Tuesday, December 10, 2013

the sea wins

Some of the best lessons are ones learned from mistakes. In travel, the opportunities for both -- lessons and mistakes -- abound. But here's something even better -- when a mistake leads to a better outcome.

I had all those on this day. I'm still reeling from it all.

Ed will say repeatedly that I travel without risk. Nonsense! I push boundaries all the time, though not his kind of boundaries. I like to know I have a clean bed at the end of the day. I see that as a very basic requirement. He sees it as unnecessary. He likes the challenge of managing an untamed environment. I like the challenge of finding something unexpected, fleeting, beautiful. For example, standing quite suddenly before a gorgeous sky...

(in Cassis)

...or watching an adult delight in a newborn...

(in La Ciotat)

...or looking out the window of a bus and seeing unexpectedly the winery where years ago I purchased a bottle of wine. I carried it home with me and it still sits in the cooler, because I cannot get myself to open something so special (even as its price is less than 10 Euros).  Or, here's another surprise moment -- I am by the port and here is a man selling sea urchins and I really do remember that I saw him here with his rickety table years ago!

DSC06458 - Version 2

So let me tell you about this particular day and you decide if it's tame (Ed's position) or adventurous (my position).

I'm alone at breakfast this morning. The Canadian couple has left and Odile tells me she'll be having a quiet week before the madness of the holidays.

DSC06406 - Version 2

You're open for the holidays?
Oh yes! French people come to Marseille to visit family -- I'm always busy then.
Her dogs are barking at something imagined outside.


Quiet down! She says with a shake of her head. I have to smile. Her three dogs coexist beautifully with her two cats and it sure seems to me that her dogs have taken on a bit of a cat personality, while her cats are, in some ways, dog-like.

DSC06550 - Version 2

Even though most of the buses are now running, Odile says that the strike is still on. But only 20% of the employees are on strike and whereas they blocked the movement of buses thus far, they've now been pushed back and so the buses are in circulation, albeit somewhat off schedule.

No matter. I had already decided to use the trains and go up the coast. Initially, I had wanted to simply spend the day in Cassis (the small seaside town just a short distance east of Marseille), but Odile tells me that the next fishing port -- La Ciotat -- is also very pretty and so I decide to do a spin through both: take the train to La Ciotat, poke around there for a while, then come back to Cassis and maybe do a meal and a hike there.

Good plan!

Not so easy in the execution.

I take the 11:05 out of Marseille. That should put me in La Ciotat by 11:45. It's a comfortable commuter train and the views are fine...


...though do take note that they are not views of the coast. Had I reread my own Ocean posts from five years back,  I would have recalled that this particular train line runs a couple of kilometers inland.

And there is construction along the line so that it's closer to noon by time I get off at La Ciotat. Well no matter. Surely I can catch the 12:52 back to Cassis.

I step outside the station. Hmmm. I can't even see the sea. Or the town. I go up to a waiting bus. Are you going to the city center?
No. I'm not going anywhere. Missing from this short exchange is any suggestion that another bus might offer service soon. Are they striking here as well?

I ask a young woman who seems to be hurrying in the way that locals do when the late train has put them behind schedule: Is it far to town? To the sea?
No no. Maybe twenty minutes. Just follow the road.

I do that. Briskly. It looks like it's going to be one of those very brief visits. Twenty minute walk, ten minute look, then back on the train for Cassis. That really is one dumb plan. It will not have been worth it: I robbed myself of more time hiking around Cassis (daylight hours are precious! The sun sets at 4:30) for a postcard view of another port town.

After twenty minutes of a fast pace (and I do notice that I am going downhill all the time, meaning that the return trip will be completely uphill) I just begin to recognize the outskirts of a town and I get a first glimpse of the sea -- still some distance away. People who use cars all the time lose their sense of walking distances.

In the end, it takes me a solid forty minutes to get to the sea. Ah well, I'm thinking. At least I get this lovely view of the colors of the Mediterranean.

 DSC06416 - Version 2

But how is it that I'm going to catch my soon to be departing train to Cassis?

If a taxi had passed by then, I would have hailed it and that would have been that. But no bus nor taxi went by and I know now I have to rethink my options. I walk toward the center of town.

 DSC06418 - Version 2

DSC06423 - Version 2

And as I round the corner, I come across the protected harbor of La Ciotat.

DSC06427 - Version 2

Odile was right! It is lovely! An perhaps because to the side it has the cranes and equipment of a shipping industry, it doesn't seem to be a big tourist destination. Not in December anyway. By contrast, Cassis is a beloved day trip for the more gentrified French. You need only look at those who dine at the numerous eateries that line the harbor in both places. One calls out -- local! We're taking a lunch break from work! (Scarf's there, just in case.)

La Ciotat

The other -- we're enjoying a moment of leisure before we head home to... wherever it is that we live.

DSC06461 - Version 2

So I'm thinking -- scratch the plan to eat lunch in Cassis. I'll eat here and grab a taxi back to the station.

