A Postcard From Marseille

We had to get away. There was only so long we could bear living in our squalid new house. However excited we were at finally moving to Gloucestershire and living on the canal, our new home was undeniably squalid.

Moving-in day last August was all sorts of emotional. We unlocked the front door to our forever-home only to be smacked in the nose by the stink of the previous owner’s smoking habit – a forty-four year, sixty-a-day habit. The house had been empty for nine months, the windows shut tight, that noxious smell maturing fatly over a hot airless summer.

Jim and I spent two days filling a skip with noisome, sticky carpets and badly made, nicotined shelving units; and then we set to: stripping wallpaper, sugar soaping walls, ceilings and woodwork. If it didn’t move it got sugar soaped. And then we began painting. If it didn’t move it got painted; all the while hosting plumbers and plasterers, electricians, a floor sander man and a steady stream of curious, aghast (if trying not to show it) friends and family. But after six weeks of hard graft, Jim and I crumpled and fled to the South of France. I mean, you would have done so too. Whilst we were away we had the old central heating system ripped out and a new boiler, radiators and under-floorboard piping installed. Call us soft lads but we couldn’t face living through all that disruption as well.

oooOOOooo

Arriving at our rental apartment in Marseille, after a swift flight from Bristol, was like a warm tight hug. The little flat was clean, it was comfortable, it was uncluttered and it didn’t smell. And Marseille, in those dying days of September, was far more beautiful than I had supposed.

Relax, relax, relax.

Airbnb Apartment Marseille

Our flat – two windows top left

On the fourth floor of an ancient block, our home for a week had brilliant views;

Airbnb Apartment Marseille (1)

but at a price of 96 sixty steps, no lift. Nip out every morning to fetch croissant? 96 steps back. Reach the pavement only to realise that you’d left something in the flat? 96 steps. Return after a night out? 96 steps. I learnt to take them two at a time. 48 steps were less of a personal affront.

Old Port Marseille

Old Port Marseille

From the living room window, we looked down at the Old Port to our right;

Old port area Marseille

directly below us were restaurants and people to watch;

Bum bum Bistrot

(though the restaurant opposite didn’t appeal much);

Marseille (2)

whilst to the left, marched a handsome line of mute-colour apartment blocks and rooftops,

Basilica of Our Lady of the Guard Marseille

with high up on the skyline, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Guard or, if you rather, la Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde.

Basilica of Our Lady of the Guard Marseille

One evening, we climbed several steep streets and long flights of steps to the church (so you don’t have to). C19th Romanesque architecture isn’t my cup of tea really but it seemed churlish not to take a closer look. High on the tower is a gigantic, golden statue of Mary and the baby Christ. Because that’s what Jesus would have wanted?

Marseille

Still, the views are definitely worth the climb.  Swivelling, I looked out over the city as the sun slipped away, hankered after ferries slipping off to Corsica or Sardinia, and listened to a hundred bars calling out my name.

President John F. Kennedy Corniche

A cycling view back to the city from the President John F. Kennedy Corniche

Over seven days, we walked Marseille into the ground. But we also used the brilliant Le Velo cycle hire. Pay a Euro to register, use an app thing, get a code thing, tap it into a keyboard thing at a bike station thing, take a bike, use it, then leave it behind at any bike station thing. The first half hour’s bike use is free and then it’s one Euro per additional hour; which is my kind of bargain. We zipped about daily, exploring and sightseeing – even though Marseilles, unlike Amsterdam or Berlin, is not a cycling city for the not-quite-ready-to-die-yet sort.

Frioul Islands

Frioul Islands

One day, we followed the coast road south, stopping to look out over the Frioul Islands and deciding we would visit them. (And we did and I recommend that you do so too, but I can’t include all of our jaunts in this post or else we’ll be here all day).

War Memorial on the Corniche Marseille

War Memorial on the Corniche Marseille

The beauty of cycling is that you can just stop, almost anywhere, without worrying about where to park or which bus stop to use. And we did that often – just to catch our breath, to chat, or to gaze at a nicely framed moon above a splendid melodramatic bronze.

le velo marseille

Stick me on a bike and I’m pretty happy. Give me a bike for virtually nothing and I’m happier still.

jardin botanique marseille

I decided to cycle to the Jardin Botanique – given that I do like a botanical garden and I do write a gardening blog (mostly). But having risked the murderous disregard of some drivers and cycled a jolly long way indeed, we skidded to a breathless halt at very shut gates. “Damn!” wasn’t the word I used.

