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.

A Postcard From Lindos, Rhodes

My holidays are often quite adventurous: cycling through the German countryside, hiking across British mountains, bobbing down the Zambezi in a barrel, play-wrestling polar bears on Svalbard – that sort of thing.

Lindos Rhodes (3)

Jim’s flip-flop time

But this year, Jim and I decided to plump for something a little more conventional, a lot more lazy.  A few weeks ago we boarded a very swish, very new Boeing 787 Dreamliner – which was a personal excitement – and flew to the far end of Europe, to the Greek island of Rhodes.

Pallas Beach, Lindos

Our ultimate destination on the island’s eastern coast was Lindos; somewhere I know very well.  I say that I know it very well but as my first visit was in 1983 and my last in 1985, perhaps I don’t know it quite so well as I like to boast.

Lindos Rhodes (9)

But thankfully, mercifully, in 32 years it has barely changed.  Lindos is still a little town of blinding-white houses clustered adoringly at the foot of a rocky acropolis.

Acropolis Lindos (3)

And what an acropolis: a site and sight as good as any in Greece.

Lindos Rhodes (31)

It is imposing, dramatic and craggy from any angle; and not a citadel I should want to storm after breakfast.  So, instead, one morning we walked up the long winding path and paid our entrance fee.

Acropolis Lindos (2)

They’ve all been here you know, on the acropolis: the Romans, the Byzantines, the Knights of St John, the Ottomans, the Italians.  The Greeks.

Acropolis Lindos (1)

And now an international crowd of scantily clad tourists, thoughtfully displaying their wobbly, sun-burnt skin and once crisp, what-once-might-have-seemed-a-good-idea tattoos.  I thought it quite sweet that they thought this intimate display might lighten up my day (but then I was in a snooty frame of mind).

Lindos Rhodes (7)

With sheer force of will, I tore my eyes off the most eye-popping examples, closed my mouth and hacked my way through a thicket of selfie-sticks to the medieval walls on the western side of the acropolis.  I gazed down over the Middle-Eastern-looking town, trying to pinpoint the house I’d rented in 1983.  It had been small, square, flat-roofed and white.  That narrowed it down a bit.

Lindos

To the north mountains, headlands and bays fade way towards the top of the island and Rhodes Town.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (1)

Whilst, to the south, lies beautiful St Paul’s Bay.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (3)

St Paul was shipwrecked here, hence the name, and in August 1983 I was moped-wrecked here (which doesn’t really work as a link but never mind).  Zipping about on a rental moped, I zipped a curve too fast.  The bike slewed one way and I flew, all flailing limbs, in the other.  I clearly remember floating through the air, seemingly in slow motion, with time enough to quietly repeat the same four-letter word.  Like Icarus, my inaugural flight didn’t end well.  Luckily, I didn’t head-butt a rock; unluckily, and wearing shorts and a vest, I landed on knee and elbows, skidding across gravel.

Moped Crash

That smarts.

St Paul's Church, Lindos

St Paul’s Church, Lindos

I was laid up in my Rhodes Town room for several days; nursed, fed and fussed over by an adorable, clucking landlady before my pal, Michael, and I relocated to Lindos.  We spent our time doing not very much: riding slower-than-a-moped donkeys to near-by Pefkos, reading, exploring the hot hills and snorkelling in St Paul’s Bay.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (4)

The bay is busier now, of course, but it is just as lovely; the water as clear, as warm and as full of sea-life.  On that first visit, I spent absorbed hours with mask and snorkel: exploring the cove, chasing brightly coloured fish, seeking that elusive ancient statue or golden amulet I was convinced was waiting to be discovered on the sea-bed,

Lindos (2)

and then kicking out into the open sea.  In the bay, the water is a few feet deep but beyond the natural harbour walls a vast underwater cliff disappears into the deep and the seabed is invisible. Suddenly, I was floating alone in the Big Blue, dazzled by flickering sun-beams, dipping down as far as I could into colder water.  But then three thoughts coalesced in my hitherto empty head: a recent report of Great White sharks in Greek waters, my moped wounds seeping blood and a half-remembered fact that sharks can taste and hone in on blood from 800 miles away.  Or something.  My moment of calm in the Big Blue evaporated and, with an imagined razor-toothed maw torpedoing toward me,  I splashed breathlessly back to the safe confines of St Paul’s.

And that’s my best-est anti-climatic Lindos story.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (2)

I didn’t visit the beach at the northern end of the bay in the 80’s but from memory it was deserted: no beach umbrellas, no friendly dog, no plump children, no disembodied limbs.

