Traveling: Jewels of Marseille

I mentioned in the previous post that I had entered a travel writing competition about a month ago.  Part of the application asked for a short piece that highlighted a "travel discovery," a unique site or experience that to recommend to other travelers with enthusiasm.  What's copied below is my entry, which was not selected to move on in the competition.  I don't know if my attempts to emulate the tone they sought were any good, but the sentiments are sincere.  The photograph at the bottom is the specific moment I was thinking about when I wrote it.


I wasn’t sure I was going to Marseille until I walked into the train station and bought a ticket in my halting French.

Even my most ardently Francophilic friends had advised against going there—its gritty urban modernity seemed antithetical to all the storied charms of French life. I didn’t want to believe them, but I wasn't sure if I could prove them wrong.

The train took me to the center of town, where I descended the steep, dirty steps of the train station into the pockets of cramped neighborhoods that lay wrapped together between the sea and the surrounding mountains. As I followed the wide central boulevards that led to the harbor, the people around me chattered vibrantly, moving between markets and cafes, settling into their morning routines as I began to smell the sweetly fishy greeting of the Mediterranean waters.

I trembled as I stepped onto the ferry that would take me to the Château d’If, a legendary prison fortress on an island just offshore, and tried to conquer my nervous fear of boats by securing my hat and sunglasses. I closed my eyes as the boat moved into open waters, delivering us to the island with a welcome briskness that sent a salty breeze rifling through my hair.

It only struck me as I stepped off the ferry how strange it was that the woman in the tourism office had viewed a visit to an isolated prison as representative of the city. I moved quickly and uncomfortably through the Château d’If’s interior thinking how confinement in one of its abyss-like stone cells would affect a person’s mind and body. Hurrying toward the exit, I became eager to see the sun even if it meant the ferry ride had been a waste.

I stepped outside and stopped short, breathless.

From my viewpoint outside the fortress walls, I saw the bustling lows of the harbors swoop up toward the tips of the city’s mountains, where churches rest to maintain watch over the comings and goings of valuable cargo ships and beloved sailors. Even this expanse seemed minute as I noticed the additional shadowy mountains that peeped up beyond the urban panorama, foggy masses framing the city in blue and grey.

Eager to see more, I stepped closer to the island’s edge, where water playfully sloshed against the rocky shores. And then I knew my friends had been mistaken—myriad teals, turquoises, and blues stretched out before me into the expanse between the island and the city. The luminescent clarity of these jewel-toned waters proved that Marseille does, indeed, guard treasures.