Notre-Dame de la Garde

Of all the cities I've visited over the years, none has surprised me more than Marseille. I spent an incredible five days in this glorious city and every single one of them was filled with wondrous activities, many of which I didn't even know existed. Since my semester abroad in college five years ago, Paris held the title of my favorite city in all of Europe, but as of this week the ranking has officially changed. Marseille now occupies the number one slot and is up there with Lisbon as my favorite city so far on this trip.

I’m only a month and half into my trip, so we'll see how long Marseille holds the crown.

From Valencia, I took a Ryan Air flight to Marseille and the instant I boarded the plane my mind became flooded with a torrent of old memories. During my six months in Europe while on exchange in Milan, I was forced to fly Ryan Air between cities, but the cheap fares always came with a price. Ironically, all the aspects I detested most about the airline all those years ago were the very ones I found myself reminiscing about nostalgically: the sprint across the apron from the terminal to the plane with luggage in hand, the inevitable rush to ensure you get the best seat, the uncomfortable non-reclining chairs, the constant in-flight advertisements, and my personal favorite, the round of applause when the plane safely lands on time.

…as if it were a “bonus” that we arrived on time and didn’t crash into the runway.

My first full day in Marseille was dedicated to exploring the city on foot. I spent more than eight hours walking around town, but being the sucker for scenic vistas and unnecessary climbing, the first thing I did was head straight to the highest point of the city to visit Notre-Dame de la Garde. While the trek up was exhausting, I could see the entire city in one glance and, no matter what direction I looked, the view was absolutely sensational. To the north, was Vieux-Port (literally “old port” in French) in the city center full of docked boats bobbing in the waves. To the west, the islands comprising the Frioul Archipelago poked out from the deep, royal blue water off in the distance. To the south, the majestic mountains that made up the famous calanques (“inlets” in French; similar to fjords), and to the east, the wonderful, sprawling city of Marseille. As picturesque as the scene was, the highlight of my time up there wasn’t even the view - it was the wind!

View from the top of Marseille next to Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Every year along the southern part of France there is a period of sustained winds from the northwest frequently exceeding 40 kilometers per hour (~25mph) called the mistral.  The winds are most intense during the winter months, but blow as often as 100 days out of the year and can be felt even during the spring and summer.  The cause of the mistral is surprisingly complex, but the strong winds result all sorts of issues for planes and boats traveling through the region. I was vaguely aware of this phenomenon before arriving in Marseille, but I remember when the pilot spoke about possible flight delays I misunderstood him through his accent and thought he said the “menstrual” winds. 

You can imagine the visual imagines that conjured in my head. 

View of the Frioul Archipelago from Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Needless to say, at the top of Marseille I came to understand just how powerful the mistral was. As I climbed the nearly 500ft. limestone outcropping the strong breeze was rather delightful, but when I arrived at the main entrance of the cathedral, the gentle breeze transformed into a windstorm. All around me sunglasses, jewelry, hats, maps, and even small children were tossed around like leaves in the wind. As I meandered around the main plaza surrounding the cathedral, the ceaseless wind made it feel like I was walking through a thick soup. Just for me to take even a few steps forward required that I lean into the wind 10 degrees to maintain my footing... less I end up on my ass like one of numerous children.

It kept imagining this video of ducklings in the wind... just replace the ducks with children.

The scene around Notre-Dame de la Garde was of endless amusement to me and I loved watching peoples’ reactions to the unyielding gusts. Whether they were four years old or forty, everyone was awestruck by the wind and even through many of the children spent a fair bit of time rolling on the floor, they had giant smiles on their face. Every girls' hair stood perpendicular to the rest of their body as if it were cemented by hairspray and every so often I'd hear one of them scream in terror.

Pro Tip: don't wear a skirt if you visit Notre-Dame de la Garde. You've been warned.

I have never felt wind like this before in my life and I’m amazed the cathedral hasn’t toppled over or been eroded to dust after years of these gale force winds. In spite of the inhospitable environment, Notre-Dame de la Garde still stands and I couldn’t be more thankful - the interior is stunning. Between my semester abroad in Milan and this last month of traveling, I’ve seen more cathedrals that I care to count, so visiting yet another church isn't a high priority for me. After a while the intricate, hand-carved alter pieces, gilded vestibules, and elaborate frescos of Virgin and Child all start to blend together.

You can send your hate mail through my contact page.

The interior of Notre-Dame de la Garde.

Yes, I know, they are all beautiful and each took decades to build, but unless it is exceptionally well known for it’s beauty, has significant historic or architectural significance, or just so happens to conveniently cross my path (and is free) I usually pass on by. Thankfully, Notre-Dame de la Garde meets all of the requirements and will forever stand out in my mind as one of the most beautiful churches I've ever encountered. From the incredibly intricate mosaic floor all the way to the elaborate domed ceilings, every square one of the interior facade is decorated with something. The alternating red and white layered stones embedded in the columns, arches, and walls provide a wonderful splash of color as opposed to the usual dark-grey, bland motif I see in so many other churches. Even with all the attention to detail, it never felt gaudy or overdone. Notre-Dame de la Garde really is a stunning cathedral that I’m glad I wandered into - if for anything else it provided a much-needed escape from the unyielding wind.

From the top of Marseille I explored the old city, meandering up to Parc Longchamp on the northern side of town before returning back down to the other side of Vieux-Port to see Marseille Cathedral and Fort St. Jean. By the end of my first day I was completely exhausted and collapsed on my bed immediately after arriving in my hostel for a nap. Much to my disappointment, when I awoke I noticed two small holes forming in the bottom of my shoes...

Already? It's only been a month and a half!

View of Fort St. Jean from Pharo Palace.

I spent the evening chatting with two guys from California over a delightfully atrocious five-liter box of wine as I prepared for the following day. I couldn't decide whether to spend my 25th birthday either hiking the calanques along the southern coast or visiting the nearby islands of the Furiol Archipelago to see the famous Chateau D’If from my favorite book, The Count of Monte Cristo.

Talk about your "first world problem."

After debating with myself for over an hour, I left the decision up to the mistral; if there was too much wind, and the ferries to Furiol didn’t run, I'd spend the day hiking, otherwise I'd visit the islands. So here I sit writing on July 10th and I still have absolutely no idea what I’ll do for my 25th birthday, but then again, that's what I love most about travel... I never really know what's going to happen.

…I’ll just have to wait until tomorrow.