Marseille Revisited

We had not returned to my second favorite French city (Paris #1) since moving to the Mediterranean coast three years ago. When we lived north in the Luberon, we made frequent jaunts to France’s second city, just about 1 ½ hours away from our home in Reillanne. Many medical specialists have their offices in Marseille. We always took time to enjoy more than doctor visits.

The Bonne Mere, a statue atop Notre Dame de la Garde, watches over Marseille’s 1,613,797 citizens. The Vieux Port (old port) is in the foreground.

Reason for this visit was an appointment – not with a doctor – but at the American Consulate to have a Power of Attorney notarized. Not our lucky day. We arrived at the appointed hour only to be told all appointments for that day had been canceled. We were to have been notified. We were not. I was fuming, furious. Marseille is three hours away from our new home. It would be a chore to come back.

Monument along the Corniche Kennedy.

We sought solace at a nearby cafe. I calmed down and realized we needed to move on and take advantage of this visit.

Marseille is not chic and glamorous. It’s tough and brawny. It’s not the den of iniquity many imagine, but it’s not a paradise of peace and tranquility. Drug wars have been a major concern recently. So have decaying schools, hospitals and public housing. French President Emmanuel Macron recently announced a multi-billion euro plan to tackle the ills of France’s second city. “We need to build the Marseille of 2030,” he said.

Bob under Norman Foster’s Ombriere, a giant mirror hanging over a terrace at the Vieux Port.

Despite the city’s serious woes, visitors like us can enjoy its charms and vibrancy. France’s oldest city was founded by the Greeks in 600 BC. Romans took over in the first century. Italians settled in the city in the 1930s. The city was the gritty port for France’s colonies (Tunis, Morocco, Algeria).

Parts of Marseille, such as the Noailles neighborhood, seem more foreign than French.

Immigrants from the Caribbean, Lebanon, Turkey and other lands have joined Africans in making Marseille their home today. The melting pot atmosphere with exotic tastes, flavors and colors is captivating. “It’s exactly the kind of place I like,” said the late Anthony Bourdain, celebrity chef and author whose travel documentaries were ingenious.

Inside Maison Empereur.

It’s my kind of town, too. This time we set off to discover places new to us. My brother, also a fan of Marseille, recommended we visit Maison Empereur. Founded in 1827, this ancient, funky store is the oldest hardware store in France and like no other. Room after room, upstairs and down, is filled with all kinds of gadgets, tools, bric a brac. Copper pots of all sizes, baskets, cleaning supplies, antique toys, even some clothing items and cosmetics. It is mind-boggling. I bought some Marseille soap. The city is famous for its soap which it has been making for 600 years. I passed on the soap made from snail mucous, as well as the corn stripper…The range of kitchen paraphernalia is intriguing.

What every household needs.

Across the street is Pere Blaize, a Herbortisterie which is even older, dating to 1815. If you are into natural medicines, this is the place. Tell them the prescription drug you are taking and why. They will come up with a plant-based substitute. I bought something for reflux. Unfortunately, it did not offer the miracle cure I hoped for.

For herbal medicine, Pere Blaize is the place.

We wandered through the Noailles neighborhood, a bustling, colorful area that seems more foreign than French. Shops sell ceramics, baskets, vibrant African fabrics. Merchants hawk washing machines at houseware stores. Food stalls sell kebabs and flatbread. We had a delicious, copious and cheap lunch at a Turkish “hole-in-the-wall” kind of eatery: Tender chunks of lamb and veggies.

The “boys”gather in Noailles.

For dinner, we revisited the popular Chez Jeannot restaurant in the Vallon des Auffes, a mini harbor jammed with small boats, two restaurants and a young, jovial crowd crammed at tiny outdoor tables during apero hour – all very special and very Marseille. Chez Jeannot is noted for pizza, fish and calamari (the best). That was the reason for our return.

Vallon des Auffes

Since lockdowns have ended and virus cases are down, tourists have returned to Marseille, we learned, but not yet in the numbers hoped for. Cruise ships are once again docking at the city, but passengers are bussed to Nice for the day. Pity. 

Checking the passe sanitaire, proof of vaccination.

