Friday, 10 May 2013: Marseille: the Fort Saint Nicholas and the Roman docks

Written Sunday, 12 May 2013

breakfast breakfast Here's what the breakfast buffets look like. A third, not shown, presents two coffee/hot drink dispensers, cups, sugar, etc.

We finished breakfast late again, and again encountered the chambermaids, already doing our rooms. The only annoying part is that their very first step is to visit all the rooms and take away all the towels. Then comes a second pass, during which they clean the rooms, make the beds, etc., and only then, a good while later, do they make a third pass to distribute clean towels. As a result, this was the second morning we had to brush our teeth, wash our hands, etc. without towels. A nuisance.

map view After a brief stop in the Place aux Huiles ("Oil Square," once the center of the city's olive-oil trade) to buy postcards (quite nice ones, and the cheapest we've found in the city), we were on our way to the southwest corner of the Vieux Port to visit the fort Saint Nicholas when the lady walking ahead of us, pushing a hand truck loaded with styrofoam boxes of fish (presumably for a restaurant, hit a bump and spilled everything into the street! I didn't take a photo (seemed like rubbing in the misfortune), but as she picked them all up and piled them back in their boxes, I got a good look at several of the species we've been eating "on the hoof," as it were.

The fort was built in the time of Louis XIV and has a Vauban-ish look to it, but Vauban is not mentioned in the description of its construction. It provides gorgeous views in all directions (at the right, the view back up toward the head of the Vieux Port). You can walk over and around large parts of it, but other large parts are still under reconstruction, and you can't go inside any of the structures.

jean fireworks The view here, at the left, is of the Fort Saint Jean, across the mouth of the port. Saint Jean now houses a couple of museums, closed now for renovation, of course. Near the left edge of the photo, note the rust-colored "man" built of shipping containers, marking the headquarters of a container-shipping company.

While we were on the ramparts, our attention was drawn by a string of firecrackers that went off in rapid succession around the container-man's feet. A few minutes later, another salvo broke out, this time, shooting streamers of colored smoke into the sky. We never did figure out what they were a propos of. Celebration? Protest? Who knows?

Up until Louis's time, Marseille had enjoyed a special status as a sort of "free city" within France, exempt from many taxes and restrictions on trade. Louis was having none of that—everybody obeyed him or else. When he visited, and they wouldn't open the city gates to him, he blasted a hole in the wall and came in that way. He then had two forts built, one on each side of the entrance to the Vieux Port (then, simply "the port"), St. Nicholas to the south and St. Jean to the north. They served admirably to protect the city from marauders from outside, but their real purpose was to subjugate the city—they could strangle it by closing the port, or if need be, they could fire on it.

The locals hadn't finished with Louis, though. He ordered a town hall built (the one still in use today) with the offices of the local administration on the ground floor and those of his regional governor above. They did it, but when the governor arrived, he found that they had included no stairway by which to reach the second floor. To get to his office, he had to lean a ladder against the wall of the building! To this day, to reach that second floor, you have to enter the adjacent building, climb its stairs, then walk back across a bridge built at second-floor level for the purpose.

santons santons From the fort, we walked back toward our hotel (and lunch) to visit the private museum of a famous santon maker, Marcel Carbonel.

Santons are, in origin and in essence, Christmas creche figurines, but santon makers have long since branched out beyond the usual holy family, angels, shepherds, and guys on camels. Provençal Christmas creches can now include dozens (hundreds!) of typical Provençal, and other, characters in sizes from a foot tall to the size of a dried bean.

The museum is a single room (behind Mr. Carbonel's shop), with a sort of mezzanine/balcony full of glass display cases. At the left, a creche scene in which the stable is being approached by all sorts of folks in 19th-century Provençal dress, bearing gifts. Not one of them is riding a camel. At the right is a collection of baby Jesus figures, from life size down to really tiny.

santons santons Here, those to the left have been painted, whereas those to the right are the nature color of the terra cotta they are made of. Not all of them seem strictly religious in nature.

Some of the figures wear real fabric clothes, although the clothes of most are painted on. Up on the balcony is a whole series of groups from other countries (Japanese, Russian, Spanish, Russian), made of unusual materials (bamboo, carved wood, ivory, cork), particularly small and/or tesselated, semiabstract, color-themed, etc. The variety and craftsmanship are amazing. We were tempted, but we didn't buy any.

lunch lunch Back down at the Place aux Huiles, we settled for lunch at Pain & Cie ("Bread and Company"), which from the menu and many other details seemed like a copy of the Pain Quotidien chain we're so fond of. David chose the "farmer salad"—spring mix, smoked duck breast, acacia honey, cilantro, Fourme d'Ambert (a blue cheese), and croutons.

