My series of blog-posts on locations in Mary Stewart’s novel Madam, Will You Talk? draws to a close today: having looked at Avignon parts One, Two and Three, Nîmes, and the Pont du Gard, it is now time to consider Marseille (or Marseilles as it is written in Madam) – and if you want some information on the city, you can read about it on the lonely planet site.
As the Riley gained the summit, I changed up, and she slipped into the long descent with a sigh. Before me the road sank in an interminable and gentle hill towards the enormous untidy sprawl of Marseilles, set on the edge of the loveliest shore in the world.
The featured image above gives you an idea of the city’s enormous untidy sprawl. As for its shore, did you know Marseille has beaches?
I remembered what I had read of Marseilles – that the city was sliced in two by the straight line of the Canebière, the busiest street in Europe, where, sooner or later, all the world passed by. It was said that if you sat in the Canebière long enough, you would see passing by you every soul that you knew. If I were [him], I thought, that’s where I’d go. I’d select a table in a boulevard café on the Canebière, and sit and watch for the girl in the pale green dress.
And so to the Vieux Port/Old Port:
I turned left through a narrow way towards the sea. After a while I realized that I was making for the harbour – I could see masts and the gleam of a gull’s wing and a flash of early neon lights at the end of the street.
I hesitated. One had heard such tales of Marseilles, the wicked city… and was it not near the harbour that the wickedness congregated? A street led off to my left, and I paused in my walk, and glanced up it.
Then made for the harbour without another second’s hesitation. For he was there, my enemy… the hunt was up again, and I made for the Old Port of Marseilles without another thought for the wickedness there abounding…
The Old Port was a vast open space, criss-crossed by tram-lines and railway tracks, bounded on three sides by houses and restaurants, all flashing their gaudy neon signs in the face of the sunset, and open on the fourth side to the sea. The harbour waters were crowded with boats of all shapes and colours, and in the amber light the forest of masts swayed and bobbed amid the glancing web of their ropes.
The ‘forest of masts’ remains striking, and I was impressed by how clear and clean the water was even here in a harbour so full of ‘boats of all shapes and colours’. The bottom photograph in this set of three shows where boats depart to various locations including the Chateau d’If (made famous by Dumas and his novel The Count of Monte Cristo). As we know the fortress is also immortalised in Madam, when Charity tries to evade her pursuer by hiding in a crowd which turns out to be passengers waiting to board a tourist boat to the island. So Charity flees to the Chateau d’If.
I sat on the low parapet of the turret of the Chateau d’If, watching the white stone slowly flush to a tender rose. I watched the softly breaking water of the tideless sea wash and wash across the whispering white pebbles, aquamarine rippled through with liquid gold.
By the time Charity makes the return boat journey
It was almost dark by now, and along the shore the lights were strung out like a necklace. There were no waves, but bars of darkness slid softly towards the land to lap against the dim rock… The port was gemmed with neon lights, white, scarlet, green and amethyst, and under the more subdued orange glow of the street lamps the evening crowds were gathering. The city of the night-time was waking up.
Charity steps off the boat, and her life changes forever. There we shall leave her, and if you can’t remember what happens next, perhaps it is time to re-read the book! I hope that you have enjoyed re-living the book and looking at these photos with me, it is something I have had great fun putting together.