The next day I went to Marseille and for three days I lived at l’Estaque, a terminal, far north-west suburb, in a street called Montée des Usines (uphill factories lane something)! The factories are gone (to China with love!) but the windy, tilted path is still under the protection of the picturesque and chalky Chaine de l’Estaque hills. My place with a gorgeous view on the blue sea lashed by silver streaks was an ancient worker’s flat, that metamorphosed into an Airbnb, another American devilry to ruin the European hostelry. Close to it a narrow flight of stairs was leading to the sea level. I took it for the Saturday morning market expecting to find a sea food bonanza. I didn’t. One stand was selling big oysters for a record low price. It was useless to resist and after I bought for a record low price (I am sliding into cheapness, am I not?) a fine knife I kept them for two days in the refrigerator. Then, I proceeded to open them, an operation that demands a complete mental control even for a great aficionado who alas, practiced rarely during the last years. Inopportunely, I began to be busy with parasite thoughts about a serious intoxication which can lead to grave, noxious indigestion or some first class hepatitis. Concomitantly, the threat of a possible frightful cut in the center of the palm, was viciously flashing somewhere in the back of the mind. Nothing occurred, but I promised myself to avoid in the future buying oysters that were too big and too cheap and to eat the animal not later than ten minutes after acquisition.
Time for touristic cultural frolicking rang. After a vain attempt to take a train at the deserted miserable local station (at least make a migrants hotel inside!) from an out of work derelict automatic ticket distributor, menacing every second to swallow coins and cards, mind you the predicament, I boarded a bus. It brought me in no time (45 minutes) to the Phocaean city. Massalia, for those who dislike to get into Wikipedia torment, was founded by Greek colonists in 600 BCE, circa half a millennium before Lutecia (today Paris) whose name may originate from the Breton Loudour meaning dirty. I have to reckon that under the rule of Sainte Anne de Hidalgo, Paris justifies its sources more than ever, which proves that multiculturalism and tradition are not antithetical. Marseille is legendarily dirty to put the things straight, not that I care.
However misery is going hand in hand with Street Art, especially graffiti, of which I am very fond and for which I care. They, the murals, peddle often freshness, frustration, rich saturated color scale, innovation, lack of respect, real artistic rioting, anonymity and sometimes fame, humor, professionalism, amateurism, social critic, short life span, eventually talent and more than anything else they are an antidote for the boring experience of going seven day a week through the same urban landscape. They are sometimes prosecuted (the makers), rarely defaced (the murals) and quite frequently commissioned, hard to believe, even by the municipalities. Also they are made for the simple minded, see Christ and his promises – the poor rushing into the Celestial Kingdom like a torrent into the desert? The symbols are clear: the lamb is God flesh, the cop is a Pig head. Also, is not of little genuine ethical and economic importance, STREET ART IS
To appreciate the remarkable Soulages Art I reproduce here, according to François Dernier Hollande the greatest artist of the, I don’t know exactly which century (who just reached the ripe quota of 100), one needs a wonderful genetic constellation bespeaking of acute intelligence and refined sensitiveness and also, let’s face it, full pockets, I mean really plenty. If not, keep off.
With this in mind I went to Cours Julien the graffitis’ main site of the city. The Cours is a wide two ways avenue which ends in an irregular oval enlargement called l’Espace. The enlargement is bordered by shops, mostly eateries and bars, some trees, an array of platforms, increasing the eateries’ battle grounds, and a slightly hollowed area to be reached through little flights of stairs bringing one at the level of a big fountain of modern rustic conception if you follow me. Graffiti expand over all possible surfaces of the Espace and in the adjacent streets perpendicular to the Cours. Let’s have this straight and short: I didn’t get into an ecstatic mood. The Cours itself, if it knew some beauty, it must have been at its inauguration, today it was looking like an old lady, there are still some, using heavy colored makeup to embellish some wrinkled falling cheeks. Cheek-to-cheek, well that was a great time, today you can get sued for epidermal fondling!
A cohort of dark bulky garbage bins, some closed and some opened, is spread at strategic points of the Cours. I don’t want to be offensive but they lend an aura of decay and, more exactly, alimentary disintegration to the entire site. It is true that when compared with the filthy Marché de Noailles located nearby which displays a tough fourth world outlook, fault of colonialism etc, the Cours assumes its real quality of BOBO TERRITORY.
The graffiti themselves were of a type that I do not particularly fancy. They were heavily determined by the entrance to the shops, kind of DOOR MINDED(!) compositions, probably commissioned by the shop that was behind the door, often denying one to take a good shot without using a vicious wide angle, and more than once polluted by parasite tagging! I took some photos of what I liked best and what I hated best and I blasted off.
