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.

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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;

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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;

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directly below us were restaurants and people to watch;

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Walking Across England

I’ve recently returned from a fifteen-day walk across Northern England.

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I started at Ulverston, Cumbria and finished at Berwick-Upon-Tweed, Northumberland.  My route comprised the Cumbria Way, the central (and best) bit of the Hadrian’s Wall Path and the St Oswald’s Way.

Here’s a photo-blog of what I saw.

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As you may know, one of my biggest worries on any long distance footpath (apart from a closed-sign in a pub window) is persistent rain; day after day of ceaseless, pitiless rain.

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And one year that will most certainly happen … but not this time.

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March 2014 was (finally) a fine example of why I go walking in early spring and, compared to the rigours of last year, this was a comparative walk in the park.  Albeit a 220 mile walk in the park.

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There were the daffodils and spring flowers I always hope for,

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the regular ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese‘ call of yellowhammers,

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the almost constant song of skylarks,

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and often in the Lake District the background sound of running water (streams and pools were mostly frozen last year).

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And lambs; hundreds upon hundreds of newborn lambs.

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In over two weeks, I had only two afternoons of rain and one of those was of intermittent, light showers mixed with sunlight

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providing a succession of rainbows leading me eastward.

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Low Tarn from near the summit of Coniston Old Man

On day two, the weather was so perfect that I couldn’t resist climbing a mountain.  Leaving the Cumbria Way behind and making up my own route,  I climbed the Old Man of Coniston (2634 ft) and nearby Swirl How (2631 feet),

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Greenburn Valley

for an exhilarating high-level traipse (and my only snow of the trip)

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across and down into Great Langdale.

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In the five days it took to cross Lakeland, I had no rain at all – which was odd.  Doesn’t it always rain in the Lakes?

But then day three dawned overcast and misty and I thought my run of sun was over.  It wasn’t until I climbed up and over Stake Pass

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that I emerged above the mist,

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into bright sunshine once more.  Climbing above mist or cloud is always a rich reward on a stiff ascent.  That and chocolate.

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In the middle section of my walk, I rarely saw sunshine but the cloud provided a moody, dark backdrop to the grandeur of Hadrian’s Wall.

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I have visited sections of the Wall before but it is only by walking beside it for mile after mile (and visiting the marvellous fort and museum at Housesteads) that I truly appreciated what an incredible feat of construction it was.

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The Wall imposed an arbitrary line across Britain, sealing out the tribes to the north from the Roman Empire and cutting through farmsteads and villages (whose inhabitants were forcibly relocated).  For the first time in British history, the Romans implemented a fixed border between what would eventually become England and Scotland.

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I can’t recommend this stretch of walk enough.  I thought it spectacular and you needn’t undertake a long distance footpath to see it properly.

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Sycamore Gap, Hadrian’s Wall

The most impressive section of Wall is between Gilsland in the west and the Roman fort at Housesteads – a distance of only about 12 miles.

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When I reached the Northumberland coast the sun returned – and so did company.  I was joined for a day by my friend Jonquil and for the rest of the trip by my partner Jim and regular walking pal, Tracy.

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This is a magnificent coastline with vast sandy beaches,

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Low Newton-by-the-Sea

pretty little villages

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Jonquil and Tracy. Lunch stop at Boulmer

and pubs serving great food.  Always important.

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And it has castles galore: Bamburgh Castle is world-famous but very heavily renovated in the C19th by Lord Armstrong (who also built Cragside);

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I much preferred Warkworth (which I had never heard of), one time home of the Percy family

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but fell in love with romantic Dunstanburgh.  Built by Earl Thomas of Lancaster as a refuge from King Edward II it didn’t help him much.  Defeated at the battle of Boroughbridge, Thomas was captured and Edward had his head chopped off in 1322.  He should have stayed at home.

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I try to keep a keen (if myopic) eye open for animals and birds whilst walking.

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Amongst the birds I photographed, there was an obligatory dipper but only one (I feel a little cheated if I don’t see a dipper);

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Tufted duck

and species which I struggled to identify.

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I certainly hadn’t seen shy goosanders before.  Have you?

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Or a reed bunting?

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Or how about a meadow pipit?

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There were eider ducks,

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and oystercatchers,

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and the call of the curlew was another regular strand to the soundtrack of my walk.

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On the banks of Derwentwater

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sat an unperturbed cormorant, who didn’t mind in the least if people stopped to stare.  And many did.

Though I saw a hare and even a dolphin, there were no deer, very few rabbits, no stoats or weasels, no seals, no badgers or foxes.  I had especially wanted to see a red squirrel but without success.   Then one morning, as I sat on a rock eating a very nice orange, I looked up into the eyes of a curious squirrel about eight feet away.  I slowly reached for my camera but not slowly enough.

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He was off and I only managed a rubbish blurred photo a thrilling action shot as he scampered away.  Never mind, I did see another one a few days later.  But you’ll need to take my word for it – that one was even more camera-shy.

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The Old Dungeon Ghyll, Great Langdale

I stayed in some marvellous B&B’s, hotels and pubs.  I particularly liked The Old Dungeon Gyhll,

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and, with top marks especially, Anne and Tim’s very beautiful, very comfortable The Old Rectory, Caldbeck.  This is a perfect example of all a good B&B should be – and cheap too.

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I also like Cornhills, nr. Kirkwhelpington.  (Sadly now closed as a B&B).

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And the superb food and much sought for company (I was a bit lonely by this point) of Sean at the remote Saughy Rigg Farm, Twice Brewed.

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Pauperhaugh Bridge, St Oswald’s Way

So, how was my walk overall?  How did it rate against similar long distance walks?

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Well, I got a suntan, no blisters and lost half a stone!  The clement weather was a big bonus (though actually, I did miss the challenge of snow and ice and even blizzards);

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The North Gate, Milecastle 37, Hadrian’s Wall

the path was hugely varied with mountains and beaches, moorland and rivers, forests and farmland, more castles than I’ve mentioned and, of course, that Wall – there was just so very much to see and explore.

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A serene moment? Not really, my heart was yammering after running into shot before the shutter clicked!

It is only twenty miles longer than the Coast to Coast path and, with all due respect to Mr Wainwright, ‘my’ walk knocks his C2C into a cocked hat and boots it deftly over a nearby dry-stone wall.  Or at least, I think so.

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If you’re thinking of completing an English Coast to Coast walk I would heartily and unreservedly urge you to do this one.

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Looking south over the Lake District from the Cumbria Way

Apart from steep Stake Pass and the (by-passable) ascent of High Pike (2159 feet) on the Cumbria Way there are few long climbs;

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and whilst the Wall has plenty of ups and downs, after crossing Lakeland and with hardened calves of steel, you’ll barely notice them.

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Climbing out of Keswick

And, perhaps, when you finally reach Berwick you’ll be disappointed that your walk is finished and wish, as I did, that you could simply carry on walking.

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A more detailed account of this walk appears on my other blog – ‘The Walking Gardener’