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!
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.
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.
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.
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.