Posts Tagged ‘marseille’

Wallace Fountains: Paris, Marseille, New Orleans

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

The Wallace Fountains are everywhere in Paris. Designed to bring water to every citizen of the city, from the richest to the poorest, they’re so much a part of the Parisian landscape that after a few days town, you stop really seeing them. They sort of blend with the boulevards and the green parks, the onion-domed advertising columns that are painted the same color. Take them away, though, and Paris is not Paris. They exist in a number of French cities besides Paris, and in handful around the globe, from Amman to Macau. Here are three that I’ve seen in Paris, Marseille (where the caryatid has been splashed with neon paint), and New Orleans. The latter isn’t painted that same gleaming, bulletproof green that you see in Paris, but has more of a coppery finish.




Notes on 7 European Churches: 4 to See, 3 to Skip

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Going to Europe for the first time? The twelfth? You will see cathedrals, you will. And basilicas. And abbeys. And chapels. Despite what the guidebooks say, they aren’t all awesome, and they aren’t all worth seeing. Here are some that are worth seeking out. And some that… aren’t quite.

4 to See

The Weirdly Articulate Marble Feet of Dead King Francois I

Basilica Saint-Denis, Paris
Most visitors spend their churchgoing time in Paris winding around the nave of Notre Dame in a slow-moving river of tourists that runs about 10-deep on weekends, or annoying the priests at grim, cobwebby Saint-Sulpice with questions about The Da Vinci Code. Your first visit to Paris? By all means, go to these places. Your second? Take metro 13 to just beyond the peripherique and visit the incredible, and sorely overlooked, Basilica Saint-Denis. Flying buttresses? Check. Classic Gothic architecture? Check. Splashy stained glass? Check. You’ll see beautiful examples of all three, but the most important things you’ll see at Saint-Denis are the tombs. The entire French royal line was buried here from the 10th to the 18th centuries, and they’re entombed in everything from incredible marble sarcophagi (Francois I, Catherine de’ Medici and Louis XIV are given particularly grand treatment) to tiny gold boxes (what they could find of Marie Antoinette after the dust settled). Go on a weekday when the sun is out and enjoy this serene (and serenely uncrowded) place.

Muskrat Love

Thistle Chapel at the High Kirk of Saint Giles, Edinburgh
The church—located in the heart of Edinburgh’s famous (and famously touristy) Royal Mile—is just fine. It’s what’s in the back that really matters. It’s easy to miss, but don’t leave before you see the amazing Thistle Chapel, where Scotland’s Order of the Thistle convenes. Every inch of this shoebox-sized room is covered in ornate carvings, all of them symbolizing the members of the Order—Scotland’s oldest and most prestigious order of chivalry. Animals, ancient crests, and angels abound. Even the ceiling ribs are lined with thistles in full blossom. It’ll take you a minute, but don’t forget to look for the tiny carving of the angel playing the bagpipes—one of the only portrayals in Edinburgh.

From Those Who Were Shipwrecked

Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille
Here’s an easy way to find this wonderful church when you get to sunny, seaside Marseille: Look up. It is the most distinctive feature of this teeming city, crowning the hill just above the old city. The gold statue of the Notre Dame on the spire glimmers at midday and is visible almost everywhere. Take the bus to the top of the hill and visit this incredible place. A relatively small church, its insides are covered with glittering gold mosaics, and more, with the gifts and dedications of townspeople whose families have lived and died by the ocean. Model ships hang from strings on the ceiling. Tiny oil paintings portray men carried miraculously from shipwrecks. Prayers from seafarer’s wives and mothers are inscribed on plaques. Outside on the terraces, the view across the city, and the very blue Mediterranean, is incredible. From there, see if you can tell the difference between the real Le Corbusier, the architect’s iconic apartment building in the new city, and it’s many nearby imitators, or just watch the cruise ships lumbering by.

The Cathedral of Our Lady

Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp
There is something about this cathedral. It’s stuffed with famous Rubins paintings, yes. And the bells in its tower make a noise that glistens and shimmers like a fairy tale. But something beyond that makes this church so wonderful—a lovely combination of restrained and ornate. On the inside, its walls are painted white, and the light streams through on even the grayest days (like the one on which I visited, in March). On the outside, its single dark spire towers over the city, every inch covered in Gothic flourish. Have a hot chocolate at one of the cafes and admire the view outside, explore what’s behind the doors.

