Tuesday, 9 August 2016

France - Valerie Adams And L'Open Tour Marseille

Plodding along whether you are here or not then, let me explain a bit more about Marseille. The Raddison is immediately opposite the impressive marina. On our side of the road are a row of bars and restaurants while on the other you will find an equally endless supply of boats, the bluest water on Planet Blue, and a London Eye style wheel which looks a little something like this;

I wouldn't go on it. Unlike in London, the pods are not enclosed. I wouldn't say I have a problem with heights but I don't like being up there without the comforting presence of windows and a roof. It didn't look all that accessible anyway on further inspection, but I wasn't ever going to give it a try. What if it stopped at the top? That's fine if you have windows but otherwise I'd cover the marina on vomit. I'd probably lose my shoes up there too. My shoes always fall off regardless of what size I buy. It's just a fact of life that I have come to accept.

One of the first bars you hit as you walk along the street opposite the marina is a place called The Queen Victoria. It's clearly trying to style itself as an English style pub but it's name is just about the most English thing about it. That's not necessarily a bad thing. One of the most head scrambling things you see on holiday in Europe is people gathered in English-style bars watching bloody Eastenders or Emmerdale. Holidaying in Spain or France doesn't represent a massive cultural shift but bloody hell show some willing and give the soaps a miss, would you? If I can give up my half hour of Only Connect with Victoria Coren-Mitchell you can knock the soaps on the head for a week or two.

The prices at the Queen Vic (get outta mah pab!) are certainly not English. Everything is expensive in the South of France, not least here where 250ml of lager (less than half a pint) will set you back €4. That's around £3.35 which is, well, let's not dress it up, pretty horrifying. They do a special house brew which they call 'beer of the month' (or whatever that is in French) which they serve only in 500ml measures (still less than a pint) and for which they charge €5 (£4.20). A pint of anything that you would recognise as lager costs €7.80 (£6.55). This all makes my bleating about paying £5.30 in a London pub in June look a little petty to be honest. Food is equally expensive. On the first night we eat at a restaurant just down the road from the Queen Victoria. I choose duck, mostly in the absence of chicken, and it costs €23 (£19). Emma says it looks like a liver, but fortunately she tells me this some time after I have finished eating it. Had she said so at the time I might not have eaten too much of it because I absolutely detest liver. Which is apt because my liver fucking hates me too.

Still, the Queen Victoria is not without its plus points. It has a disabled toilet, which for access fascists is an absolute must. It also has free Wi-Fi, meaning you can post numerous holiday meanderings and pictures of yourself and whatever concoction you are consuming at any given moment at the touch of a couple of buttons. Even I know how to do it, which when you consider the trouble I had inserting that picture of the wheel into this article tells you something about how easy it is. I know you come on holiday to get away from the daily drudgery and the berserk microscope that is social media, but human nature has decreed that you'll still want to be nosey about what people at home are doing, and you might also want to keep them updated now and again about your movements given the uneasy feelings around security in France that are currently very prominent. All of which is, admittedly, the moral equivalent of going to Spain to watch Eastenders and Emmerdale.

Outside the bar an argument breaks out between two people walking along the street. One is a girl reminiscent of veteran New Zealander and double Olympic shot putt champion Valerie Adams. She's shouting in French at a much smaller young man and as he heads for the relative safety of the inside of the bar she makes a grab for him. Within seconds the fight is broken up by four men dressed in full military gear, including berets, who carry huge guns around with them. They patrol the streets in groups of four, presumably in a bid to dissuade any members of ISIS/people with mental health problems/delete as appropriate from engaging in any heinous violent crime. It's overkill for this particular minor scuffle, although I am nearly knocked into Emma as it gets a little bit physical, but it is amazing how quickly fights like this are broken up by soldiers carrying deadly weapons than they are by bobbies carrying truncheons and asking people to please calm down. In all likelihood arming our police would likely escalate gun crime and cause all manner of problems, but it would certainly give the Crockie Crew something to think about. In the end, Valerie stomps away still muttering to herself and anyone who will listen, and I learn that the word 'homosexual' spoken in a French accent with the required level of aggression is a gay slur.

