France – Marseille and Aix-en-Provence

MSC SplendidaLet me cast your minds back to December, gentle reader, and tell you about a short sneaky Mediterranean cruise that Mrs Chrisparkle and I took shortly before Christmas. We weren’t alone; accompanying us were the Lady Duncansby, our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra, plus their male parent D and female parent M. We flew from London Heathrow to Nice on an early morning British Airways flight, where we were met by “representatives”, who smuggled us out of France and into Italy on the autostrada towards Destination Genoa. From there it was an easy boarding onto the MSC Splendida for a week in the pre-Christmas sunshine.

Swarovski StaircaseA few words about the Splendida. She certainly lives up to her name, being the most beautiful ship I have ever experienced. Elegantly and colourfully furnished, with a stunning central atrium and four (at least) staircases fashioned courtesy of Swarovski. Any minute you expect the Princess Crystal to leave behind a slipper at the top of one of them – especially at Christmas time. During our week on board, the place got progressively more Christmassy. A few decorations at first; but by the end it was chock full of fairy-light trees, tinsel and glitter. We had a balcony cabin which was larger than we expected and as comfortable as we expected; the food and service was excellent; the drinks and tours reasonably priced; the shows were relatively poor by MSC standards; and they made a helluva noise collecting and sorting the luggage on the final night as we were trying to get to sleep, which resulted in the normally docile Mrs C bellowing in her jimjams at bemused-looking crew members. She’s not proud of it, but to be fair she was driven to distraction.

MarseilleAnyway, our first port of call was Marseille. We’d actually cruised this identical itinerary once before in 2004 on the MSC Sinfonia. That time, Marseille was cold and wet and looked drab and miserable. This time, however, the sun was shining and the city wore an altogether glossier coat. I think someone has been around with some cash in the intervening years and definitely given Marseille a makeover. Shortly after breakfast we boarded our coach and drove along the waters edge from the port into the city centre. The marina was looking stunning, and all the shops and cafes were just beginning to wake up as we followed the road round the little harbour, past the archway with its view towards the Count of Monte Cristo’s Chateau d’If, and steeply upwards to visit Notre Dame de la Garde.

Notre Dame de la GardeThis beautiful church stands high on a hill above the city and thus offers enviable views all around, if that’s not too much like an estate agent. There’s been a religious building of some sort there since the 13th century, but this particular building was consecrated in 1864. The gilded figure of Virgin and Child atop the tower cuts a very smart figure as it gleams in the sun. Inside, it is richly decorated in a Moorish style that reminds you of the Mosque/Cathedral in Cordoba. Its maritime associations are represented by hanging models of ships – quite an amusing touch – and oil paintings of ships and boats line the walls. It also has the most difficult to find public toilets in Europe. Allow yourself at least an extra twenty minutes to track them down. You won’t be surprised to find that they are deserted.

Aix-en-Provence Christmas Market We weren’t in port for very long, so the tour we chose to do just gave you a feel of the area without any great depth; so after visiting the church it was back on the road to Aix-en-Provence. Not the Aix where they brought the good news from Ghent – that would have been a very long gallop. This Aix is a charming market town with a very relaxed feel and gently attractive French architecture; it’s the kind of place you’d want to find a quite corner and flump down with a book for a few hours. We walked along the Cours Mirabeau, a wide boulevard that you would swear would lead to a stately chateau at the end – it doesn’t, it’s just a T-junction. One side of the road was given over to a Christmas market and it was full of stylish and luxurious items – enticing looking food and drink, elegant crafts, beautiful glassware; honestly, you couldn’t be further from Milton Keynes market. Male Parent D found a café with a French girl’s name on the awning (presumably la propriétaire), but which appears amusingly rude in English, and so took a photograph of it. It’s amazing how travel broadens the mind.

Fruit and Vegetable stallsWe turned left at the T-junction and wandered round into the old town. There we discovered a very atmospheric and typically French market, selling all the usual fruit and veg, fish and meat, fromage et charcuterie. It was charming. Further on up, towards another square, there was a milling-round of expectant looking people and a few locals with flags, all dressed like what I would imagine 16th century Ruritanian soldiers would look like. Mrs C ran ahead to see what all the fuss was about. Really, the soldier-dressing-up routine should have given her a clue. BANG! went a dozen exploding muskets, and the surprise shot her at least two feet off the ground; much to the amusement of the rest of her family, who looked on in smug non-participation. It must have been some re-enactment of some historical event; but what exactly, we did not find out. Probably the ancient practice of frightening the life out of 16th century shoppers.

Ruritanian soldiersWe didn’t have time for a long stroll – one hour was all the meanie guide would allow us, so we headed back to the Cours Mirabeau where our coach awaited. Gasping for some water, Lady Duncansby and I diverted into a quaint looking little shop that sold all sorts of groceries, where we smiled pleasantly to the staff and locals, who ignored us completely. We located the water, and queued up at the till. Our appearance seemed to ensure the slowest possible service to the people in front of us, but nevertheless we waited patiently and said or did nothing. When we eventually got to the till, we were treated to the most antagonistic hostility that I have experienced in a foreign country for some time; a combination of rude resentment and silent animosity. So, if you find that little grocers’ shop on the right hand side of the market square walking back towards Cours Mirabeau, do me a favour and don’t give them your money. Thanks. Sad that should be our parting memory of France!