Marseilles: Like an old Black and White Movie

B & W Marina
Marseilles Marina

It seemed right that Marseilles should live up to its shady reputation when our first encounter with it was the Gauloises-smoking taxi-driver who ripped us off by overcharging for the journey from station to hotel.  Asked if the taxi was metred, he gave a Gallic shrug and raised his eyebrows in amazement that we should think otherwise.  When we got to the hotel however, he announced in a mixture of languages, that ‘Zee taxi-metre ees kaput’.

We managed to laugh as we paid up, for just being in Marseilles, the oldest city in France and a melting pot of east and west was exhilarating.   Its origins go back to 600 B.C. and take in Greek and Roman occupation as well as the various kingships of France.  It was one of the most successful trading cities in the Mediterranean, its port favourable to commercial activity and despite invasions, plague and revolution, business prospered on an international scale.

Fisherman unloading Catch in Marseilles

The best place to start exploring is at the Vieux Port, guarded at its entrance by two massive fortresses.  The expensive sailing boats and yachts that crowd the marina just off the Corniche is one example of how far this once seedy Mediterranean port has come.  A few rough-looking cafés still line one side of the harbour, as though in homage to old black and white movies of the past, and the waiter with sleeked back hair who served us could have come direct from central casting.  Posher restaurants line the Place St. Saens on the other side, and throng the Quay des Belges where just after dawn, fishermen and chefs from the top restaurants planning that day’s menus, haggle over the night’s catch.

Fisherman on Quai, Marseilles

The same fish goes into the superlative boullabaise, a thick, spicy, fish stew, the gastonomic delight of France’s southern shores.  If you haven’t tried it before, or if your previous experience of this dish disappointed you, try the Marseilles version.  Fish soup it is not.

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Church of Notre Dame de la Garde

 Before embarking on a major tour of the area, take the two rides that are available on the ‘Petit Train’ which runs from the Quai des Belges in the Vieux Port.  The 50-minute ride goes up to the church of Notre Dame de la Garde, an enormous Romano-Byzantine basilica which stands on the highest point of the city, surmounted by the gilded statue of the virgin and child. The area was a look-out post until 1978 which has resulted in Garde Hill becoming an urban as well as a sacred symbol, and the spectacular views over the city prove just how effective the look-out must once have been.

Fish seller 6

The second ride circuits Vieux Marseilles via the Cathedral and the Panier quarter, wheezing and shuddering through the steep, cobbled streets of the old city.  Both rides give an excellent introduction to the architecture and the landmarks of the area, easy to locate on your free map.

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Cliffs and Sea, Marseilles

From the old port you can take a ferry to the Frioul Islands in the bay, and the 16th century Chateau d’If , immortalized by Dumas as the place where The Count of Monte Christo was imprisoned.  Chateau d’If has reinvented itself and although its history includes no written record of the imprisonment of Edmond Dantès, that doesn’t stop the locals offering trips around the dungeon where he was allegedly imprisoned.  On the other hand, there is a very visible hole in the wall which he is said to have dug.  You can also visit the cell of the Man in the Iron Mask, another non-prisoner in the Chateau.

The modern part of the city is a short ride away, a thriving, bustling place with wide open streets, supermarkets, and department stores, indistinguishable from any other modern French connurbation.   A good way to see it is to hop on the L’Historbus that makes a tour of the city every afternoon and which covers both its modern and medieval aspects, including the Abbaye Saint-Victor with its sarcophagi dating from the 3rd – 5th centuries.

.   Fish sellers 5

Marseilles is a vibrant, bustling, untidy city, full of colour and gaiety, due in no small part to the heavy ethnic mix of North Africans, Tunisians and Algerians.  The apache dancers, the matelots and the inky black bars have gone from the seafront, but Marseilles still has attitude: cynical, sharp, and witty.  That edgy feel is still there.

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Marseilles Street

Just what I remember in fact, from those the old black and white ‘B’ movies I saw years ago.

Recommended Restaurants in the Old Harbour area:  Le Fetiche, Rue St. Saens (04 91 54 00 98) and Chez Caruso, Quai de Port. (04 91 90 94 04)

French Tourist Office:   

website: http://www.franceguide.com

Madonie National Park, Sicily

Sicily has long been one of my favourite countries to visit.  Some will say it’s not a country but an Island that forms part of Italy but to me Sicily is so different in every way that it can be considered another country.  The food, the people, the extreme variety of environments and the landscape that can change within the distance of a few miles make this almost a paradigm of the Mediterranean.

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Mountain Village in Madonie National Park, Sicily (c) Mari Nicholson

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Sicilian Men in Village Square
Three Sicilian men in Village Square Photo: Mari Nicholson

With over a thousand miles of coastline, the highest volcano in Europe, woods, lakes and rivers that attract tourists from all over the world, it can easily be forgotten that Sicily is also blessed with magnificent parks, one of the loveliest being the Madonie National Park in Palermo Province which covers a large territory in the central-northern part of Sicily.  What makes it more attractive to the visitor is that this is not just a nature reserve: it is an area where people live and work, making it perfect for culturally rich travel.  It incorporates 15 towns and villages including Polizzi Generosa, the twin Petralia towns, Soprana and Sottana, Gangi, Castellana Sicula, Castelbuono, and Isnello, the latter two probably the most interesting.  Throughout the area are several monasteries, hermitages, and churches, many of them isolated and seemingly deserted.

