I felt like a decathlon athlete as I stepped off the train from Nice to Marseille. I had my most comfortable walking shoes on, a checklist of all the important sites to visit in my hand, and I was ready to tackle France’s second largest city. I looked around me. The port city was hectic with buses and cars whizzing past me and hundreds of people crowded onto the sidewalks. Still, I was primed to dive right in. I perused my inventory of important landmarks once more. I stretched my calf muscles, adjusted my backpack, and took a quick swig from my water bottle. I had eight hours to conquer Marseille and no time to waste.
According to guide books I had read, there were eight places I needed to visit in Marseille. I had them arranged in order from closest to farthest from my train depot: the old port, the fortress of Chateau d’If, the Cathedral de la Major, Saint Victor’s abbey, Notre Dame de la Garde, Borély Park, Palais Longchamp, and the Museum of Beaux Arts. I had a return ticket for the evening so whatever I didn’t finish would remain unseen, but I was convinced I could match the frenetic pace of this seaport and emerge a winner in my tourist marathon.
I speed walked my way to the Old Port, where fishing boats and svelte yachts were crammed together like so many sardines in a watery can. I heard various shouts coming from the sellers as I passed the rickety ice tables packed with strange looking sea creatures, but I couldn’t stop until I saw the ferry boat for Chateau d’If: a famous prison and the subject of Alexander Dumas’ novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. The crowds were almost impassable on the island penitentiary, but they were no match for my fierce determination. I managed to squeeze my way past as I ran to see an empty cell, the communal cistern, and the rooftop view. Time was ticking and I had to catch the next ferry back so that I could head towards the Marseille Cathedral.
I took some snapshots of Marseille’s official basilica, the Cathedral de la Major, before continuing to the city’s other important church, Notre Dame de la Garde. This limestone basilica sits on top of a rocky peak. I wasn't there for spiritual matters; I was interested in the great view of the city. I huffed and puffed my way up the steep incline and by the time I arrived at the summit, I could see by my watch that I had just enough time to take a photo of the green-gold altar before running back down the hill. My next stop was twelve minutes away, but the unexpectedly hot weather had addled my nerves. I was covered in a flop sweat and skipped lunch to give myself more time. As I approached the abbey of Saint Victor, Marseille’s daunting size got the best of me. I deflated completely. I realized that I no longer wanted to conquer Marseille. All I wanted to do was find a cool place where I could rest my aching head and throbbing feet.
The impassive stone walls of Saint Victor Abbey hid the intense sun and heat. Inside, a wave of cool air rushed over me. I touched the cold, ancient walls and felt their strength flow through me. Even the rustic wooden pews felt refreshing. No one else was in the church so I lay down on one of the benches. I must have dozed off because the next thing I heard was someone asking if I was all right. I opened my eyes to see an old man in a cassock bending over me. I sat up and apologized to him, explaining that I was a tourist feeling unwell. From beneath his robes the man produced a small water bottle.
He gently asked, “How long are you visiting Marseille?”
“Only for the day,” I replied, rattling off all the sites I had encountered so far.
He raised his eyebrows and replied, “Impressive that you have seen all of that, but how do you find our city?” I hesitated to answer.
“It’s big,” I finally murmured, “and busy.” He looked disappointed by my answer.
“You have not experienced Marseille” he gently chided. “Forget your list,” he continued, “and explore the abbey.” As he left, I looked at my watch. I had an hour and a half remaining. I decided to stay at the abbey. I roamed around the towering halls, studying the pockmarked pillars, curlicued capitals, and tendril cracks. When I heard the muted peals of a bell, I looked for the clergyman. He was sitting at a table by the main doors.
“I have to catch my train now,” I told him. “Thank you for letting me enjoy the abbey.”
“What do you think of it?”
“It’s beautiful in its simplicity,” I replied. “I’m amazed at how some of the old architecture and artisan work has escaped the hand of time.”
“That is how you must remember Marseille, then,” he answered, smiling.
“I will.” I nodded. “Thank you again for your kindness.”
“Take time to enjoy the rest of your journey,” he advised, “and remember: travel isn’t about the conquests but the memories.”
I will never forget his advice. I had set out to devour Marseille but failed to capture its spirit. In the gloomy solitude of a time-worn church, I stopped cataloguing my way through the city and savored the moment given to me. My travel plan now is to embrace the essence of each destination and appreciate its personality. Like people, each destination is distinctive and has its own quirky characteristics. Some reveal their charms through museums, others through architectural features. Some showcase themselves through natural landscapes, others through a history of human achievements. Whether spending the whole day at the beach or in contemplation of archeological artifacts, I try my best to relish the significance of where I am. I focus on what my senses teach me. I may miss many of the “must-see” locations, but, thanks to that priest in Marseille, I always discover the charisma of a destination and leave with unforgettable memories.
Atreyee Gupta translates her love of history and culture into writing and publishing travel stories which explore unique journeys. Her travel philosophy is to unearth the compelling stories hidden underneath everyday objects, landmarks, and historic events. As cofounder of Bespoke Traveler, she hopes to offer experiential travelers inspiration for their next adventure.