Years ago we met Jeanne Feutren and her mother at La Boite a Sardine, a lively, legendary Marseille restaurant. “I love Marseille. It’s so cosmopolitan,” Jeanne said. Both Jeanne and her mother were born in Marseille and are die-hard fans of their hometown. “You can meet the whole world here. We have the sea, the sand, hills, the calanques (coastal cliffs). People are so exuberant.” Her mother chimed in. “It’s a wonderful town.” I second that.

In 2013 Marseille was a European Capital of Culture. It was spiffed up with lots of polishing, scrubbing and renovating, plus a refurbished waterfront and stunning new architectural attractions. I wrote an article for two newspapers at the time and a blog post. To learn more about Marseille and all of its attractions, do a search, upper right, on “Marseille”and read my previous post.

Bob enjoys the the treats at Chez Jeannot.

Next week, at long last, we hope to return to our old stomping grounds and visit friends in the Luberon. This trip has been postponed too many times due to Covid. Look for a post on our adventures. And, one of these days I’ll write about my travels last summer to Lake Como and onto Croatia. Both super.

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On to Venice and Padua

I had visions of an empty Venice, like those I had seen during the lockdown. Deserted alleys and waterways. No gondolas on the canals. No lines to enter attractions, such as San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica). A dolphin or two frolicking in the Grand Canal.

That was then. Fast forward to early July when I visited. Even though travel restrictions were in place, tourists had returned to Venice. Long, long lines to climb the campanile (bell tower) of the Basilica. Gondolas aplenty gliding through the canals. Happy crowds feeding pigeons on the Piazza San Marco.

And, it was hot, much too hot. But, I adore Venice. I was spending a week at Abano Terme, about an hour from the city. (See previous post, “Taking the waters – and the mud”) I could not pass up a visit, especially after a conversation with a staff member at the spa. 

“I love Venice,” she said. “You must visit.” She planned an all-day itinerary for me. “Don’t schedule any treatments on the day you visit Venice. You will need all your energy for Venice.”

More energy than I had. I followed her recommendations, took the train to Venice, then hired a water taxi to take me to the Piazza San Marco, under the Rialto Bridge, past magnificent centuries-old palaces. There was no shortage of boats of all sizes on the Grand Canal. No dolphins in sight. 

Campanile (bell tower) of the San Marco Basilica

I was surprised and disappointed to see the lines, both to enter San Marco and climb the campanile. I decided against both, instead opted for a very expensive cappuccino (11 euro) at one of the many cafes lining the piazza. The pricey cafes had few customers. However, the legendary San Marco pigeons happily soared above, then landed and soaked up attention from tourists who were happy to fed them and pose for photos.

Even though the waiter at the cafe complained of little business, restaurants I passed during my wanderings were not lacking for customers. Gondolas seemed to be in high demand, yet a young gondolier also complained. “It’s very quiet. There are not a lot of people. Normally in July and August, it’s crazy. You can’t walk around here.”

Perhaps I was lucky after all. I could walk without being pushed by throngs. I found a quiet restaurant adjacent to a canal and enjoyed a fascinating lunch. A government building stood on the opposite side of the canal. A police boat arrived. Two scuba divers jumped off and quickly disappeared under water. Looking for underwater explosives? It was intriguing. I also wondered about the wisdom of being immersed in this water which I assumed was dreadfully polluted. Then I noticed fish. I mentioned this to the restaurant proprietor. He threw some bread in the water. More fish appeared. The dolphins have not returned, but, at least for now, fish are thriving.

Police diver on a secret mission?

Thanks to a recent ruling by the Italian government to ban cruise ships from approaching Venice’s lagoon, things could be looking up for those fish, not to mention the foundations of the city.

Cruise ship opponents argue that the massive ships which can transport more than 5,000 passengers each are responsible for waves and pollution that damage the delicate fabric of the city. Work is underway to construct a cruise terminal outside the lagoon. 

The Wall Street Journal quoted Gianluigi Rizo, a porter at the Piazza San Marco, who summed up the sentiments of those whose business depends on tourists. “It’s good that tourists are back, but the real money comes from the cruise ships with the Americans and the well-off Asians. They spend big in a short time, before sailing out.”

View of Venice from the Terrazza Panoramica, a new observation deck a top a multi level. upmarket shopping gallery.

Even with the tourists and the heat, I was happy to return to Venice. I love to meander, discovering intriguing alleys and passageways, off the beaten tourist track, usually getting lost. However, since I had a train to catch this time, I dared not be too adventurous. 