Marché Centre Commercial les Puces

Marché Centre Commercial Les Puces

So instead, we went to a huge antique/flea market – which is as magnetic to me as a closed botanical garden.

Marché Centre Commercial les Puces

We hunted high, we hunted low, we browsed and we rummaged. But given the constraints of Easyjet cabin baggage allowances, we didn’t buy anything.

Marché Centre Commercial les Puces

I wasn’t surprised that this disturbing doll hadn’t sold. Were it in my house, I wouldn’t take my eyes off it. In case it moved.

Marché Centre Commercial les Puces

And if this fellow appeared at my front door, I’d immediately pound him to bits with a cricket bat. And feel no remorse, just mighty relief.

Le Panier Marseille

If the botanical gardens were closed, then simply wandering the streets of Le Panier, a neighbourhood to the north of the Old Port, was a charming horticultural substitute;

Le Panier Marseille

and I enjoyed sticking my nose into the homely, sub-tropical displays and muttering forlornly about my lost tropical border at The Priory.

Jim

Perhaps on reflection, it’s just as well that the botanical gardens were closed. I know from sad experience that Jim can’t always be trusted in an open public garden. (You may have to enlarge the photo to get my point).

Old Port Marseille

Old Port Marseille

As much as we loved Marseille, its history, charm and solid good looks (why, we even became accustomed – almost – to the regular wafts of urine from side streets and alleyways) after several days we needed to escape the noise and crowds. And that smell of wee.

Calanques National Park

Calanques National Park

An hour’s bus trip away and we were in the Parc national des Calanques. From the bus stop, it’s another hour’s walk under sweet-smelling pine forests, on gritty paths,

Calanques National Park

through limestone hills

Calanques National Park

until we glimpsed the sea.

Calanques National Park

Jim’s brother had recently been here and urged us to come. Good call. I’d have walked two or three times further to see this.

Calanques National Park

It is magnificent and, for a place I had never heard of, quite startling. Who knew? (Apart from Jim’s brother). The views tumbled away into the haze,

Calanques National Park

and down to rocky coves and inlets. (If you don’t fancy the bus trip and hot walk, join a boat trip from the Old Port in Marseille).

Calanques National Park

We planned to walk down to one of the small fishing villages for lunch

Calanques National Park

until we realised just how high we were and how low it was. We grimaced at the thought of a long descent, followed by a punishing climb back in 30°+ heat. Call us soft lads again.

Calanques National Park

And that scene from Ice Cold in Alex – auto-playing in my head – faded away; along with an imagined seafood platter to go with icy beer. Holidays can be so cruel.

Calanques National Park

Jim having a disappointed moment

Dry-mouthed and hungry, we drank warm bottled water and ate warm plums and oranges – which was nice if not quite the same – and watched spellbound as climbers crawled up that massive rock face.  (The climbers are visible by Jim’s elbow and at the foot of the cliff in the enlarged photo).

Seafood Marseille

But please don’t fret about me. I did get my seafood lunch with beer. Indeed I had several. The bouillabaisse, the mussels, the mixed crustacea were fabulous (though Jim couldn’t bring himself to eat a whelk. He did try pulling inches of an elasticated, rubbery body with its attached toenail-like thing, from the shell but, groaning and shuddering and grimacing, passed it to me. Gee thanks, Jim).

Cheers

As is traditional at the end of one of my postcard posts (having done it once before), here’s a photo of me enjoying a final beer.  But I’ll pass on the whelks next time.

Cheers.

oooOOOooo

Lunchtime beer quickly became a distant memory, as we returned to painting window frames and planing doors that didn’t shut properly, putting up shelves, moving in our belongings from the storage centre piecemeal as rooms became habitable, making endless decisions about power points, light fittings, taps, rugs, new furniture and all the rest.

Stroud Garden

Oh, and yes, we had to tackle the overgrown garden too. But that’s a tale for another time.

An Otter In Stroud

Of all England’s mammals, there is one – more than any other – that I have always wanted to see in the wild.

Ring of Bright Water

That book

Only one animal which, since I saw that film and read that book as a boy, I’m aware of, subconsciously at least, as I walk alongside streams and rivers and shoreline.

