Mission to Mars(eille)

The single greatest thing about long flights is the map.

Another year, another European work junket. Rough life, I know. This time it was a rather grandiosly-named conference: “The Cosmic Odyssey of the Baryons”[1] sponsored by the Observatorie Astrophysique de Marseille

Provence. Since finding baryons is my primary day job, this was right up my alley and I was excited for my first trip to France. To make the trip more interesting, Brian and I teamed up, flew into Paris, then took the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) down to Marseille on Saturday/Sunday. After a five day meeting, we TGVed back to Paris on Saturday afternoon and flew out on Sunday.

Transatlantic flights headed east are pretty awful sleep-wise and this one was worse than usual. We arrived at Charles de Gaul and boarded our TGV. It was definitely a new experience. TGVs are regular trains, not maglevs or anything exotic, but they travel on very smooth tracks with banked curves at speeds up to 200 mph. Rocketing through the French countryside was pretty fun and made more surreal by the approximately one hour of sleep I’d had on the flight in. We managed to cross most of France in about three hours before arriving in Marseille.

Bienvenue a Marseille. Notre Dame de la Garde dominates the view from the Vieux Port.


Marseille is not one of the A-list tourist destination in France or even Provence. It’s the second largest port in Europe, second largest and second oldest city in France and variously described as “gritty” or “crime-ridden” depending how polite the reviewer is. I found it a bit dirty but I never felt particularly unsafe and it was a nice window into a regular French town with a lower-than-usual level of tourist tack. The population is heavily influenced by neighboring North Africa and my hotel was in a largely Muslim area filled with halal markets and women in head scarves.

Looking across to the fort on the north side.

However no city is completely without tourists and the main tourist area of Marseille is the Vieux Port (Old Port), lined with fancy restaurants and hotels, clogged with boats, and guarded on either side by a pair of sprawling, tawny forts. Just wandering around the Vieux Port was a great way to stave off jet lag a few more hours before we could eat something (anything!) and crash at anything like a legitimate bedtime.

Tuesday morning my hotel caught fire! Or at least close enough.

One thing Marseille seems to have in spades is structure fires. The Pompiers drive these cute little fire trucks and seem quite busy. I was wakened Tuesday morning by a truck idling in front of my hotel room. Irritated, I leaned out on the balcony and found the noise was coming from one of the cute little Pompier trucks and, with further leaning, that the neighboring hotel was rather copiously on fire! Zut allors!

Well now this is an interesting situation! I scrambled around, threw the more essential half of my belongings into my pack, got hurriedly dressed, and headed out the door. On the street, there were a dozen pompiers scurrying around and another dozen early-morning bystanders smoking innocently nearby (as all French seem to do) without any sense of irony in the slightest. I scurried back into the hotel and mentioned in what broken French I could muster to the hotel clerk that the adjoining building was on fire. He didn’t seem terribly worked up about it. Still, I thought it better to be safely absent for a while and let the pompiers do their thing without my help. The fire was put out eventually, but we noticed at least two other rather significant fires during the rest of my visit. Either Marseille is extremely flammable or there is an arsonist loose.


People ask me whether I had any awesome food while I was in France. I’m not relaxed enough to be a real foodie, so generally the quality of a given meal for me is situational not strictly culinary. I appreciate that the French make a big deal about food, but I wish it didn’t always have to be a big deal. Perhaps if I were traveling with Amy it would be different, but there are only so many two-hour long dinners I can have with groups of astronomers before I just wish we could get on about it already. The other thing is that dinner doesn’t start properly until 8 pm or later which is long past when I’m used to being fed. By the time we sauntered through three relaxed courses, it was getting close to bedtime. When I’m in some interesting new place, I tend to sacrifice sleep in favor of work and play anyway, but I got less sleep this trip than most thanks to the late dinner hour.

The mysterious, ellusive, and utterly delicious Chez Etienne.

Nevertheless, I did have some memorable food. When I first arrived in Marseille, my college chum Aaron had sent me a message which said simple “Chez Etienne”. A few days later, he sent it again, elaborating that I should go early and not bring a huge group.

Chez Etienne is in the Pannier District, the older quarter of town up on the hill above the touristy Vieux Port. Brian, Mat, Britton, and Heather joined me and we navigated through the warren of narrow alleys and steep steps before we got there. [spoiler alert!] I was expecting some sort of hoity-toity French cuisine, but it turns out that Chez Etienne is a pizza place! It’s very small and cramped, but it was early enough that finding a table for five wasn’t hard. The choices in pizza are cheese or anchovey (just anchovies, no cheese). The choices for wine are red or rose, full bottles only. The second course menu apparently varies from night to night, but we had various pastas and seafood (mine had clams and a single prawn the size of a small lobster). After sorbet came coffee and a 90-proof pear liqour served in espresso cups. The whole thing was adventurous, delicious, spontaneous, and set us back about 20 Euros each, not bad for the quantity and quality of the food. Of course, I’ve now spoiled part of the fun for you, which is the thrill of the unknown.


