Marseille, port city: sails and sunlight

Elsewhere: A Journal of Place, March 27, 2020

I am waiting to take the bus from Cassis to Marseille. Leaving behind the little streets of the town of Cassis and the cafes with their terraces, where artists came to paint the colourful fishing boats and its perfect bay; to sit by the lighthouse surrounded by waves. The rocks on the beach where I sat and watched the sun set across the rooftops of the town, to the lights of the harbour and the illuminated castle in the darkness. In the little square by the church I read in the warm shade of trees, with cats sunbathing, and the singing cicadas rising, while patterns of sunlight form on the page.

As I wait, I am thinking about travel and new places, of my first visit to the south of France and how it captured my imagination. The flickering colours of the train journey along the coast, where we stood for the whole journey immersed in the scenery passing by. There is always the sense of what lies around the next corner, the changing view that comes from moving on. The excitement of the journey to new, unknown places needs the sense of apprehension to make it more real. I fell for Marseille and for the feeling that travel brings, even then; for the feeling of being away.

The ride is breathtaking. The winding road ascends to the rocky plateau, crossing the Massif des Calanques. Across the rocks, the city stretches out white towards a blue and sparkling sea. From here I glimpse panoramas of the city, the harbour, and the Frioul islands. The descent is exhilarating; spectacular at the bottom of the hill lies Marseille by the water, recognizable by the silhouette of the Notre-Dame church, and a series of high-rise white tower blocks.

Marseille is a city with a certain reputation, a city apart. Perhaps it is for the lure of ports, and stories of voyages and arrivals, that I am drawn to it. A point of departure I return to constantly as an anchor. It is not for a feeling of belonging, of being at home, that I like it. Not for a sense of recognition but for its displacing effects.

Arriving in Marseille and stepping out into the sunlight from the train station, the sensation of heat, of warmth on my skin, surrounding me. Undeniable the feeling of arrival and scattered impressions of the city. If I close my eyes there it is again. Stepping out and feeling the heat as my first and abiding impression. From St Charles station you can stand and look down a hundred steps to a long street pulling you onwards and into the city.

I am interested in this idea of a return, of exploring the memories contained in a place, even if they are not definitive. Later I developed a captivation with the city and for years I imagined moving to Marseille, but I never did it. Something always held me back; this never became my city. The apprehension stronger than the desire to leave. Held back by the idea that there would be time, always time stretching ahead. Not expecting, not realizing that growing older would bring a sense of narrowing horizons, of enclosure, and that I would need to keep wandering inwardly; that settling was for me a myth.  

Then here are two selves, the one that returns, who looks back, and the one who embarked from a train one day stepping out into a feeling of intense heat. I could call myself a writer then. It didn’t matter so much whether I was one. There was always time, time ahead. 

Imagining a small balcony looking out to the street below, to where the street opens out and people gather as the sun begins to set. They draw up chairs to sit and talk, or to sit and look at nothing but the street itself. The sun in the afternoon, the day ending. 

I am careless, the thrill of being away sinks into my bones, as if I were fleeing something, as if I were running away. Drinking small, strong black coffee each morning and wandering the picturesque streets. I abandon myself to swimming in the sea, to the all-encompassing waves, warm, azure and enfolding. There is something intoxicating about being somewhere hot; having lived in cold places all my life, I can understand how a lack of heat could feel like a loss. The heat is alluring to me as the city is; it pervades everything, is inescapable and all-surrounding. 

I remember looking out towards the castle on the rock and out to sea. Walking the streets of the panier, of old Marseille. The buildings, white with shutters and balconies, the sloping, rundown streets and the intense blue of the sky where boats depart for Algiers, signifying another direction. The shape of the buildings, solid and definite next to the perfect clarity of the sky.

There is something about the blue of the sky that cannot be argued with, that gives it a certainty. 

Now I follow the Rue de Rome towards the old port. Everywhere the buildings with shutters, white and pastel, as if the sun has drained and turned everything a faded white. The harbour lined with boats, their sails blue and white; in lines they point upwards, their forms definite and leaving shadow. The reflections in the water are gentle ripples which turn them back to trees, they are branches bending gently with the movement of water. There is a big wheel circling slowly and up into the blue. I take photographs into the sun to see how they are drenched by light, as though the sun has pulled all the colours out and left only reflected lights. 

Looking down over the port from its vantage point, the basilica of Notre-Dame, again pure white in the heat of the sun. White buildings and shutters, the terracotta and pink of their roofs and balconies. I climb the sloping streets that fan outwards and upwards from the harbour.

In the café near the old port, a young man sits outside a pavement café, gently strumming a ukulele.  He is relaxed, apart from everything, living in the moment. I wonder what his story is. The waitress minding the tables with ease reminds me of the waitress we admired on that first trip, for the art and grace with which she moved around the tables. 

In the morning light, the harbour bears traces of the football match that has taken place the evening before in the stadium across the city. The bars and cafes have spilled into morning as the smell of stale beer across pavements. The early morning brings the setting up of the market, the arrival of fishing boats to sell their catch; and the fisher men and women collide with the departure of stragglers in the cafes, holding on to the last part of night. 

A bus out to the city beach and at the back music playing loudly, the kind that saturates the atmosphere like the sunlight covering everything, transcendent and dreamy music. While the sun beats down outside, around us, we are bathed in music for a few moments, cinematic and ethereal. Trying to work out what song it is, somehow joyous and uplifting, it covers our eyes in a timeless sound, we smile at each other; this is what we wanted.

Now I take the boat out to an island, passing the Chateau d’If, the legendary prison fortress. On the island, I walk paths across the rocky coves and inlets, pirate beaches. Where craggy rocks create places to climb, secret coves looking down to where the water beckons, the sheltered and secluded azure green of the water.

The boat back towards the city frames another view, the harbour as the jeweled centerpiece of the city, white and blue; sails and strong sunlight. I take a photo and it looks like a painting in oils from a time of ships and sunsets. Turquoise blue and burned terracotta orange like an antique map. 

As the city beckons me back again, to winding streets and afternoon shadow. The wheel turning towards the sun. 

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