When I was younger, many of England’s waterways were too polluted for fish and otters; and if otters could find clean water, they might be hunted with otterhounds. (Otter hunting was only outlawed in 1978). No surprise then that I thought my chances of spotting one in southern England were slim. But I looked nevertheless and especially when I travelled to more remote country in Lakeland, Wales or Scotland. I never expected to see one properly you understand; just a curve of wet fur rolling underwater or a streak of dark litheness flowing up a bank into undergrowth, leaving no trace but a ring of bright water.

And I most certainly never expected, not even in my weirdest dreams, to see one in front of my own house for goodness sake. Not a bloody otter.

Stroud Valley

The view from the house. The canal is in the foreground, the bench overlooks the hidden river beyond. The Friesian cow at the end of the rainbow is incidental. September 2018.

In August, we moved into a canal-front house in Stroud. And we knew on arrival that there are kingfishers here, nesting mute swans and I heard, to my stuttering disbelief, that otters live here too. As we’ve walked or cycled along the tow-path, I’ve been extra vigilant – obviously – hoping that I might finally see my wild otter. I’d seen kingfisher many times before I moved to Gloucestershire … yet to have seen them twice already from my house windows is still pretty amazing. But despite my fervent wish, I’ve seen no otter.

Until.

The other day, Jim and I were loading the car before driving off to Pembrokeshire. As we carried out far-too-much-stuff-for-a-three-night-break, we noticed a group of people on the far bank of the canal looking down into the river beyond.

Jim shouted, “What is it?” (half expecting them to shout back, “A body.”).

“An otter,” someone replied and after Jim and I had exchanged a wide-eyed grin, we left our luggage on the driveway, our house and car doors wide open and, grabbing my camera, jumped on our bikes, cycled seventy yards to the end of our road, crossed the footbridge and pedalled furiously back to the bench overlooking the river.

I stepped up onto the wall of the weir between canal and river and looked down into a mass of quaking watercress. Quaking because something was heaving it from beneath.

Otter Stroud (1)

I was twitching with excitement but still unbelieving … until up popped a dark blunt head. There he was: a wild, beautiful otter. Upon my word. He quickly disappeared but then re-emerged momentarily beyond the cress before curling back underwater. Was that it? Had he gone?

Otter Stroud (8)

Nope – he snapped up again, twisting manically and proving to be, in low light, a devilish camera subject.

Otter Stroud (7)

I continued clicking hoping for at least one decent shot before he was gone.

Otter Stroud (2)

But, he was in no hurry and appeared remarkably unconcerned by his adoring audience standing just a few feet away.

Otter Stroud (4)

He’d found a wealth of food and took his time enjoying it; whatever it might have been: snails perhaps or freshwater mussels.

Otter Stroud (3)

This was an encounter which slipped from hope to a breathless glimpse, to a prolonged close encounter, to … “Er, we really need to be off to Wales now, otter. Sorry.” Eventually, reluctantly, we let him be and cycled back to the car.

Otter Stroud (5)

There is so much relentlessly gloomy news about wildlife and the environment that this simple encounter was a significant and bright moment for me.

Otter Stroud (6)

For the rest of the day, at intervals, Jim or I would say, “We saw an otter. Outside our house.” Saying it made it more real.

Broadhaven Beach, Pembrokeshire

Broadhaven Beach, Pembrokeshire

Over the following weekend, as we walked the stunning Pembrokeshire coast, the sheer amount of plastic waste washed up on the white sand was keenly depressing; providing more unremitting evidence of what harm we are doing to our planet. As if we need more.

But, but the Stroud canal, the Stroudwater Navigation, is one resounding success story, amongst the havoc. The Cotswold Canals Trust has restored most of it in the past few years and plans to continue its resurrection all the way under the M5 and out to Saul Junction, linking up with the national canal network.

When Jim was growing up in Stroud in the ’70s and ’80s, the canal was mostly derelict: partly filled in, built over, dumped full of rubbish and fenced-off completely in places. And now? Well, locks and bridges have been rebuilt or repaired, the towpath reinstated and maintenance barges chug past our house – dredging, cutting back vegetation, keeping the waterway clear. What was once a fenced eyesore for our neighbour when she moved here twenty-five years ago, is now a wide band of still water with the occasional kayaker; and its busy towpath is used by joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, schoolchildren and walking commuters. Thanks to all the astonishing work by the Trust and a host of volunteers, it is now home to a rich variety of wildlife including mallard, moorhen, swans, kingfishers and, would you believe it, bloody otters.

It’s nice to have some good news once in a while.