Saturday, June 25, 2016


We chose our cruise on the MSC Poesia because, other than Barcelona, we had never been to any of the other stops and they all sounded cool.  I had been hearing about  Marseille, Genoa, Naples, Malta, and Mallorca since childhood.  They were burned into my brain Marseille was where they filmed "The French Connection". Genoa was the home of Christopher Columbus.  According to my mother, I had been conceived on the beach in Naples, Florida, which was named after Naples, Italy.  In school and at the Naval Academy, I had read about how Malta was the staging area for the Crusades and the backdrop for fierce naval battles in two world wars.  And all of my ocean sailing friends spoke of Mallorca like something akin to heaven on earth.

The French Connection

So, our trip would be as much about traveling through myths and history as discovering new places, and I couldn't wait to begin our voyage.

                                             Day 2                                
                      Marseille, France (Provence, France)
                         Time Ashore  -  12 PM until 7 PM
                                  Weather-Sunny 72/61 
                                   0% Chance of Rain 
                                      Wind - 10 SSE

Our plan was get to the City Center from the cruise terminal by walking.  We could see our destination as the ship was docking.  It sat what looked to be about a mile or so away, below a gargantuan steepled church that crowned a large hill like a story book castle, shining gloriously in the noon day sun.  This was the world famous Notre Dame de laid Garde, an absolute must see when you visit Marseille.

It didn't look like a very long or difficult walk into town and we like to walk whenever we can.  But we didn't have to walk because there were multiple options, including an expensive luxury bus being offered by MSC.  But I had done my homework and discovered by reading some reviews on Trip Advisor that we could follow these little green arrows that were painted on the pavement that would guide us outside the terminal center to a shelter where we could catch a free shuttle bus provided by the city tourism department.

So, off we went.

It was a warm, sunny day and the green arrows led us on a winding route past large ships and warehouses.  We had a happy bounce to our step.

We eventually came to the shelter where three or four people were lounging on benches.  

We should have known right away that this was a mistake because the shelter was big enough to handle about a hundred people.  And by the time we left, there were nearly that many crammed inside, sweating impatiently and scanning the street for the phantom bus. 

We saw lots of buses go by but they were the buses servicing the ship, not the free city shuttle bus.

When several families with screaming babies arrived, we started to feel like caged animals.  We had to escape.  And it was then that I noticed the green arrows continued down the street toward town.  

We were off again, this time at a very determined pace.   About a half mile later, we were still technically inside the cruise port and we started to question our plan.  But at that point we had expended so much time and energy into hiking into town that we couldn't bring ourselves to turn around.  So, we continued on until we came to a public bus stop.

There was a very confusing ticket machine in front of a small shack where a bunch of foreign workers were milling about.  No one spoke English.

By this point, we had been joined by 
several non-French travelers like ourselves who had ended up walking from the cruise ship to this curious bus stop next to absolutely nothing at the edge of the busy freeway.  No one spoke English and none of us could figure out how to buy a ticket from the stupid machine that seemed to be broken.  A few minutes later, a city bus pulled up and the locals boarded.  We all began asking the bus driver in unison, "Are you going to the City Center?" (in about five different languages)

As soon as the driver realized that none of us had tickets, he attempted to ignore the chorus, and then waved us off, barking something that he apparently thought might be helpful in French as he closed the door and drove off.

"The arrows keep going," I said to Inna, pointing at the edge of the road.

And so, we followed the goddamn things up a steep hill to a crossroads above a six-lane freeway, where they suddenly just ended.  We were standing atop the entrance ramp onto the highway where traffic was zipping by with people on their way to happy times.

We were screwed.

"I guess we need to walk back to that shuttle bus shelter," I said in defeat.

Inna looked at me like I was crazy.  "We need to catch a cab," she said, barely containing her anger at me for leading us on this wild goose chase.

I laughed angrily.  I wasn't mad at her, but at myself for trying to save some money and pretend that I knew what the hell I was doing.  Plus, we had now wasted well-over an hour, we only had six more hours left ashore, and we were no closer to our destination.  I felt like a total putz.

"We'll never catch a cab on this interchange, " I said as I kicked the gravel edge of the ramp in frustration.  The view from the intersection was industrial abandon and a spiderweb of ugly railroad tracks.

"Here comes one," said Inna.

I turned around, and sure enough, there was a cab.  I couldn't believe our luck.

We waved and the cab stopped.  The driver was a friendly Arab who spoke perfect English.

We got in, thanking him profusely.

"Where were you going?" he asked as he started down the entrance ramp.

"We had heard that it was a twenty minute walk into town.  You just follow the green arrows into town," I replied.