Let’s say two words about the couscous issue. I am not particularly islamophile for various reasons notwithstanding the fact that would I be younger I would convert. One of the most acute of these reasons is the overwhelming amount of dark textile used to wrap my major object-subject of enthusiasm, attention and worship. However, I am a couscous-o-phile (the word is not in the dictionary) and I had a kind of little unjustified hope to satisfy at Marseille, the great franco-islamic metropolis, my innocent passion at a moderate price. After some inconclusive experiences I went to the Tourist Office at 11 La Canebière street. There I got a map and a tip: go to Pavillon street, find the restaurant La Goulette and you will have the couscous of your life. I went, it was terrible, the semolina was wet, the vegetables rare, the meat undistinguished and the waiter rude. I left without leaving a tip. It was a mistake. In reality I should thank them because I finally understood that only a DUNCE is looking for a FINE COUSCOUS AT AT MODERATE PRICE.
Bothered by my last two micro-failures I sought solace in the solid. “ La Cathedrale de la Major” seemed to possess what was needed to redeem me. It did! According to my previous definition it is a product of historicism. That latin cross floor plan astonishing building, vested into a dominant neo-byzantine style with Romanesque and Gothic accents, should be a FOLLY. It wasn’t. Another proof if needed of the relativity of the definitions. So what is it ? It is an enormous monument, 142 meters long, built on an already consecrated ground which housed some previous ancient God houses from the 5th century on. Some sites are fitted to become SPIRITUAL MALLS and are irrepressibly attracting contractors and God worshippers. The dominant outlook of the La Major made me think of an extra-large blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) that fell asleep in the shallow waters to wake at the ebb time metamorphosing into a giant urban shrine and municipal cult pool. If you sweep the ensemble from a sharp side angle, do you know anamorphosis?, with a mighty squint glance, really forcing the eyelids into a sharp slit, to make jealous a Polyphemus, you may distinguish a phase or two of this bizarre, notwithstanding logical, metamorphosis process, ongoing from the blessed cetacean to the Holy Hall!
Whatever, La Major is located on a splendid esplanade, facing the sea and proud of a flashing, enthralling chromatic and spatial exuberance. In spite of its blessed theatricality, the glorious articulation of parts – portal, nave, transept and apse of a rare complexity together with the subtle vertical interplay of towers, dome, cupolas, galleries, rosettes and high windows, La Major broadcasts, ALAS, the hint that the end of the world is not for tomorrow. It is there to stay and to serve. Again, please keep in mind that the array of cupolas, the overwhelming use of fine quality mosaics, are of byzantine persuasion, that the semicircular arches at work for windows doorways and dome support are Romanesque, and that the groined vault of the nave is Gothic. Tutti-frutti maybe, but highly convincing and opulent – porphyry, marble, onyx, Venice mosaic, you name it. One thing bothers me to the marrow of my old bones. I have seen the tigered façade, the hallmark of the contraption, as an alternate sequence of whitish and reddish slabs. The articles from which I dug my stupendous knowledge were staunchly stubborn on whitish and green Florence stone. Should I see urgently my ophthalmologist?
The next day as a timid wrongdoer I sneaked into the zone from another lane, the Bd. du Littoral, and this time la Major was above my head. Believe it or not, it got higher during the night and it was immediately followed by another lengthy contraption at which despite its name, Musee Regards de Provence, I avoided to look. I continued to advance daintily towards the last glory of the city – the MUCEM, Musee des civilizations etc (how many, how many?) but I was unable to avoid remarking on the way a giant weird building – La Villa Mediterranee. It was displaying a kind of reversed L shape whose cantilevered projection, the biggest in the world,is much longer than its vertical support. I am sad to realize that under the pernicious influence of the Yankees size became a first quallity
argument of the French aesthetic discourse. The projection, let’s call it so, was hanging above a rectangular basin housing an enormous school of tiny silver fishes. For God’s sake, the first serious earthquake and thousands of innocent lives will be crushed to death. Seized by a double attack of simultaneous agoraphobia and claustrophobia I ran into MUCEM paying whatever they asked me for. There I landed into an exhibition dealing with the development of agriculture around this Mediterranean basin where once many fishes lived and even fell in love with a sakieh, a water wheel driven by a poor animal (probably a money lender, torturer or biased journalist in a previous life). It was recently brought from Egypt. I cannot understand why the Egyptians sold it at a moment when the country is running dramatically out of water with a population increasing exponentially. Maybe to pay two or three squadrons of Rafale multirole fighter they recently bought from the French extremely performant war industry?