3 to Skip


Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican
Yeah, it’s big. And it’s famous. And you have to see it, right? Right? Well, no. Not if you have little patience for clamoring, camera-wielding tourists, who jam themselves into every corner of the Pope’s church and then conspire, I swear, to all shout at the same time in 15 different languages. Add that to the staff’s charming tendency to let three times as many people up to the top of the dome as should safely and sanely be there, and the basilica’s oppressive ugliness (It’s pink. And gold. Lots of gold.) and you have yourself a recipe for a frustrating, exhausting day in Rome. And oh yeah, you have to wait in line for three hours during high season to even get in the door. Take pictures from the square and ask a security guard where you can get good pasta and call it a day. Or a lifetime.


Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

Really? This is the best Dublin can do when it comes to its most famous cathedral? Chilly and dark, this big stone church contains statues of dead people you’ve probably never heard of and some flags. For a better bet, grab a book and people watch on the lovely strip of green right outside the church. (Note: I took exactly zero photos in and around Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The snapshot above is from the graveyard at the way-more-interesting Saint Audoen’s church.)

Duomo at Sunset

The Duomo, Florence
If you see it for the first time at sunset, like I did, your heart will probably fall out of your chest at the sight of its unfathomable beauty and elegance. Its perfect (and perfectly constructed) dome is Florence’s signature; its colored marble seems too intricate and harmonious to be real. And then you walk inside and it’s just a big empty room with some candles in it. Really. Save your money and your time and don’t even bother going inside the Duomo. There is some art, yes. A venerable painting or two. But it’s not worth braving the crowds and the real wonder—the thing worth seeing—can be had for free just by looking around you.

At Sea Level

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009


On a hazy June morning in the part of France that cannot make up its mind about whether it is a Provence blossom or a Riviera jewel, I took a picture of a stone building perched on yet more stone—a corniche, they call them—on the very edge of the shore. I had just begun to move in a great clockwise arc around the Mediterranean Sea, a thing I had wanted to do for as long as I could think the words. To see This Place Where My Father Comes From. J was sick in bed with a stomach bug and couldn’t bear the beach, the sun, or solid food, so I took a bus out to a place where there was no sand, just little stone outcroppings that dropped into the sea.

Two days earlier, a man had circled the spot on a map for us with a ballpoint pen.

“If you want a beach like California, you go here. ” He touched a white strip of sand as wide as his index finger. “Now,” he said, “If you want Marseille, you go here.” And then he touched that little triangle of rock.

I knew exactly where I wanted to go because I had seen it from the window of the bus the day before. A little fishing village wedged into the side of the big screaming city, protected in its cove.

And I sat in my favorite dress, which I didn’t remove because I felt too pale and shy even though I was wearing a bathing suit, and I watched the panorama of mountains, sea, rock, old men, women rocking cooing babies, scattered beach towels, the handsome waiter from the hotel up the street in his bowtie. And I thought about J leaving me to go back to Paris and I thought, Oh God. What the hell am I doing. And I knew that whatever I was doing, I was exactly right to do it.

The little stone building I photographed, Le Maregraphe, is France’s point 0, the exact spot where an entire nation decides what is this thing we call sea level, the dot from which all altitudes rise, in that little bird’s next on the edge of the world. A while after I posted it, someone contacted me and asked if they could use it for an article in a student-run magazine about Marseille. It’s on page 15 of the most recent issue, if you’d like to peek. And that’s why I wanted to write this.

And maybe to dream, for one minute longer, about Marseille.


Tuesday, June 10th, 2008


Imagine Paris in a nightmare or a dream, post-apocalypse, with graffiti splashed across its pretty face, all the Haussmann buildings nine stories tall with the paint chipping off the shutters. Riveted steel bridges stretch across the streets, hanging in midair, connecting one building to another or else there are winding staircases between them, marching up the hills, twisting around corners, like Montmartre after the bomb, the Ice Age, all the steps going the wrong way. Imagine Paris with “Guantanamera” blasting out car windows and the smell of pizza and curry and tapas everywhere. Imagine Paris with 85 percent humidity every single day of the year. Imagine Paris sunk on one side into pearl blue ocean and rimmed by scorched white cliffs. Imagine it with a man in a doorway singing a prayer in Arabic and a kid kicking a red rubber ball on a playground and two dogs fighting in the same playground, biting each other’s faces but cautious, as though they’re trying to find the line between “play” and “hurt.” Imagine Paris with trash pickup at 9:00 on a Monday night, the truck setting off one, two, three car alarms as it passes. Imagine it with homeless people and school kids and an empty fountain full of liquor bottles that are full of piss. Imagine tiny shops here and there, hidden but not, their owners laid back and a little defiant, young, bespectacled, and the signs in the windows that say No Photos, Please in English. A dumpling house. A bistro with a full vegetarian menu. A hostel with free WiFi. Buds on the vine, a new guard creeping in, bringing new money to the empty boulevards, a new paradise sprouted out of the old one than died and everything it left. But just the murmurs of it now, something that everyone knows is coming, the looming shadow left by a gleaming city on a hill.