He chuckled and shook his head.

"It's a ten minute DRIVE, and you would be walking along the highway, my friends," he said as we motored into Marseille.

The cab driver dropped us off along the main boulevard in the heart of town where I instructed. The street was lined with outdoor cafes and shops that wound around the beautiful harbor dotted with ships of all shapes and sizes.  It was noon on Saturday, every restaurant was packed, street performers were doing their thing, and the whole place was going full tilt boogie.  It was like a big carnival.

When we visit a new city, we always start with the double-decker, open roof  HOP ON - HOP OFF bus tour.  They are in every big town.  And in Marseille they are run by a company called L'OPEN.

This is by far the best way, especially if you have limited time, to get a good overview of the entire city, see the top sites, snap some nice photos, and if you are so inclined, get off to check out something captivating and then get back on the next bus.

There was a place to buy tickets for the tour right next to where the cab had dropped us.  At least I had gotten that part right.  We purchased two all day tickets for $45.  Five minutes later, we were on our way, sitting on the top of the bus, listening to a very interesting audio travelogue that pointed out the places of interest that we were passing and explained their storied history.

Our little misadventure at the cruise dock had been quickly forgotten and we both had big smiles on our faces.  It was lovely day, people were doing all sorts of wild and crazy things along the waterfront esplanade, and the Mediterranean sea sparkled like diamond water.

Our tour would take us to twelve of the best spots around Marseille:

  1. Vieux Port (Harbor Central where we boarded)
  1. Métro - Vieux Port (Transit Center)

  1. Fort Saint-Nicolas (Originally a small chapel built in the Middle Ages which eventually was expanded into an imposing fortress guarding the harbor.)

  1. Vallon des Auffes (A picturesque fishing village)

  1. Corniche Talabot (Cute little neighborhood park and public beach)

  1. Parc Borelyi (Large city park designated by the French Ministry of Culture as one of the "Notable Garden of France") 

  1. Oriol Cornichei (Where we could see the magnificent Château d'If on a nearby island just across the harbor. This was the place that Alexandre Dumas used as inspiration for the dungeon scenes in his famous book The Count of Monte Cristo.)

  1. Notre Dame de laid Garde (A breathtaking church like no other atop a limestone mountain with stunning views of the city and the Med.)

  1. Corderie Saint Victor (Roman Era monastery built in 415 AD)

  1. Préfecture (A bustling revitalization area in the heart of town that is home to white Neo-Classical Notre Dame du Mont where Chopin once played while passing through town.)

  1. Gabriel Péri / République (History Museum)

  1. Place de la Joliette (The Cathédrale de la Major is the centerpiece of this beautiful plaza.)

  1. Fort Saint Jean / MUCEM (The famous entrance to the Marseille Old Port built by Louis XIV in 1660, and where fishermen deliver their daily catch.)          

We got off the bus at Notre Dame de laid Garde and walked up the long series of steps to the top of the mountain where this Neo-Byzantine Catholic basilica made of green and white Florentine limestone dwarfed the landscape like a biblical space gantry.  We spent a couple of hours walking around the inside of the cavernous structure, checking out the crypt, museums, cafe, chapels, and main church before strolling the ramparts, taking in the busting city below.  Man, I'm telling you, the Catholics don't do anything half way.  As I tried  in vein  to take in the manifest beauty of the church and its surroundings I had no trouble believing in divine inspiration.

We caught the last bus back into town around five and then picked up a cab near Fort Saint Jean.  It had been a memorable day indeed.

Travel brochures often use the word "vibrant" to describe Marseille which was founded by the Greeks more than 2,600 years ago.  It is definitely a happening city where people work and play hard.  And while it has some incredibly beautiful structures and rock 'em-sock 'em history, it is a pretty rundown place.

Marseille is a sprawling town.  And the harbor is lovely.  But once you get away from the water, it's dirty and covered in graffiti.  Almost every flat space has been tagged.  There was trash everywhere.  And most of the housing consists of apartments with high ceilings.  The windows are covered with tall shutters that can be opened and closed depending on the weather or your mood.  We must have seen several thousand shutters during our bus ride around town, and not one looked like it had been painted in the last twenty years.


We were left with the distinct impression that Marseille is a town that has lost its sense of pride.  Maybe everyone is just too busy to care or even notice the general state of disrepair and neglect.  They keep the tourist attractions looking nice, but the rest of the city has pretty much gone to pot.

I wonder how such things happen?  It must take a while. 

Our little excursion through Marseille, France had taught us several valuable lessons, but the one I will long remember is this:  Don't blindly follow brochures or travel websites.  And never, ever follow those stupid green arrows. Those things can get you killed.