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;

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.

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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.

The Sparrowhawk

Jim picked me up from work at The Old Forge yesterday and, as I loaded my tools into the car, told me that he’d almost driven over a sparrowhawk crouched on the lane leading up to the house.  Luckily, he had braked in time and the bird flew away, as did an injured pigeon it had caught.

Buzzards circling lazily overhead are now a common sight on the South Downs; but other than those and an almost tame host of wild rabbits eyeing this gardener with ill-concealed contempt, I hadn’t seen any wildlife of interest whilst working and felt a little peeved at missing an up-close bird of prey.

After locking up the outbuildings and casting a satisfied eye over the freshly mown lawns, I climbed into the car, ramped up the air-conditioning, took off my sun-hat and gratefully grabbed the proffered can of cold coke.  It had been a long, hot, tiring day’s mowing.

Sparrowhawk (1)

Pulling away through The Forge’s gate and onto the road, we were both excited to see that the sparrowhawk was back.  With its recaptured prey.

Sparrowhawk (2)

Jim cut the engine and we coasted to a slow halt feet from where the hawk tore at the freshly caught pigeon.

Feverishly, I fished about on the back seat for my camera bag: unzipped it, took out my Nikon, removed its case, unlocked the standard lens, placed it carefully on the dashboard, found my telephoto, took it out of its case, attached it to the camera, took off the lens-cap, turned on the camera, pressed buttons and swivelled dials, looked through the viewfinder, swivelled dials some more – all the while knowing that the hawk would be long gone by the time I was finally ready for my first shot.

Sparrowhawk (3)

But it wasn’t.  As their name suggests, sparrowhawks hunt small birds and it’s a little unusual for them to catch something as large as a pigeon.

Sparrowhawk (4)

This female wasn’t about to abandon her bounty to a couple of gawking bystanders.

Sparrowhawk (5)

I see sparrowhawks often, close up even, and only once when I had my camera in hand  but usually they’re up and away as soon as I stumble upon the scene.

Sparrowhawk (6)

Today though, our car served as a perfect bird-hide and this Accipiter nisus, unconcerned by a stationary silver box, continued feeding.  Messily.

Sparrowhawk (7)

So often when photographing chance wildlife, I have seconds in which to take a shot and  usually in poor light too.

Sparrowhawk (8)

But yesterday, the soft afternoon sunlight backlit the raptor beautifully and I couldn’t believe my luck – and the unexpected camouflage gifted by our shabby, old car.

Sparrowhawk (9)

But however thrilled we were by her gorgeous markings, her stature, her presence, her pantaloons; this was a gruesome scene with sharp beak tearing off chunks of flesh.  Especially gruesome because for overly long minutes, the pigeon was still alive.  This was no clean, quick kill.

After a while, and with the pigeon now mercifully dead, she grasped its body with her talons and flew down the lane, landing in front of a farm building.  Jim started the engine and we rolled after her, pulling up alongside.

Sparrowhawk (10)

It is always exciting to see a terrific wildlife scene worthy of a David Attenborough voice over;

Sparrowhawk (11)

if only on a quiet, Sussex byway – rather than the Serengeti or the Himalaya.  But watching that hawk eating her still-alive prey was pretty horrid and not a thing I needed to see.

Sparrowhawk (12)

My close relationship with the natural world is a marvellous bonus to gardening but occasionally it reminds me – vividly, starkly – of how indifferent to suffering that world truly is and just how precarious life is.  The sparrowhawk wasn’t being cruel in eating her quarry alive; she simply wasn’t aware, didn’t care.

The hawk’s feast and the pigeon’s demise was a bit of a conversation dampener on our short drive home.

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Thursday’s encounter reminded me of two similar wildlife posts on my blog which you may not have seen: The Bedraggled Kestrel – about an even more intimate hawk encounter – and The Stoat and the Pigeon.  In the latter, and as you might guess, I’m afraid there is no happy ending for the pigeon.Save