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the blues and yellows of martigues

Auguste Renoir traveled to Martigues and painted.  So did Raoul Dufy.  Nicolas de Staël, as well.  Others but less well-known went: Émile Loubon, Félix Ziem, Paul Camille Guigou, Charles Pellegrin, Edouard Ducros, Charles Henri Malfroy and Henry Malfroy, father and son, Antoine Ponchin, Francis Picabia.

I go to Martigues to take photographs.  My efforts with watercolors should remain in the shadows.

I craft the day before I go.  I want the light.  The colors, blues and hues of yellow and some greens, are gorgeous around the ports and inside the village where the courts nap, always quiet, often vacant.

I go in the morning.  I check the Météo in advance.  I want a sunny clear day, otherwise I do not go.  Martigues is an excellent place to take pictures, and I want the light.  (Have I already emphasized that?)  During mid-afternoon, it becomes ‘hazy,’ less defined, and the heat can become unfriendly and difficult, so I leave.

When I arrive, I cross the bridge with the solid blue railings and circle around the harbor, or I walk straight into the village.  My favorite plaza is Place Mirabeau, a large, empty quiet space.  I wonder, “Where are the people?”  A café sits in the corner with a few tables and chairs.  What I find astonishing are the bright colors like paint patches covering the walls.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.) But wait, there’s more!

julia child in marseille with her own words

Marseille’s hot noise was so different from Paris’s cool sophistication. To many of our northern-French friends it was terra incognita: they had never been here, and considered it a rough, rude, “southern” place. But it struck me as a rich broth of vigorous, emotional, uninhibited Life—a veritable “bouillabaisse of a city,” as Paul put it.  —Julia Child, My Life in France

A few years ago I read Julia Child’s autobiography My Life in France.  I was curious about it for three reasons: I cook from her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she had lived in Paris, and she had briefly lived in Marseille.

I spend a good amount of time in both cities, and I have a digital copy of her cookbook on my laptop.  I consider those good enough reasons to remember her and to imagine her life in Marseille in 1953 and 1954.

I took some passages from My Life in France and put them in italics.  I wanted her words to describe what she and Paul, her husband, saw and felt.  Except for the hotel where they stayed when they first arrived in Marseille, she was specific about where they lived, the two apartments, even giving the addresses.

I decided to look for those apartment buildings and a 2018 version of their lives.


We arrived in Marseille with our minds open, hope in our hearts, and with our taste buds poised for new flavors. It was just turning 5:00 p.m. on March 2, 1953, when the heavily loaded Tulipe Noire rolled to a stop in front of our little hotel.

My natural inclination was to go out and explore while Paul was at work. But in order to get anything done, I forced myself to keep regular office hours at the hotel. There, my Royal portable typewriter was my steady companion. With no household or marketing work to distract me, I began to catch up on my correspondence and continued to research our cookbook.


I paced around our little hotel room. It was cute, but we needed more space. To get rid of my restless energy, I decided to look at rental apartments. The first one I saw struck me as a fake Art Nouveau gnome’s-hut type of place. Then I saw a tasteless circa-1900 stinker. Then I saw a small apartment on the fifth floor of a building on the Vieux Port, overlooking the fishing fleet. It was owned by a Swedish diplomat who had gone home to recuperate from tuberculosis; the caveat was that once his health improved he could return to Marseille at any time. That didn’t appeal. But after a few more days of living out of a suitcase in that dim, cramped hotel room, we decided to take the tubercular Swede’s apartment while we looked for a more permanent roost.

Our new rental apartment was located at 28-A Quai de Rive Neuve, on the fifth floor of a pale-beige Art Deco building with distinctive wave-patterned metal railings. It was a small space, but charming, and it had marvelously expansive views over the Vieux Port and its fishing fleet.  (Click on any photo to see it larger and in more detail. Cliquez sur une vignette pour l’agrandir.) But wait, there’s more!

far far away the distances surrounding Marseille

Marseilles isn’t a city for tourists. There’s nothing to see. Its beauty can’t be photographed. It can only be shared.  –Jean-Claude Izzo

Contrary to what Mr. Izzo thinks, three prominent locations in Marseille offer superb panoramic views of far far away places.  On clear days one can see the small villages of Martigues and Estaques to the north; and when looking toward the Mediterranean Sea, one can see in the distance the Château d’If, where the Comte de Monte Cristo spent a few years of his life, and the Frioul archipelago.

I propose these three sites: 1) looking down from Notre-Dame de la Garde; 2) visiting the Parc du Pharo; and 3) walking along a section of the Corniche between Catalans and Endoume and, in particular, pausing near the Vallons des Auffes, where you will find the Square du Lieutenant Danjaume and the Monument aux morts de l’Armée d’Orient et des terres lointaines.

These are my favorites for grand panoramic vistas, but they are not the only places in Marseille.  Several restaurants along the Corniche will provide excellent views of the Mediterranean Sea with the price of a meal, Peron, L’Epuisette, Le Bistro Plage, Le Petit Pavillon, Le Rhul, Le Petit Nice, to name the most prominent.  The restaurant Chalet du Pharo overlooks the Vieux Port toward the MuCEM and the Panier quartier.  It is next to the Parc du Pharo.

