This past weekend marks my last overnight trip with NYU in France; over a course of five semesters here, I’ve been to Strasbourg, Montpellier, Tours, Chartres, Lille, and most recently, Marseille. Of all my experiences with this particular study abroad program, this has perhaps been the best trip in terms of a balance of guided tours, free time, and cultural activities. So shall we begin the recap?
Traveling to the south of France differs from going to the north in many ways, but one particular note stands out – because it is so much farther from Paris, we have to compensate by leaving much earlier. Instead of meeting at the train station at a quarter to eight in the morning, I found myself stepping out of my apartment building at 6AM to make the 6h45 meeting time at Gare de Lyon. With that said, it can be justly assumed that the train wasn’t filled with noises of chatter, but rather with the silence of fifty students napping.
Upon arriving, we were all rushed from the train station to a tour of the old part of Marseille, le Panier. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get a lot out of the tour; it was difficult to follow with our tour guide’s timid voice, which contrasted the loud bustling of the streets. That and the fact that the confusion of awaking from a three-hour nap only to realize that it was only 11AM left my brain a tad resistant to absorbing information.
The free time with which we were left following the tour allowed me to perk up and be more readily able to absorb my new surroundings. Jordan and I ducked into one of the side streets by the waterfront and sat down at L’Annexe, which had a 13€ formule consisting of a plat and dessert of the day. We chose the same items; mussels marinated in a white wine broth and crème caramel. By no means was the meal a gourmet one, but it was a tasty one nonetheless, especially for its price.
The cultural activities that followed illustrated a careful balance of cultural education and sight-seeing. Our first stop of the afternoon was the Savonnerie Marseillaise de la Licorne in which we were introduced to one of the few remaining savonneries, and briefed on how soaps were made. Many of us wound up purchasing soaps from the store afterward; I, myself, picked up a bar of green tea soap for 2,60€. We were swiftly driven back to the water front in which we took a tour of the city via Le Petit Train (i.e. choo-choo train). The content of the information wasn’t so much the focus, instead, the allure of the ride could be found in the interactions of the freshman couple sitting in front of me whose infatuation for one another reminded me of middle school, and more appropriately in the magnificent view of the city with which we were treated on this drive toward the Notre-Dame de la Garde.
Quite often, we would be given a two-hour tour of the church, with explanations of each statue, architectural design, and stained-glass window, but this time, we were allowed to wander the premise on our own. While I do enjoy learning about the history of the buildings that I visit, I often find the tours to be overwhelming in terms of the amount of information thrown at us. Within the first half hour or so, I often find myself losing interest as my feet itch to explore the city in this limited time that we have.
The day met with disappointment when dinner rolled on by. Admittedly, it is always difficult to organize a meal boasting traditional fare on a budget for over fifty persons. Perhaps it was a sign that the meal would not be a terrific one, given that the first impression was not a good one what with the kirs being watered down. The fish soup, which for the record, was not a bouillabaisse, wasn’t quite my cup of tea, and neither was the fish used in the stock that was subsequently served to us. The dessert was certainly anything but memorable – a slice of cake with what I believed to be crème anglaise. The meal, however, I did find to be edible; in which case, it certainly was better than the meal at l’Abbaye de Royaumont earlier this semester. I did, however, have to supplement my meal with a double cheeseburger from McDonald’s later in the evening.
Perhaps what was most noticeable in the free time that we had on our first day in Marseille was the racial diversity. Given that the city is home to many immigrants, it wasn’t surprising to see people more aptly ready to mingle with one another, as opposed to being segregated. That on its own is a stark comparison to Paris, whose different cultural groups are often separated by different neighborhoods and blanketed by the overall dominance of being French.
The following day kicked off with a two hour boat tour of the calanques en croisière. For those that don’t know what the calanques are, they are a geologic formation in the form of a deep valley with steep sides, and are usually composed of limestone. In essence, it can be considered a Mediterranean fjord. Being at sea was refreshing with the wind blowing in my hair and water splashing up against the side of the boat, and at times in my face.
The final stop on our trip was to the east of Marseille to a commune known as Cassis. This popular tourist destination is known for its cliffs and calanques. And for us NYU kids, we’ll probably best remember the city as having one of the steepest treks back to our coach bus. With completely free reign in Cassis, we were able to explore the beach and its surroundings, which was picturesque and reminiscent of any “miss you” postcard.
Our return to Paris was a smooth one; no mishaps on the train or confusion of train stations. Perhaps it is silly for me to note, but many of the train stations that I have been to carry an air of griminess and oldness, whereas the Saint-Charles station reminds me of the duty-free at the airport with its clean and modern atmosphere.