The trek to the station was longer than anticipated. I panicked, walking faster and faster so as not to miss my train. I made it, exhausted and perspiration drenched.

That excursion should have been enough. Perhaps best to stay and relax at the spa.? No, I needed to see Padua, again urged on by my mentor. She raved about the city’s star attractions, the Scrovegni Chapel with frescoes by Giotto and the Basilica of St. Anthony.

Scrovegni chapel with Giotto frescoes.

Giotto, an Italian painter of the late Middle Ages, and his team covered the walls of the entire chapel with frescoes illustrating the life of the Virgin and life of Christ. Their work, completed in 1305, is considered a masterpiece of the early Renaissance. It is mind boggling.

St. Anthony’s Basilica with Byzantine-style domes and art treasures was a must for me. St. Anthony played a role in my Catholic upbringing. My mother was a fan of the saint, the patron of lost items. Whenever she or we lost something, “Pray to Saint Anthony,” she urged. Often he came through. 

St. Anthony’s tomb.

The church shelters the saint’s grandiose tomb. Worshippers place hands on the tomb and pray. St. Anthony holy cards are available for free. I gave a donation, took a few, and mailed one of each of my three brothers.

Praying at St. Anthony’s tomb.

I passed up relaxing days and therapeutic treatments at the spa for Venice and Padua. I have no regrets.

Statue of St. Anthony.

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Another monumental church in Padua: Basilica of Saint Giustina

We recently returned to Marseille, one of my favorites. It merits a blog post. And, soon I will off for Adventure Croatia with friend Karen.

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Giotto’s Last Judgment fresco.

Taking the waters – and the mud

Volcanic mud is the attraction at Abano.

Hot! It was sweltering. The pool waters were warm. Taking a walk left me drained, clothes and hair glued to my body. Even lounging in the shade was unpleasant.

I blew it. Yes, I needed a week of R and R. Life as an Alzheimer’s caregiver is stressful. But a thermal spa is not the place to go in July when temperatures soar.

Unfortunately I had no choice on the timing. I wanted to take advantage of the July visit from Bob’s son and two grandsons who could take over care of grandpa. I should have opted for a cool mountain resort. Instead, I chose to spend a week at Abano Terme, a spa town in northeastern Italy recommended by friends. I have never been that enamored of spas, but I figured it would be good for my decaying body and uplifting for the spirit.

Not all was negative. Just being in Italy, where joie de vivre is in the air, is therapeutic for me. I enjoyed speaking my broken Italian, chatting with the super friendly spa staff, and learning what a terme is all about.

Soaking in thermal waters supposedly does wonders for the body.

The entire town and numerous hotels are all geared to take advantage of thermal waters and volcanic mud from the surrounding Euganean hills. Hotels offer packages which include room and board and treatments. 

Fango, or pure mineral-rich volcanic ash, forms the basis of the mud which is said to have anti-inflammatory properties. It is recommended for  strained joints and muscles, arthritis, rheumatism, as well as the stress of everyday life.

First step: Visit to the hotel/spa doctor. Before undergoing the mud treatments, a doctor must give the OK. He was a jolly chap who spoke four languages. After examining me and studying my MRI and X-rays, he asked questions. “Do you do Yoga?” No. “Are you a vegetarian?” No. “Thank God.” 

He said I was fit for mud, and advised I eat more protein, take vitamin D, drink more water and build muscle mass. He failed to provide details on the latter. Weight lifting?

He wrote a prescription for the type of treatments that would help my arthritic body. Next came a visit to Zoia, the charming and effervescent spa manager. She checked my package plan and the doctor’s rec’s, then devised a schedule for me which included gentle massages, mud, a fruit peeling facial.

Mud relaxation

I was a bit leery of the mud. I feared it would be more intense heat. Fortunately it was pleasantly warm, but I found the odor anything but pleasant. Carmela slathered a huge slab of mud on a bed which I then lain on. She smeared mud on my arms and legs, then wrapped me in plastic and covered me with a sheet. I was a mummy for 15 long minutes. The first time was annoying. I had an itch on my nose which was driving me crazy. My arms and hands were cemented to my body. For future sessions, I requested my hands be kept free to scratch if needed. 