Inside Castelbuono Church
The altar in Castelbuono Church Photo: Mari Nicholson
Hundreds of Years old Olive Tree Breaking Through the Rock
This olive tree is hundreds of years old and has pushed through a granite rock! Photo: Mari Nicholson

Many of the villages are semi-deserted due to the younger generation having abandoned agricultural life for the charms (and better earnings) of the city and resorts along the coast – and who can blame them?   The back-breaking toil of bringing in the olives for pressing, tending the vines and the citrus trees, and shepherding sheep and cattle in the searing heat of summer does not bring in a lot of money.

Steep Narrow Street in Mountain Village
Steep Narrow Streets in Villages Photo: Mari Nicholson

In parts of the Madonie however, there is a movement to re-open some long-closed houses, as former inhabitants return home with savings that enable them to upgrade these dwellings and use them as vacation homes.

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Semi-Deserted village in Madonie. Photo: Mari Nicholson
Wild mushrooms
Wild Mushrooms awaiting a buyer. Photo: Mari Nicholson

The Park is rich in flora and fauna with the northern slopes covered with thick woods and centuries old olive groves, cork, chestnut, ash and oak woods.  The sunny southern side is characterised by hilly slopes cultivated with wheat and barley and although the park only covers 2% of the island’s surface, more than half of the Sicilian vegetable species can be found here.

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Wild Figs Growing by the Roadside Delicious! Photo: Mari Nicholson
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Wild Mushrooms awaiting Chef’s attention at a Mountain Restaurant. Photo: Mari Nicholson
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Photo: Mari Nicholson

The Sicilian countryside is full of wild edible plants that are still used in local cooking and the Madonie is rich in vegetables like wild asparagus, funghi of every imaginable shape and colour, wild figs, wild chard, wild mustard, edible thistles, wild onions and wild garlic, and herbs such as fennel, borage, mint, thyme, rosemary and oregano.

As regards fauna, Madonie houses about 70% of the nesting birds and about 60% of the invertebrates of the island, among them several endemic, rare and protected species.  The Park is a paradise for bird watchers and for those who like to see mammals living free in their native habitat.  Among the animals likely to be encountered are wild boar, fallow deer, Italian hare, European hedgehog, and red fox.  And everywhere you will see butterflies of every colour and hue.

Provola delle Madonie
Madonie Provola Cheese

Specialities of the mountains which I can recommend are the Madonie Sfogio, Manna, and a delicious cheese called Madonie Provola, a characteristic pulled-curd cheese made with cow’s milk.  This is still produced in the traditional way when small ‘pears’ of cheese are made towards the end of the process, straw yellow in colour and with a thin rind, which are then tied up in pairs and hung astride a pole.

Mountain Honey for sale
Mountain Honey for Sale. Photo: Mari Nicholson
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View from the Church at Castelbuono. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Madonie Sfogio is characteristic of the Park, a pastry dessert which has been made for over 400 years and nowadays mainly produced in Polizzi Generoa, Petralia Sottana and Castellana Sicula.  A short pastry case filled with mountain cheese, candied pumpkin, egg whites, chocolate, sugar, and cinnamon, it is baked and served cold.   It can sometimes be found in other villages, often with a pistachio filling (another product of the mountains).

High in the Mountains Looking Down on the Sea
From the Mountains to the Sea. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Manna is described as the Gold of Sicily despite the difficulty of harvesting it.  It is made from the sap of specific varieties of ash trees, extracted by making incisions on the bark of the tree – rather like rubber tapping – causing a whitish resin to flow out which crystallises and creates stalactite forms which are then dried before being sold.  In the past, families used to move to the country for the summer harvesting of the manna: men incised the trees and the women and children collected the manna, but nowadays the manna is only harvested in the territories of Castelbuono and Pollina.  A few young men still follow the traditional way of doing things but as few of them have the knowledge to determine when exactly to make the first incision, it is mostly left to the older generation to harvest the sap.

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Jasmine and Geraniums most Popular Flowers in the mountains. Photo: Mari Nicholson
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Huge Granite Rocks lend Grandeur to the Scenery. Photo: Mari Nicholson

Manna has medicinal properties as well and items made from the sap are sold in many of the villages.  It is an intestinal regulator, a digestive, a light laxative, it soothes a cough, it decongests the liver and it is rich in mineral salts.  Nowadays it is used in pastry making and in cosmetics (soaps, creams etc.) and although its taste is sweet it can be used by diabetics as it doesn’t modify glycaemia.

Roads lead over the Mountains to other villages
Roads lead over the Mountains to other villages. Photo: Mari Nicholson
Village in the Madonie National Park
The Villages seem to Blend into the Mountains. Photo: Mari Nicholson

A visit to part of The Madonie can be made in a day if time is short, or there are some excellent hotels and hostels in the Park and the tourist board can advise on holidays for walkers, riders, bird-watchers, photographers – even cookery holidays.   It is a very pleasant drive, easily accessible from Palermo or Cefalù – but take it slowly as there are some very dangerous bends through the mountains – or it is possible, and not too expensive, to hire a car and driver for the day, leaving you free to stop when the mood takes you, to photograph the landscape and the people, and to relax and drink in the beauty of the park.

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Madonie National Park in its Grandeur. Photo: Mari Nicholson

When to go?  Well, spring sees spectacular spreads of wildflowers carpeting the mountain slopes while summer offers cool temperatures and an escape from the crowded coasts and cities down below.  Autumn brings rich colours from the forest foliage, wild figs to pick along the road, and a bewildering array of wild mushroom dishes in every restaurant, and in winter the ski slopes are brisk with downhill action.