my bag ensued, during which I felt fully the heatwave which had been engulfing the south of France for the last week. It was 1:20 AM and still 37 degrees Celsius and the baggage area in Marseilles was not air-conditioned.

My bag eventually showed up and I made my way to the taxi area, only to find no taxis there. I used the Uber app. on my phone, just to be told no cars were available. Despondent, I looked around and saw a line of people mounting a bus, so I went, got on, paid the 8 euro fare, sat down and asked the lady in front of me where we were going. I probably should have checked this out before committing to the bus, but it was now 2:30 AM Bucharest time and I was not rational. But all was good; the bus was going to the main bus/train station in Marseille, it was air conditioned and I would figure out my next move once I got to the station.

This should be the end, but sadly, it wasn’t. We arrived at a blackened station, closed until 4:30AM, so my option of sleeping in the station evaporated. It was, according to Google Maps just a 13 minute walk to my hotel but Marseille is not the safest city (more about this later) and I didn’t think this would be a good choice. I walked around the station, looking for a well lit, populated area to hunker down for a few hours, when I saw it, a solitary taxicab with a light on. I walked over, he said he would take me to my hotel and I hopped in.

I had been forewarned by the internet that all taxicabs in Marseille belong to the Union of Thieves, so I was expecting the worst. I calculated that I had been prepared to pay 60 Euros from the airport for a taxi so, having already spent 8 Euros on the bus, anything under 50 Euros for the 6 minute ride would be acceptable. I had obviously spent too much time in Romania, where every cab driver I encountered was a crook, because this guy took me as close as he could to my hotel – the street was blocked with construction- walked me and my bag to my locked hotel, waited until the sleeping receptionist let me in and charged me the grand total of 6 Euros. He looked at me incredulously as I gave him 10 and told him to keep the rest. Thus ended my saga with Ryanair, not a total disaster since I got to my destination eventually, albeit 2 hours late at 2:00AM.

Alas, my troubles continued. As I hit the pillow at 2:30am, the loud rat-a-tat of a jackhammer began and continued non-stop until 6AM. As I discovered in the morning, the city had given permission for construction right outside the hotel to be done in the wee hours of the morning, to spare the workers from the excessive heat, hotel guests be damned. Welcome to France!

Surviving Marseille: 

Marseille is the second largest port in the Mediterranean, after Alexandria in Egypt. It was first colonized by the Greeks 2500 years ago and has the fairly typical Mediterranean history: Greek, Roman, captured by the Goths in the 6th century and eventually adopting Catholicism, Middle Ages, part of the Provence County before joining France permanently in 1482. All of this was on display at the Marseille History Museum, conveniently attached to a shopping mall and considerately free during extreme heat days to allow people to take advantage of its air conditioning. Unfortunately, the displays were mostly only in French and its high tech audio guide, in English, was finicky and thin on facts. As a museum giving a chronological retelling of the city of Marseille, it was fine but uninspiring.

Marseille’s more recent past is more unique. As a port city, it is also an immigrant city. At the turn of the last century, Italians crossed the sea and settled, bringing with them pasta and the mafia, with its skills in drug production and drug trafficking. In the 1930’s, Nazi money funded mafia controlled heroin manufacturing facilities in Marseille. Opium was smuggled in from Turkey, manufactured then the finished product shipped to Canada and the USA. Thus the French in The French Connection movie.I n the 1950’s and 1960’s, crime related to the drug trade proliferated, but was gradually reduced by aggressive law enforcement efforts by the French and US governments, although cynics claim this resulted from the drug manufacturers moving their factories to third world countries who, by the 1970’s, had developed their own proficiency in making heroin.

Following the Algerian civil war in 1962, Africans arrived in Marseille in droves, giving the city a multi-ethnic feel. It remains the jumping off point for immigrants from former French African colonies, Tunisians, Malians, etc. Needing to house the new migrants, ugly high rise apartments known as cite were built on the outskirts, creating ghettos but multiracial ones. Today, the drug traffickers are back, but instead of being Italian based, mostly African gangs from the cite control it. Gun violence has risen exponentially, attributable to the ease of weapon smuggling arising during the Arab Spring.

My walking tour went nowhere near the cites, but instead focused on the Vieux Port (old Port) at the centre of town. Fort St. Jean and Fort St. Nicholas, both built by Louis XIV in 1660, guard the entrance to the horseshoe shaped harbour, where hundreds of boats- all nice but hardly the mega yachts of Monaco or Nice – were moored, alongside a few tourist ships.

Surrounding the harbour were dozens of restaurants and ice-cream shops, all vying for tourist dollars. A few offered the regional specialty, bouillabaisse, a fish stew meaning, literally, to boil and simmer, at only 25 Euros ($40) a serving, but the guide warned us away from these obvious (to him) fakers. Real bouillabaisse costs in excess of 100 Euros per bowl and is served only by a few longtime establishments. I’m still not crazy about shellfish, so I contented myself with another local specialty, grilled sardines, a tasty bargain at a non-tourist restaurant at only 3.5 Euros a dish.

Marseille has been trying to remake itself and distance itself from its crime-ridden past. In 2013, it was a European Capital of Culture, an annual designation of two European cities, one from the East, the other from the West, designed to promote the culture richness of a city. In its honour, Marseille constructed two museums, the aforementioned Marseille History Museum and the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations. The building housing the latter seeks to connect the city’s past with its present with a bridge between Fort St. Jean and the new square box covered in metal sculptures representing waves. I walked over the bridge and inspected the building, but passed on the interior, which exhibits had received only mediocre reviews.

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The bridge connecting Fort St. Jean to the Museum

Instead, I walked along Rue de Republic, looking much like a Paris street which is unsurprising since it was designed by Georges Haussmann, the same Haussmann who is responsible for much of Paris. Marseille’s downtown is something of an anomaly. Worried about the bubonic plague beginning in the 14th century, the city established France’s first hospital and enacted strict quarantine regulations for the large number of ships docking there. But in its last significant outbreak, the plague struck Marseille in 1720, killing nearly half the population. Those who could afford to do so abandoned their palatial homes in the city centre for the suburbs, leaving a downtown largely filled by immigrants from abroad and the country. Sadly, the centre and Rue de Republic still look largely vacant. Despite high end stores like HMV and Zara relocating there in 2013, the area could not attract sufficient numbers and today, large swaths of storefronts are empty, only a couple of restaurants are open and the hotel receptionist strongly urged me not to walk down it after dark.

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Nearby, the National Park of Calanque beckons. Wikipedia defines a calanque as a narrow, steep walled inlet developed in limestone, dolomite or other rock existing along the Mediterranean coast. Taking a 3 hour cruise on one of the tourist boats in the harbour, we passed first the Chateau d’If, the fortress/prison where the Count of Monte Cristo was incarcerated, before enjoying the views of the calanques.

Final Thoughts:

I learned my lesson about Ryanair. I would fly it again, paying in advance for every possible item but will only take it if it is the first or second flight of the day. While my flight was uneventful, the unapologetic attitude of the airline at depositing us in a city at 1:00AM was unacceptable.

As for Marseille, I spent 6 nights there, which was probably 3 nights too many. No matter how much it promotes itself as a bastion of culture, haute cuisine and safe, for me it lacked a certain je ne sais quoi that makes a city special.