About half way through the treatment, Carmela returned, delicately wiped my face with a cool scented cloth. After the allotted time, she returned again to unwrap me. I stepped into a shower and she hosed me down, washing away all the stinky mud. This was followed by a 10-minute soak in a tub of warm bubbling thermal water scented with therapeutic oil. I liked it all.

Aqua gym was intense

Water – thermal water – is also an essential part of the Abano experience. My hotel had five different outdoor pools, plus a large indoor pool. The most popular pool had all sorts of water jets and bubbling fountains. Since this is thermal water, it was warm – too warm for me. I preferred the lap pool, cooler water, not thermal, thus no healing benefit. 

Few swimmers in the lap pool.

Again I blew it. To get full advantage of the mud I should have spent leisurely days soaking in the waters. Not me. I spent a day trekking, wilting, through nearby Venice, another day slogging through Padua, and a half day hiking to and shopping at the market in Abano. None were relaxing. All were exhausting. But, I did see the sights and added some bargain Italian fashion to my wardrobe. More about those escapades in an upcoming post.

In between my sightseeing, in addition to the mud treatments, I enjoyed “gentle” massages from Joanna, another delightful staff member. We chatted as she massaged. “Only speak Italian while your are here,”she advised.

Hotel provides bathrobes, white to wear to the pools and blue for the treatment area..

According to Zoia, Abano is especially popular with Germans and Austrians, many who come two to three times per year. Italians are among the clientele, however, they “don’t spend so much on the treatments. They come for relaxation, the pools.” The British? “It’s not in their culture,”she said. 

My hotel, the Metropole, was less than half full during my stay – not due to Covid, but the heat. This was not spa season, but “the cheapest time.” Fall and spring are the ideal times for the terme, she said. Russians love it during the holidays, staying at the five-star hotels. The Metropole rates four stars. There are Americans who patronize Abano, but, like the Russians, they go for five stars. 

Classy dining at the Metropole.

My friend, Angi, British, is an exception to Zoia’s take on the Brits. Angi swears by volcanic mud, but that on the island of Ischia, just off the coast from Naples, where she spends two weeks every fall. She claims it does wonders for her aches and pains. Abano did nothing for mine, but I have myself to blame. Maybe I should try Ischia sometime, take both the water and the mud – minus sightseeing and shopping.

Red berry smoothie for a healthy terme treat.
Desserts were not for those on a diet. Masks are required indoors in Italy – strictly enforced at the hotel.

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Coming soon: Venice and Padua.

My Turf in Photos

It has been too long since my last post. The lockdown prevented exciting excursions to new places which I like to discover and write about. But, all is looking much brighter. Restaurant dining is back – outdoors and indoors at 50% capacity. All stores, cinemas, gyms etc. are back in operation. Our curfew has been bumped up to 11 pm. It will vanish on June 30.

During many months of “confinement,” we were only permitted to explore and wander within 10 kilometers of our residence. We did. I took photos. Recently we were given liberty to travel within France, as well as nearby Italy with our vaccination certificate. And, soon we will be able to travel within the European Union. Eureka!

Basilica of Saint Michael Archangel in Menton

Following are random photos, mostly of our surroundings. The beauty around helped ease the pain of the lockdown.

Le Jardin Exotique (exotic garden) in Eze.

Market in Bordighera, Italy –our first visit to Italy after lockdown lifted.

More Eze Jardin Exotique, above and below.

First meal post lockdown in Italy: fabulous tuna

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A wee bit of travel on the horizon: a week at a spa (terme) in Abano, Italy. This promises an interesting tale for sure. Don’t miss it. If not a Tales and Travel follower, sign up. Your address is kept private –not shared

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France: Virus Update

The Mediterranean

“The computer does not know we have no more vaccine.”

Huh? This was the response I received when I showed up for my vaccination appointment last week. I received not one, but two emails reminding me of the appointment. Granted, several days prior I received a phone call advising me that my appointment had been canceled because they ran out of vaccine. Since I later received the emails, I wrongly assumed that a new vaccine shipment had arrived. 

That response was baffling. They could not delete those emails? Send ones notifying of cancelation?

Menton on a wintry day

I am no longer enamored of France, at least not on vaccine roll outs. It’s a mess. Prior to my fiasco, Bob’s appointment was canceled by phone, but he received no emails. Since I received the two emails, I figured all was back on track. No way. What lies ahead? Who knows? France, at least in our area, has no more vaccine. Apparently the shortages are prevalent throughout the EU which screwed up on ordering. France, however, lags behind other European countries.