We don't drink too much at the bars along that row because we are up early the next morning to do a bit more exploring. We visit the Tourist Information Centre which has a lift which doesn't work, leaving Emma to go in alone to find out what there is to do around here. The lift broke yesterday, they tell Emma. Why wouldn't the lift break 24 hours before my arrival? That's exactly the sort of thing that happens. We have breakfast at a café over the road and I am hugely underwhelmed by what I am told is an English breakfast. It's about as English as the Queen Victoria. There are scrambled eggs involved but the bacon has been practically grated and instead of beans and sausage there is salad. You will go an awful long way in England to find an English breakfast that is served with salad. Emma has more luck with her continental offering, which includes a piece of cake and numerous European bread products and fruit. Over breakfast we decide to take the bus tour around the city today, visit Chateau D'If by boat tomorrow and take a day trip to Toulon on Thursday.

The tour bus - or L'Open Tour Marseille - leaves from just over the other side of the marina from the hotel. That is just a short walk away from the café where we have breakfast and, in a rare moment of convenience, the lady selling the tickets speaks pretty good English. The first bus that arrives is chock full and the driver isn't keen to let any more people on, so we are asked to wait for the next one which will arrive in 15 minutes. Well, we're not going anywhere else. We stay on the bus for a short while listening to the commentary, which refreshingly works through the headphones system and which even more refreshingly is in English provided you have the intellectual capacity to tune in to the correct channel. I can just about manage that so I'm learning all about Marseille's rich seafaring history when we reach the stop at Notre Dame de la Garde where Emma suggests we get off for a couple of photos and a closer look. We had seen this catholic basilica from outside one of the café bars the previous evening. It sits on the top of the hill which sprouts up from behind the marina, something like this;

The image is a little far away for you to get a proper look but you can see it better on my Facebook page. Still I wish we had been able to get a better shot after getting off the bus. Unfortunately the stop was in the middle of one of the steepest hills I have ever been on. We would have seen the basilica much more clearly the top of the road which could not have been more than about 100 metres away, but we don't get more than 20 metres up this ridiculous mountain before I decide it is not going to be possible and tank it. Even if we had been able to get to the top of the road, coming back down again to get back to the bus stop would have been life threatening. People assume going down hills in a wheelchair is easy, but these are people who have never tried to stop themselves travelling down absurd gradients at any kind of speed. The brakes on my chair are a token effort and totally unsuited to the job, which leaves only my hands to stop the momentum. And with that you get burn, blisters and balance problems.

The next bus takes around 30 minutes to get back to the stop, so we just sit for a while and rest in the sweltering heat. There's more bad luck on buses when we get back on board because the next one has a broken audio system, leaving us to complete the second half of the tour with no commentary. It all looks very pretty but there is no context for us as we drive past Vieux Port, Le Panier and Musee Cantini among Marseille's many other places of interest.

When we get back to the marina we carry on wandering around, eyeing up restaurants and bars and looking for anything that might be more reasonably priced. There are happy hours, generally between around 5.00pm and 9.00pm when you can get things a little cheaper or even half price. This is useful to know and explains why, when we emerge later that evening at around 6.00-7.00pm, most of the bars along the row are extremely busy for a Tuesday. Before that we stop at a shop where I buy a postcard to send to my work colleagues, complete with cheap jibe about Liverpool and scousers, and Emma buys an anniversary card for her brother and his wife. It takes a while to buy the stamps and figure out how to send these items, again down to our hysterical lack of command of the French language, but we get there in the end. It's nine days before the wedding anniversary and 13 days before I am back in work. All of which should be more than enough time for the posted items to arrive in England before we do.

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