It is an absolutely heavenly moment in the sun. I go easy on the meal: I need to be out of here in a half hour or even a taxi wont help me make a connection. A seafood salad. Perfect: octopus, scallop, shrimp, snails, tomatoes, lettuce -- all heavily flavored with a wonderful olive oil and lemons. (All the countries of the Mediterranean are very liberal with their use of olive oil, whereas we're so restrained and so committed to a good dose of vinegar that no one ever tastes the magnificence of the oil.)


Well now that was wonderful! I'll try not to mind the money spent on a cab now. 10 Euros. Uff. That hurt. (Almost as much as losing my 3 Euro roundtrip metro ticket earlier today.) Retirement puts you in a different mindset. Suddenly you have what you have and you must make do with it. I don't want to have to go back and look for work just so that I can travel. I must keep it simple. And that means limiting taxis to the times when it's absolutely necessary.

I suppose this was one such time.

The train ride back to Cassis is brief - ten minutes. And lo! There is a bus waiting at the station to shuttle us to town! 80 cents! I exhale.

Cassis. What can I say -- it is such a lovely little place! I'd forgotten how stunning the cliffs are to the side, and how colorful the houses are along the seafront -- especially now in the late afternoon sun!

DSC06467 - Version 2

I stop at the tourist office to get a map. No time for mistakes now. I only have two hours of daylight left.

If I had wanted to hike both in the vienyards and along the coast, it was not to be. In the end, I chose the sea. I am very much in its embrace here and I've not spent that much time taking it in. And so I do a calanque hike -- the land between Cassis and Marseille is riddled with fjord-like inlets (called calanques) and I remember how impressive they were when Ed I hiked here. Now, in the light of the receding sun, they are beyond beautiful.

First, I leave Cassis behind me...

DSC06471 - Version 2

...and I hug the coast (noting that the sun is quite low now)...


And then I come to the inlet -- the calanque.

DSC06486 - Version 2

I think how this day has had everything going for it and that I am here right now in that rare state -- very rare state -- of being without any load on my shoulder. It almost never happens that you can be somewhere this beautiful and neither you and more importantly, no one you love is hurting. And where the excitement about the next week, month, year -- is mounting, where you think that all the tricky parts of life did not knock you down and now here you are, still breathing, still scheming, still loving the beauty of a bunch of sailboats moored by the white cliffs of the calanque.

DSC06502 - Version 2

Needless to say, it is a good moment.

The walk back to Cassis is brilliant: cliffs, buildings, everything reflecting the last rays of the setting sun.


Back in town I have a few minutes left before the bus for the station is to depart. I use them to go to the Cassis Christmas market. Just a few steps from the shore and the vibe changes. Here, it feels local. Unlike the other holiday markets I had visited (Marseille, Aix), this one is heavier on eating and drinking than on purchasing things.

I don't linger and I don't eat or drink -- I haven't quite figured out dinner yet and so I spend my time people watching and then I retreat to my bus, and my train, to Marseille.

It's 6:30 and I am again cursing myself for losing my metro ticket. My penance -- I walk to the Old Port. It's only a half hour, and it gives me another chance to walk through the gritty market (which I really like, because it feels unapologetically real), but I had really hustled on those white cliffs of Cassis and, too, I have to admit that I am in need of more sleep. I could not stop nodding off on the last train segment. I know already that there will be no long post tonight.

But what to do about dinner? Yes, restaurants will open at around 7. But do I really want to be that one person who comes in to eat at an ridiculously early hour? How hungry am I anyway?

I go back to my last eating place among all those wonderful old books. I thought they served continuous foods in one form or another. They do not. (But they have a sweet little gift shop and several kinfolk back home will profit from my stopping there.)

Alright. I've decided. Time to skip dinner again. And since an early afternoon seafood salad is really not enough food to carry me through a day of hiking and running and doing God knows what else, I stop at a nearby bakery to pick up... something. A sandwiich maybe? No: the stuffed baguettes look like they've been sitting in the fridge all day long. In France, the bread is good, so good, so great in fact, but not after it's been in the cooler for hours. So... okay: here's a salad with goat cheese. That'll do. She throws in a chunk of fresh bread. Pretty good! And a container of Heinz "salad sauce." Oh well. I remind myself that it's good to spend 3.5 Euro on dinner occasionally.

Back at Odile's house, I am greeted in the usual warm way. Pierre, her 'friend' is there as well. They want to hear about my day. I tell them I have my salad to eat and they set the table for me as I were to enjoy a feast -- fine china, beautiful silverware and the best olive oil. Suddenly, my salad is transformed!

And Pierre, who understands my love of the local white wines, takes out a bottle that he purchased for me to try. We stay there at the table exchanging stories of life (they are forgiving of my grammatical impurities) -- in the way that you can do once you pass sixty. The three of us were born in such different places: Poland, France, Morocco. And we have visited each others' countries and we have memories and impressions that bear telling and perhaps bear slight adjustments now with new information.

It is a grand moment. I only took one photo, of Odile, with her dogs. There are times where no camera will provide an adequate image and so it all has to stay within the heart.

DSC06540 - Version 2

The next morning, I eat breakfast quickly. I have a 10:36 to catch for Paris.

I say my goodbyes, promising to return. I know many people throw out such promises. But Odile shows me the little apartment she wants me to have next time I'm here. I'll be back, I tell her. And I mean it.