by vpundir | September 17th, 2007

One of my friends from America is visiting home for a couple of weeks, and insists that I must visit her there. And she manages to break me down with impeccable logic – I’m told variously that it’s not like I have anything better to do, it’ll be a great change from my routine, it’ll be great to meet up after a long time, and of course that it is South France!

So I relent, and book my tickets with Ryan Air for the same day that she is arriving – this is the only weekend for which we can match our dates.

For a West Ender, getting to the Stansted airport is not the most fun thing ever. For one, it is a bit far, to say the least. Secondly, unlike Heathrow which is connected with the Picadilly line, Stansted is reachable only via the expensive Stansted Express.

At the airport, as I go through the security queue, I notice something unusual – they are not making anyone take off their shoes. One would have thought that there would be some sort of uniform policy about this across airports, but evidently there isn’t.

That aside, the process at the airport is relatively fast. I reach the gate and decide to have a look at my boarding pass. Apparently like Southwest in the States, Ryan Air does not use assigned seating. I reckon that the queue at the gate has more than two-thirds of the plane’s capacity, so there’s no way I can get a window or aisle seat. Hmm…so no point wasting three-quarters of an hour standing in the queue…might as well take a seat and finish some work.

I reach Marseilles a good four hours before my friend’s flight is supposed to land. I use this time to finish off some work, dine at the fancy airport restaurant, and (yup!) sleep. When I wake up, I start wondering as to in which of the two buildings my friend would arrive.

You see, I don’t have her detailed flight plan, and apparently there are no flights landing in directly from America. So theoretically, she may be on board any of the flights landing around 11pm, since she’d have taken a connecting flight.

Her father is supposed to pick us up, so my best bet is to look for him. I shuttle between the buildings a few times, but don’t see him. So I watch a bit of the rugby game on the telly at the airport bar, and then go back to the other building again.

I see a bored-looking girl sitting on a bench, where she has been for quite some time. She starts walking down in front of me, and ends up meeting her father at the gate of the building. As it turns out, this girl is my friend’s sister. The father doesn’t speak much English, and I am completely broke when it comes to Français, so I end up talking to the sister. Apparently she even knows a bit of Hindi!

My friend and her husband (also my MBA classmate and good friend) arrive shortly after 11.30, and I am extremely happy to see them again.

The father drives us, in his new Mercedes, to the farmhouse in a little village, stopping by in Aix-en-Provence to drop off the sister who has an exam in the coming week. Apparently my friend’s parents live and work during their 4-day weeks in Aix-en-Provence, and retire to the bastide for 3-day weekends. Tough life!

Next day, my friend drives us to Marseilles. The first item on the agenda is visiting Château d’If. We park the car at Lafayette, and walk down to the harbor.

There is a whole fish market selling all sorts of fish. This is exotic for me, and I need to take loads of pictures. But we are in a hurry to get to Château d’If, so perhaps I’ll shoot my pictures upon our return.

It is perhaps providence that of the 3-4 boats ferrying between Marseilles and the islands, we should get the Edmund Dantes.

Château d’If is like pilgrimage to me, the same way that Baker Street is to many Sherlock Holmes fans. Personally, I think that The Count of Monte Cristo is the most romantic thriller ever written.

At the very top, the roof has a convex surface, and the vertex of that is an echo point. In other words, if one stands at the center of the circular roof, one’s voice echoes. A call-point for prison guards, perhaps?

After ample photo-ops, we take the Edmund Dantes back to Marseilles.

Back on solid ground, I momentarily rue not having clicked pictures of the fish market for all the stalls are long gone. Oh, well, you live, you learn.

By now we are all famished, so we walk down to the square to grab a bite. And there couldn’t be a better place for that – this square is jam packed with restaurants. The first restaurant we look at, though, does not have any vegetarian offerings, which is not surprising for a coastal French city. So we settle down to eat at the next one.

The food is amazing. And eating a multi-course lunch in France, one suddenly realizes why “French Women Don’t Get Fat” – the portions are small, and while dessert is customary, it is not packed with sugar and fats. Another interesting aspect of eating out is that the menu prices typically include taxes and gratuity, so one doesn’t have to worry about leaving the right amount of tip.

Upon reaching the bus stop, we find that the next bus to Notre Dame is not due for another 20 minutes or so. “Fantastique!”, I think, “Now I can quickly run around and get a feel for the town, and maybe click a couple of pictures.”

After a little bit of roaming about I get back. Waiting at the bus stop, we hear the news: New Zealand has routed Italy. Glory be to God!

The basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde is atop the signal hill of La Garde, the highest natural point in Marseille. The ornate church is built at the site of a 13th century chapel also dedicated to Our Lady of the Guard.

Atop the belfry is a huge statue of the Virgin and Child. Inside, there is an eclectic display of mosaics, murals, paintings, plaques, model boats, war medals and (believe me!) football shirts.

The view from the compound is truly amazing…one can see all of Marseilles, and way down the sea. In unfriendlier times, I suspect, the belfry might have been used to alert the town of approaching enemy ships.

After the church, as per original plan it is time to walk around Aix-en-Provence, and pick the sister up en route to the bastide. But the light is weakening and my friends are tired so we decide to go skip it and go straight to the bastide.

When we reach “home”, my friend’s mom is furious at her. She tried reaching her several times, but was not able to. The point is: She didn’t pick up her sister from the apartment in Aix-en-Provence, so now her mom will have to go all the way and pick her up. I volunteer to go with her. On the way she teaches me counting from 0 to 10 in French. I am able to get ready practice by reading the numbers off the license plates of the cars driving by us.

She also takes small detours to show me around: This is the land of Paul Cézanne, and considering the natural beauty, it is no wonder that numerous painters called it home. The Deux Garçons on Cours Mirabeau is said to have been frequented by Cézanne, Zola and Hemingway. Aix, the city of a thousand fountains, naturally has some famous fountains down this main road. At the top, is the “good king” René, halfway down a natural hot water fountain covered in moss, and at the bottom a monumental fountain from with three giant statues representing art, justice and agriculture.

For dinner, we have delicious Fromage Fondue, apparently extremely popular in the hilly regions of France. I can’t remember the last time I’ve had a communal eating experience like this; I most certainly haven’t eaten fondue in this manner, though this is actually how it is done.

I take a little walk outside after dinner. The sky is darker, and the stars brighter than I have seen in a long time. The breeze is cool and fresh, and it goes through my hair, lulling me to sleep.

Click here to check out my pictures from Marseilles of 08 Sept 2007.

Click here to check out my aerial pictures of 07 Sept 2007.

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