It is aggravating, especially since I have good news from family and friends in the US and the UK – most have been vaccinated. 

BREAKING NEWS: We got lucky and received the first vaccination a few days ago. My apologies to France. It is tough everywhere.

So, we wait. Life goes on with fear of the dreaded virus. France is not under lockdown, although a 6 p.m. curfew has been enforced for weeks. If the UK variant now circulating in the country surges out of control, another lockdown, number three, is likely.

Restaurants and bars, as well as theaters, have been closed since the end of October – with no opening in sight. It’s been a good year for snow in the Alps, but French ski resorts remain closed. 

Seaside socializing and eating

Masks are de rigueur. Social distancing – yes and no. It was impossible on a recent sunny Sunday in nearby Menton. Crowds of happy folk enjoyed good food and socializing seaside. It seemed like a celebration. “It’s wonderful to see all these people. It’s like being let out of prison,” remarked a friend. 

Noses and mouths were covered with masks when not eating – but eating is what this is all about.

Restos sur le pouce” (restaurants on the go) is sponsored by the city of Menton which offers restaurants the opportunity to serve take-out food at stands set up along the shore. The stands are Christmas market type chalets. Participating restaurants, fifteen serving a variety of cuisines, pay a small fee to use the chalets. Proceeds benefit restaurants in the nearby Roya Valley which were devastated by Storm Alex, an extratropical cyclone, last October. Extensive flooding destroyed homes and swept away roads, leaving at least 12 dead.

It was a festive ambience that sunny Sunday, especially relished since nothing like it had happened in too many months. We met our friend Thomas and sat along a wall adjacent to the Mediterranean savoring our food, sun and camaraderie. We all had tasty Indian specials.

Restos sur le pouce is scheduled to continue throughout February. If real restaurants are still closed, we hope it will be extended.

Although we have not had much sun recently, it is not that cold. Daytime temperatures are usually in the mid teens (Celsius), mid 50s (Fahrenheit). Bob and I have been back to the delightful Restos many times during the week. No crowds, but delicious food. We have tried oysters on the half shell, moules frites, galettes, burgers, eggplant parmigiana. We will return. There are more goodies to try: Russian, Moroccan, Armenian. Last time Bob befriended a hungry seagull. The bird was a master at catching french fries in mid air.

Bob and Thomas

Impeachment: The house managers were outstanding. I was so impressed with, and proud of, their diligent work and masterful presentations. They proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump incited the insurrection and did nothing to stop it. Even House minority leader Mitch McConnell agreed, ending the trial with a powerful condemnation of the former president in a politically calculated speech. Sadly only seven Republicans showed courage. It’s all about politics. Trump still controls the GOP. Forty-three senators fear his wrath, losing their jobs – to them more important than the country. It’s disgraceful, tragic. What does this say to the rest of the world about the United States, long considered the beacon of democracy? How can the majority of Republican leaders continue to support this corrupt and immoral leader who tried to stamp out democracy?

January 6 was a black day for the nation. This cannot be America. This cannot happen again.

Bagan, Myanmar

Myanmar: Bob and I visited this fascinating country in 2014.  After almost 50 years under a repressive and abusive military regime, it was at last on the path to democracy. In 2015 Aung San Suu Kyi was elected, sharing power as state councilor (prime minister) with the military. Sadly she failed to stand up to their brutal treatment of the country’s Muslim minority, the Rohingya, which has been labeled genocide. Although she won a decisive victory in the November 2020 election, just weeks ago the military staged a coup.  She is under house arrest. Massive pro democracy demonstrations are underway throughout the country, but the military is cracking down even harder. It is tragic and very sad. I think about all the kind and loving people we met, people who were working hard to make a life in the country’s budding tourist industry.  Can they overcome? 

For details of our experiences in Myanmar, do a search on “Myanmar” column upper right.

Following are some random photos taken on walks in the area and from our balcony.

In early January, snow covered the tops of the Maritime Alps seen from our balcony.
Massive cliffs above Menton on the border with Italy,
Belated Valentines greetings. Bob is recovering from an injured shoulder, hence the sling.

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