Lindos Rhodes (30)

But neither did it have one of the nicest tavernas I know.  Jim and I returned here most days for perfectly ripe Greek Salad with crumbly, salty, perfect feta; hot, crisp, perfect calamari; or warm, garlicky, puffy, perfect pittas served with dollops of perfect taramasalata, tzatziki, hummus and baba ganoush (all four as unrelated to supermarket tubs as I am to the Duchess of Windsor).   As you might have guessed, I thought it perfect.

Lindos Rhodes (46)

On the slope behind the taverna is a nicely tended, terraced vegetable garden and I envied the customers who, later in the year, would bite into tomatoes, aubergines and cucumbers plucked metres from their table.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (4)

Should you ever visit Lindos, make sure you walk down to this taverna.

St Paul's Bay, Lindos (6)

I don’t know its name but don’t worry you’ll find it easily enough.  Just head down to St Paul’s Bay.  The restaurant is next to the enormous dog resting her muzzle in the salt water.

Asklipio

One day, tiring of the Lindos crowds (and too chicken to rent a car and drive on Greek roads), we took a taxi to the small, inland town of Asklipeiou.  There isn’t a lot to do in Asklipeiou other than sip iced coffee; pay €1 to enter the stunning Byzantine church,  whisper our awe over the wall paintings;

Agapitos Restaurant, Rhodes

Agapitos Restaurant, Asklipio

and dawdle over a slow lunch, with maybe a cold beer.  And then maybe a second.

Asklipio castle (4)

Afterwards, we climbed a steep, dusty road (in 33º heat) to the Castle of Asklipeiou, above Asklipeiou.  (I’m repeating the name Asklipeiou simply because I suspect you have no idea how to pronounce it.  Asklipeiou.  I could have made it easier for you by providing the alternative English spelling, Asklipio, had I been so minded).

Asklipio castle (1)

The castle was deserted and, after the hubbub of Lindos, deliciously quiet save the hum of insects and my laboured, beery wheezing.  We tried to imagine the lives of the Knights of St John who built the castle in the C13th; many of whom were English.  It was hard to imagine men from Gloucestershire or Sussex living and dying in this alien, often violent landscape.  They won’t have missed mud.

Asklipio castle (2)

Greece has little money for the upkeep of her architectural treasures – nor much money for anything – but without information boards, an entrance kiosk or café, the ruin was all the more charming; if heart-stopping for any health and safety executive.  There were no no-go areas, no railings, no warnings about loose masonry or imminent death by falling.

Asklipio castle (5)

Jim took that as a challenge and clambered about the crumbly walls, precipitous falls all about, with fat cracks in the wall beneath his feet.  I watched from between my fingers.

Asklepeiou castle (3)

As we explored, bickering over reckless castle climbing and squinting at the views, I recoiled at a sudden hit of noxious smell.  After glancing suspiciously as Jim – who denied, as usual, any knowledge – I followed my nose.

Dracunculus vulgaris (3)

Dracunculus vulgaris was the culprit … and I apologised to Jim.

Dracunculus vulgaris (1)

The dragon arum is very stinky.  I had assumed, at second thought, that a goat had fallen from the castle walls, its carcass baked by the sun.

Dracunculus vulgaris (2)

And that is the best description I can give for the scent of Dracunculus vulgarisNext time you sniff something rotten in Greece, it might be road-kill or it might be this extraordinary lily.  Enjoy (but best not plant one under the kitchen window).

Bougainvillea

Anyway, what was meant to be a postcard from Lindos has grown into a multi-paged letter, with tiny writing.  I’ll finish off with some pictures of less noisome, ubiquitous plants:  Bougainvillea;

Oleander

oleander;

Lindos Rhodes (48)

and jasmine –

Jasmine

swamping the lanes of Lindos with a more delectable perfume.

Greek thistle

I fell in love with Greece absolutely as a young man and it lures me back time and time again.  But I don’t suppose I shall return to Lindos.  As special as it is to me, it is too busy, too touristy for my 2017 self.  On our next visit, Jim and I will stick to our abandoned independent travel plan and revert to adventurousness: fly out, make plans on the hoof, hop amongst the islands perhaps or journey across the mainland, eat a lot, drink some, fly back.  But that’s a trip which will, I’m afraid, result in a far, far longer postcard.

Lunchtime pint

Cheers.oooOOSave

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