Whatever, let’s hope that when the water deficiency will become dramatic some well-watered and well-minded European countries like Norway will show some heart. The display was beautiful and confuse, the visual and acoustic hammering was very disturbing and the written information, often extremely low located, was forcing visitors to indecent positions, you know, ass overhead. Some objects were very rich when criteria were shape, age and function; thus, i had fun. But, confidentially I may tell that what I liked most at this museum were the extra-long corridors, on which someone can skate at will, separating the main building from its gorgeous concrete lattice prismatic shell. This superb artifact, the lattice, is a modern version of the sunlight intensity breaking device at work already in Babylon quite 4000 years ago.
The LATTICE is much indebted to Corbusier idea of separating the façade of the rest of the building,
actually one of his “Five Points of New Architecture”. Unfortunately it increased my concentrationary fears, reason for which I hysterically escaped towards the Fort Saint Jean built by the enormous egomaniac Louis XIV much more to scare the city inhabitants than to defend them. It was to jump out of the frying pan into the fire! I wisely avoided to visit it and ran towards apparent freedom into a meander – the Panier neighborhood – of little streets articulated in an enormous trap from which no tourist can escape untaxed. Feeling that I began to behave like a sociopath and that I had TO SHARE something, I exchanged some of my currency for a pint of tap beer accompanied by little sandwiches of black olives tapenade with anchovies. I felt immediately cultural and cooperative.
On the way back I used the first opportunity to throw a last glance upon this amazing massive architectural ensemble beginning with La Major and ending with the Fort. It occurred to me that the complex is well under the Divine Protection well stocked in the famous Notre Dame de la Garde cathedral, which hulks on the top of a limestone outcrop over the close Vieux Port (Old Harbor) and over the whole city. It didn’t steal its name as far as location is the matter but if it is an alert guard or not, a real sentinel, only the future will tell. There was not need to drag myself up the hill, I have seen it perfectly from my sea shore plaza. Then, I said a little prayer for the catholic Mr. de Maistre who rests in the protestant cemetery of Saint Petersburg and who inspired my journey and another one for Mr. Espérandieu (that was his real name folks) a protestant guardian architect, pupil and follower of the gentleman who planned La Major*, who raised “La Bonne Mere”, the very catholic giant Notre Dame de la Garde, mentioned above. I left the city in a state very close to a benign spiritual elevation or revelation or both. On the way back I had a glorious vision which led me to an instrumental suggestion, the rigorous fruit of a genial insight doubled by a great sense of justice and some aesthetic commotion. The world famous example of Cordoba where the cathedral was build inside the superb La Mezquita mosque came to my mind. **Forget the rant of Charles Quint, people are so jealous! That major interpenetration, I mean the today Cathedral of Cordoba, should inspire the Phocaean authorities, government, gilets jaunes, eventually the straight priesthood, etc and the good thinkers to create a mosque inside La Major (at least half of the population of Marseille is Muslim).Then, to keep the both structures active (as long as the conjecture permits) and to hail, that way, gloriously, a beacon for mankind, the integration and the cooperation between the two slightly different communities. I said!
With infinite respect divine protector
And endless excuses for my ruffian language
From time to time I let my self
* The architect Léon Vaudoyer received the commission to build La Major in 1852. A Parisian lion with great connections and close to the court of Napoleon III he was not going to leave the prestigious capital. Thus, he send his 23 years old pupil Mr Espérandieu (meaning something like in God we trust) to represent him on the spot. Practically the trustful protestant carried on the Vaudoyer plans. To make some extra money Espèrandieu get the commission of Notre Dame de la Garde in 1853, drew plans totally in agreement with the language of his master and accomplished this project in 1864. Great! At this time La Major is still in construction. In 1872 Vaudoyer crowned with successes and covered with distinctions passed away. Exhausted by his part in the achievement of these two mastodons in 1874 Espèrendieux follows his mentor in a different grave. Well, we are not short of architects and Henri Révoil is carrying La Major until 1893 when the fascinating cultist space offering a glorious but unachieved inside is officially consecrated by the Bishop Jean-Louis Robert. I hope that this relatively short historic sketch contributes to the apprehension of these two outstanding historicist architectural hallmarks and will eventually encourage some French magnates or leftist millionaires (often the same people) to send to the actual owner of the French throne, Mr. Mac-Ron, the badly missing funds.
** “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.”