There it was, the church atop the hill, the church that overlooks the port of Marseille and dominates the landscape from 500 feet above the harbor. Only this time we stood directly beneath its tower, looking straight up through the mist at the gilded Mary and Baby Jesus, all nine tons of them.
Outside Notre-Dame de la Garde, the massive basilica, we could barely make out the offshore islands through the fog and rainfall. Inside, replicas of ships and an airplane hung from the romanesque archways. And a trumpet blared. Kathy, my cousins and I had walked into a trumpet and organ recital for a group huddled near the altar. We walked to the front and listened. To Schubert’s Ave Maria and to Bach’s Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring and three other pieces.
An Easter Week treat in the rain, completely unexpected. It was a portend of a good day to come. Rain, rare in the South of France in April, was forecast for the entire day. But by the time we we got off the bus back down at the port, the skies struggled to clear. We walked through the old city; sat outside for two hours in the square near Rue des Pistoles, devouring a delicious spinach and four-cheese quiche; peeked into the somewhat gaudy Cathedrale de la Nouvelle Major and a much more modest church dating back to the 10th century; stopped along the port as the sun broke through; made our way past the carousel, weaved through the bustling Arab markets, and climbed the steps back to the big train and bus station on its own hill, past the exotic statues that line the steep steps.
Only once we were comfortably back on the bus to Aix-en-Provence did the heavens open again, this time in earnest. We’d had a five-hour reprieve from the rain to enjoy the day, and that we did.
The city of Marseille on this, our fourth, visit continues to grow on me. It’s a bustling melange of people and cultures, a port city on a hillside, a place filled with history, museums and the arts, with fish markets, street vendors and characters, too. Yes, you’d best watch your wallet and camera closely here, but there’s reason aplenty why this city was named Cultural Capital of Europe in 2013.
One other bonus of the day, and, apparently, of my increasingly decrepit age: We discovered senior citizens (over 65) can get a card that allows them to ride the bus round trip from Aix to Marseille for $4.20, just 30 percent of the regular cost. And so we’ll be going more often. There’s a lot to see here.