Postscript. The Cours de Civilization et Langue Francaise de la Sorbonne?

Right. I passed it.


J____ is sick in a bad way so we’re staying another night in Marseille, until she’s able to walk.


The boat tour of the Calanques — the shear white stone cliffs that rim the southern coast of Marseille — takes three hours and could probably make its point in two. The cliffs loom above and stick jagged into the sky like the fins of giant sea monsters and reach into the ocean like wrinkly toes. There is the occasional village of pastel cottages or a sandy beach between them like multi-million dollar toejam — a boat lazily at anchor, a naked Italian sunbather. Purple jellyfish traverse the lightening blue water. Sea caves, hundreds of feet above, hide twigs, old sweatshirts, cigarette butts in their shadows.

And maybe three hours of Calanques would be amazing if the weather was not sweltering and oppressive, if the entire city was not blanketed in smog. If it was a sunrise tour, maybe. A middle-of-the-night tour. I spent the second half of the trip dozing on the boat’s shady bottom level and wanting to swim.


It’s weird being so lonely right now.

But it’s weirder telling you about it.


“You can go to this beach,” he says, pointing with a ballpoint pen. “It’s like California, maybe. But if you want to go to a real Marseille beach, go here.” He circles a knob of coastline and tells me which bus to take.


Within Marseille proper there is a fishing village like a thumb print, a perfect little half-moon, carved into the coast, and surrounding it are stone cornices that reach into the ocean and I step over one, over the sleek white rock, and plan to pick a spot with a view until I realize that they all, in fact, have views. Of the pale coast. Of the ruined Chateau d’If, the fabled home of the Count of Monte Cristo, glimmering on its little island. Of the horizon line, shifting and sparkling in the late-afternoon sun.

And all around me, the Marseillaises chatter and swim and soak in the sun. A woman, not a day younger than 70, sports a chic haircut, a bootleather tan, and an astonishingly pert pair of breasts. An old man in a cap shouts about the economy to a friend while he steps back into his clothes — pleated dress pants, collared shirt, socks, dress shoes. A couple enjoys the surf. A woman nuzzles a giggling baby’s nose.

And I’ve wondered so many times. Do I really love this country or do I just love what it symbolizes to so many Americans — cultural awareness, style, elegance. And will I want to come back after this? After seeing so much of it. Does it make sense to come back to a place three, four, five times?

In that moment, against a watercolor sky and hemmed in by white cliff and smog and murmured conversation that sounds like a song. I thought. How could I have thought. Honestly. That this was the end of something and not the beginning?


Two things:

Out of nowhere, J____, all green and sick on the bed, tells me that Anne Murray’s son was in her limo at her senior prom. I’ve known her for three years, and she tells me this now?

Later, while she’s watching the BBC, she points at the screen, at a bald-headed reporter with a major Scottish brogue and says, “Hey, that’s my ex-boyfriend.”

And so he was.

La Marseillaise

Sunday, June 8th, 2008

Old Port Under Stormclouds

Marseille feels better like blue sky feels better, ocean after miles and miles of deadlock and checkerboard farm. There is noise. Traffic. Kebab stands. Garbage. Blinding sun. Pale white cliffs that tumble into blue. A seafarer’s church on a hill.

The old port in its neat horseshoe is crammed in with blue water and the toothpick masts of little boats and big boats with names like Tetris and Eileen 1932. Fish mongers sell little fish whose sides flash like mirrors, and one mustached man, with a shout, plops the biggest lobster I have ever seen on a counter. The biggest lobster. As long as my arm. Tourists cram in for photos. Another man sells seahorses while escargot wriggle in a tin cup beside him, their sticky antennae flailing, looking a little desperate.

We are only just arrived but in the afternoon we knock back pastis — cloudy like milk in the glass — on the terrace of a corner bar while everyone watches the Europe Cup on a wide-screen TV that’s been moved outside for the occasion. The clouds roll overhead but we are unhurried, minding the sting at the back of our throats.

We start walking five minutes before it starts to rain in fat, splashing drops and we’re soaked to the knees an instant later, even with umbrellas, and a solid thirty minute walk from the hotel. The sky is half blue-black clouds like a bruise and half shimmering white behind a lighthouse and the stones of the old fort. A mile away, a single bolt of lightening flickers out of a cloud and touches down on the hill near the church. The thuderclap shakes the pavement.

After the rain, it doesn’t get cold. It stays balmy like summer and that’s how I know I’ve come in the right direction.