Whenever I travel for work, I try to get in a little fun while I’m there. Last year, this worked very well with big post- and pre-conference adventures in Hawai’i and the Dolomites, respectively. This time, Brian and I had only one extra day at the end of the meeting, but I still managed a nice sampler of small, non-work-related fun.

It’s hard to miss the impressive Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde sitting 500′ above Marseille on a hill. It’s not particularly old as these things go (1850s), but it’s impressively striped and gilt and has one hell of a view of the city and surrounds. I hiked up there on Monday evening and took in the sights, as well as Friday afternoon with Brian, Britton and Heather. On the latter occasion, the gates and church were open and we could get inside to see the very ornate interior. I was blown away (literally and figuratively) by the wind and the view, respectively.

On the church theme, I toured the Abbaye St. Victor, the latest version of which dates from the 11th century but is built upon 4th century Christian and pagan ruins.

Running along the esplanade. Glorious!

Of course, I can’t visit a new country without going for a run, so I contrived a mellow 8 mile exploratory loop on Wednesday morning to see the area. I passed the end of the Vieux Port, did a loop around the Pharo Palace (built for Napoleon III), and then out to the Mediteranean coast proper. This was really spectacular and I had a glorious run for a couple miles along the Esplanade high above the water’s edge as far as the Prado beach, then back via Rue Prado and Rue Paradis.

Our first view of Callanque Sugiton. Wow!

The big adventure was Saturday morning. The one natural feature this part of France is know for is the Calanques, a series of deep limestone canyons south of Marseille flooded after the last ice age. We received a tip from a local and took the #21 bus from down town to the Luminy campus of Aix-Marseille University. David, Brian, Britton, Heather and I then hiked a mile or two of wide gravel road headed for Calanque Sugiton, not really knowing what to expect.

Beach level at Sugiton. Britton and I swam out to the line of bouys and back. The water is a lot colder than it looks.

We found signs for Sugiton and started down, admiring the limestone cliffs and vegetation. The trail descended a lot farther than we expected… but it turned out to be a lot more spectacular than we’d even hoped! The water was clear and blue and, as it turns out, ice cold! Britton and I still managed to swim the calanque out to the line of buoys blocking several boats from entering. I’m not a terribly good swimmer, so the hundred yards each way in icy water left me a bit drained. On the way back, I looked down through 30+ feet of crystal clear water and noticed a dark… something! moving against the white sand bottom. A few frantic moments later, I realized it was Britton’s shadow. Whew!

Beautiful yet rugged Sugiton.

Unfortunately, Brian and I had a train to catch and couldn’t fully appreciate the area. After half an hour, we hustled out of there and started the trip back home. However, next time I’m in Provence, this will be the first thing I’ll see, and I’ll spend the whole day exploring the trails, the beaches, the caves, and the spectacular scenery.


I'm a sucker for really big churches.

After a week of conference, lengthy meals, and lots of wandering about, we finished off the trip with a chaotic evening in Paris. The plan was to meet up with two different local friends to show us around town. There were… complications, however, and we failed to rendevous due to a massive gay pride rally happening at the Bastille. We were disappointed not to reconnect with Sundar and Beth/Bram, but were determined to carry on regardless. After a bit of regrouping, Brian and I took the Metro down to the Left Bank, wandered past Notre Dame and then over to the Eiffel Tower at twilight.

Eiffel Tower at 10pm. It was just getting dark.

Neither of us had been Paris before, but there are certain cultural icons that are familiar I dare say to all westerners. Coming around the corner and “Oh look, it’s the Eiffel Tower,” was one of those moments. It looks just like the photos that everyone’s seen only more so. And it’s huge. And absolutely clogged with tourists. The photos hadn’t really portrayed that aspect. They light it up at night and shoot search light beams off the top like a huge lighthouse. West African vendors wander the place selling all manner of souvenirs.

So we saw the bare minimum, Cliff-Notes version of Paris. Coming at the end of the trip like it did, that was sufficient, but I’d like to go back for more some day. And I’ll bring a lot of Euros because it’s definitely not a cheap town.

[1] As far as I know this wasn’t the sequel to “The Cosmic Illiad of the Baryons”. Similarly, there were no clashing rocks, sirens, cyclops, nor did anyone get tied to any masts. Nor did it take 20 years, which is fortunate.

This entry was posted in travel. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s