I had a "grilled tartine." A tartine is bread spread with something. In this case, it was spread with grilled eggplant, sliced tomato, and mozzarella, then run under the broiler to melt the cheese. It was very good (and, like all food in Marseille, was drizzled with herbed olive oil), but the real standout was the Aubrac-style aligot that came on the side (the other option was a baked potato, but who would choose that over aligot?!).

Aligot is a mixture of about half and half mashed potato and young tome de Savoie cheese, plus a (really) healthy dose of raw garlic, beaten together until the cheese melts and the mixture becomes very stretchy yet tender. This one was perfect. In the photo at the left, you can see it stretching from my fork. If you keep stretching, it will actually spin threads!

For dessert, I had a "mango-coconut contemporary," which turned out to be a center of smooth frozen mango purée enrobed in coconut ice cream, then a creamy shell of some sort, topped with a chocolate pastille and a sprinkle of grated coconut. Excellent.

I'll have to do a little research to figure out whether the two restaurant chains are related or whether one is a copy of the other.

bus pots Next, we planned to ride the historic and iconic "ferry boat" from its landing at the Place aux Huiles across the port to the Hôtel de Ville, first, just to be able to say we'd done it, but mostly to visit the nearby Museum of the Roman Docks, which was rumored actually to be open! They actually call it the "ferry boat," just like that, in English; I don't know why. When we got there, though, a sign told us that the service was suspended for mechanical work on the boat. These stoppages must usually be short, because the sign provided spaces for "from" and "until" times, but nothing was written in. The ferry bills itself as the shortest crossing in the world, but I'm pretty sure we rode a ferry once up by the mouth of the Seine that was shorter, only about four boat lengths.

We considered taking one of these cute little electric buses that drive back and forth all day around the perimeter of the port, but we didn't yet know the fare structure (turns out they're 50 eurocents a ride, buy your tickets on board), so we just walked around.

The museum was so small it took two tries to find—we walked right past it the first time—but it was, mirabile dictu, open! Again, it consisted of just one room. In the center is this assemblage of "dolia," very large terra cotta storage jars, part of what was a Roman dockside warehouse. Most are broken, so you see only their hollow bases, but there's a nearly intact one, with part of its cover, along the lower right edge of the photo and another with an intact rim at the far right corner of the assemblage. They were so large they were fired in place—a kiln was built around them for them purpose. Then, because they invariably cracked in the process, they were patched with molten lead. The inside surface was sealed with resin (for wine storage) or with "amurque" (for oil storage; amurque is either the residue from pressed olives or the sediment that settles out of unfiltered olive oil; I had to look that one up!). They were apparently never moved—they were set into the ground, like this group (for better temperature control and exclusion of air), and liquids were pumped into and out of them.

Around the dolia was a single walkway, on several levels, lined with display cases containing smaller items and panels of explanatory text. Diagrams pointed out features that were preserved, like tile-lined drainage channels and a couple of wells.

Near that museum, we stopped to admire the exterior of the "Maison Diamantee," the "diamonded house," so called because each of the stones of its facade protrudes to form a pointed tetrahedron in the center. It normally houses the museum of the history of Marseille, but that is (all together, now) closed for renovation in preparation for next month.

band rhino From there, we strolled back toward the Hôtel de Ville, because I wanted to photograph the group of painted fiberglas animals next to it, but we hadn't gone half a block when a brass band struck up and started marching toward us, and of course that automatically postpones other plans. I paused only to take the photo before we fell in behind them.

Strangely, they were wearing grey chinos and completely blank white shirts; who the heck were they? The bass drum said "Vivo Montana" on it; were they really from Montana? Anyway, the nine of them were playing three trumpets, three medium-sized horns I'll call baritones for lack of a better term, a sousaphone, and two sizes of drum, and boy were they good! They walked only a block or so (stopping, coincidentally, just by the painted animals) before forming a semicircle and playing a concert. They started with several of what sounded like Spanish marches (very fast and intricate), went on to a little Dixieland, some classical, and to finish, a medley of When the Saints Go Marching In; Yes Sir, That's My Baby; and a third tune of the same sort that I didn't know. David (a trumpet player himself) pointed out that some of the instruments were "nonstandard." For example, rather than valves on top, the trumpets had keys out to one side.