The Musée Regards de Provence has a restaurant, the Regards Café, with a terrace on the second floor, and it offers a nice panoramic view.  During my last visit, while eating lunch, I watched three very large, multi-decked ferries leave Marseille for Corsica and North Africa.  They seemed close enough to touch.

The ramparts next to the Abbaye Saint-Victor on the south side of the Port will give you views across the View Port and toward the MuCEM and Fort Saint-Jean.

Let us not forget a boat ride to the Château d’If, and looking back, watching the land recede, then stepping onto the island, climbing to the Château, and scanning the horizon toward Marseille.

Any would be fun, combining a meal with extraordinary views, for example, but none of them can surpass, or even match, the free wanderings at the three  locations I have mentioned, my favorites.

Notre-Dame de la Garde

Notre-Dame de la Garde is visible from most any spot in Marseille.  It sits on a high hill that looms up, giving the cathedral its perch for overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the Vieux Port and much of Marseille to the east. But wait, there’s more!

playing my part at a 3 star michelin restaurant on la côte d’azure

When I told a friend that I had reserved a table at a 3 star Michelin restaurant, she laughed and encouraged me “to spend away my retirement cash.”  I reminded her that our plan to eat lunch at the French Laundry in California would have cost more than what I had estimated for the lunch at the 3 star restaurant in France.  I reasoned that I was saving money by eating in France.  That is silly, of course, because both restaurants are expensive and indulgent, and one wonders, “What is the point?”.

I prefer a bar à vin or a typical bistro that serves three simple courses and where the waiter serves a decent espresso at the end.  I pay attention to what the Michelin guides say about the other restaurants, the ones without the stars.  If a restaurant receives a Bib, I take notice.  ‘Bibs’ are awarded for simple yet skillful cooking: “Bib Gourmand: good quality, good value cooking.”

If a restaurant has “simple fare,” I go.  The words “Assiette MICHELIN : une cuisine de qualité” and “standing simple” are good signs, and I consider a restaurant even better if I see “Belle carte des vins.”

I know then that an “inspecteur” has been there and thought it worth a visit.  It is one way to limit the choices from thousands of restaurants.

Eating in a starred restaurant is like taking part in a play, and you are one of the actors. You do not know your lines but improvise along the way, hoping to say the right thing.  You take your cues from everyone around you, the many waiters, the maître d’, the sommelier, the young woman who brings a tray of fish to your table for you to inspect and whom you will never see again.  It is even more difficult to play a part in a foreign country where speaking the language is difficult.

Recently, I played my part at a 3 star Michelin Le Petit Nice.  Marseille is the second largest city in France, but it has only one 3 star restaurant.  That restaurant is Le Petit Nice.

Before reading further, you might watch a minute or two of an Anthony Bourdain episode “Marseille,” originally broadcast on his series Parts Unknown.  He eats lunch at Le Petit Nice with his traveling companion chef Eric Ripert.  It starts around 07:10.

They order the Ma Bouille Abaisse, as chef Gérald Passédat calls his deconstructed version of the Marseille bouillabaisse.  I ordered the same meal.

The Ma Bouille Abaisse cannot be ordered from the table; it has to be requested with an advance reservation.  When you sit down, the only carte you will be given is the wine list.  Your meal was being prepared well before you had arrived.

What is it?  What is on the menu?  How many courses are served?  I looked at the menu, of course, before going, but it was the waiter(s) who explained as the courses were served.  I will break the meal into six parts, although the Ma Bouille Abaisse is three courses.

First, there was the Avant-Goût which was an appetizer.  Next came the Premier Palier, or coquillages crus et girelles en beignets, sucs de girelles.  The third stage was the  Deuxième Palier with poissons et crustacés au bouillon safrané.  The last course of the Ma Bouille Abaisse is the Troisième Palier, or as the menu says, « Pour arriver en profondeur, trois pièces de poissons cuits entiers, soupe de roche aux favouilles ».  The last two courses, if you will, were Une Douceur and the Mignardises.  I ordered an espresso to drink with the mignardises.

I mentioned earlier that eating in a starred restaurant is like being an actor with a role in a play and not knowing the blocking or the lines.  I was ready to improvise my way to the end.

Course between the Avant-Goût and Premier Palier (I wish I knew what this is. It came first and is incomplete in the photo. Some garnishes of fish eggs were added. After eating it, I was to drink a light fish broth that had a tea bag seeping in it for 2 minutes.)

When I arrived at the restaurant, I could not figure out how to enter.  I had walked there from my apartment in Malmousque along the back streets.  I tried to enter from the back entrance, which had a sign pointing to the delivery door.  A door that I thought I could enter as a person who belongs, having earlier made a reservation and who was about to spend a small fortune and not the milk man, had two buttons.  I pushed them and spoke into the speaker.  No response.  Finally, a voice said, “Push the door.”  I had been trying to open the door by pulling on it.  (Why did I not push in the first place?  I blame the design of the door, and that is another story.) But wait, there’s more!