I Googled them later (Ibis Budget provides free Internet, bless them), and yes they are from Montana—Montana, Bulgaria! They're all quite young (except the sousaphone player, who is probably the bandmaster), and at full strength have 10 members—perhaps that's why they weren't in full concert dress—maybe they only play as "Vivo Montana" when everyone is present, whereas the group we heard was missing a member. Anyway, they have a CD out, and I hope they were on their way to Rouen for the brass-band competition we encountered there a few years ago. Just Google them to see and hear them on U-tube.

Once they stopped playing, I went on and got my photos of the fiberglas animals, including this bison, which was orange-brown on this side, but on the other displayed this wonderful "fluoroscope" view.

Also present in the group were a donkey, an elephant (with a great cityscape painted on his sides), a camel, another giraffe, of course, a hippo, and a stag.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped into the Arsenaulx bookstore next door and acquired a book by Marcel Pagnol (a favorite son of Marseille) and the 2013 Gault-Millau guide, which comes bundled with a GM smart-phone app (useless to us, with our stupid phone) and a six-month subscription to GM's magazine (which we may be able to redeem on line).

axis tapenade Our dinner reservations were at Axis, a several-block hike up the hill behind our hotel, away from the Vieux Port, and as far as we could tell, in the middle of nowhere. It was in the Gault-Millau (2/5) but was so far off the beaten track that we heard only French there—most tourists apparently give it a miss.

It bills itself as "contemporary," and as you can see in the photo, the decor bears that out. We could see the chef and his two young assistants (plus a dishwasher) through the passthrough window into the kitchen, and the chef's wife was the sole dining-room staff.

The amuse-bouche was this little pot of tapenade and crisp toasts. Two menus were offered "Un-spiration" and "Deux-gustation" (puns on "inspiration" and "dégustation" and on French "un" and "deux," one and two), each offering three choices for each of three courses. We went for the "deux-gustation."

artichokes sweetbreads First course, David: Declension of artichokes. Left to right, the components were sliced and fried artichoke hearts, a whole small artichoke "barigoule" (hollowed out in the center, stuffed with aromatic vegetables and ham, and braised slowly in broth, served here with its long stem in the air), and a salad of thinly sliced raw archicokes.

First course, me: Hazelnut-crusted sweetbreads on a bed of spinach stewed with pine nuts and special "Taggiasche" olives. Very good, but the chef, being the contemporary type sautéed them directly from the raw state; not my favorite treatment.

sar dessert Main course, both: Fillet of sar, a fish I had never heard of. It's Diplodus sargus, white seabream (another porgy-type sparid, like the daurade), and it turns out to be great. Excellent tender texture, a little like ocean perch that hasn't been frozen, and it was cooked perfectly. It was served on a bed of grilled Mediterranean vegetables (zucchini, eggplant, peppers), including the sliced and grilled baby zucchini that we had been watching the assistant chef detach from their flowers, slice on a mandoline, and grill. (The flowers, which came in individual cellophane sleeves, like those roses gypsies sell on the street, were stuffed with sheep's milk curds and fried for a different dish.)

Dessert, David: A muesli-shortbread tart with a strangely purple cream made of white chocolate cream and red fruits, all topped with strawberries and little cubes of bright red fruit marshmallow and served with house-made orange sorbet, which he declared outstanding.

dessert Dessert, me: Assortment of minidesserts, which I'll described clockwise from the top left. (1) Almond tuile cookie. (2) Amazing passion-fruit parfait, with tangy passion fruit custard in the bottom, slightly sweeter passionfruit syrup in the middle, and whipped cream on top, spinkled with pastry crumbles. (3) A cylindrical heap of shreds of caramelized stewed apple, the top surface of which was glazed and crisped with a blowtorch. (4) Orange sorbet. (5) Something described on the menu as creamy chocolate caramel, almond-brittle bavarian cream, and crispy peanut-flavored pastry. As you can see, it was decorated with a coffee bean made of chocolate. (6) A miniature version of David's dessert. The long narrow thing on top was a slice of strawberry, the other two are cubes of red marshmallow, and I think there were chocolate chips in the muesli shortbread. Wow.

On the way home, I was able to get a better shot of the prefecture headquarters (and two layers of the cascading fountain in front of it) than I could from the open-topped bus. The portrait above the door is à propos of an upcoming art exhibition. The French really are brilliant at lighting buildings, and my camera is amazing at taking point-and-shoot photos under ridiculous lighting conditions.

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