The train gently drifts out of the station from platform K, scaling the gradual slope that rises inland from the bustling Mediterranean port of Marseille. Here, the hills are a little more tame than the striking calanques that dominate the coastline of the Côte d’Azur — cosy inlets of blue-green water flanked by great walls of limestone and other carbonate rock.
As the train moves slowly along, you will see more and more of the lush Provence countryside, punctuated by small patches of the same calcified soil and rock. But early on, the vista is scarred by that ubiquitous scourge of human idleness: graffiti.
Graffiti adorns several stone walls along the city outskirts. There is, however, a dominant pattern. Perhaps it is the work of only one so-called “artist,” but it seems, rather, that there is mutual consent to fit the style with the vista. The lettering is mostly some shade of off-white, outlined in black.
Even the vandals, it seems, betray the unfailing French duty to heritage.
You cannot overstate the energy the French devote to esthetic harmony. There is an extreme, almost clinical obsession with tailoring both raw nature and humanity’s footprint to reflect ancient concepts of truth and beauty. Medieval and rococo architecture abounds, and new construction rarely strays from an organic and unobtrusive progression towards modernity.
How else could the medieval streets of Arles nestle so comfortably around an ancient Roman amphitheatre? Where else could so many narrow streets survive and furthermore thrive against the relentless forces of population creep and increasingly speedy cars?
And where else but Paris would a towering heap of glorified scaffolding become the most visited paid tourist icon in the world?
It is no small irony that the Eiffel Tower, the tallest man-made structure in the world when it opened for the World Fair in 1889, was roundly condemned by prominent artists of the day.
Three hundred signed a petition, as follows:
“We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection ... of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower. … To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”
Gustave Eiffel prevailed, and his monument became one of the world’s most recognizable. Typical, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean one should ever let his guard down against potential eyesores.
Meanwhile, the train that left Marseille arrives half an hour later in Aix-en-Provence. The city of about 160,000 is often cited as the one most French people would love to live in. It has everything, from commercial hotspots to hidden gems, from classic architecture to trendy shops and restaurants galore, all enlivened by a mixture of students attending local colleges, and tourists domestic and foreign.
On Cours Sextius, an avenue named after the Roman counsel who founded the city in BC 123, you can find ruins of an old wall. It’s part of the original Roman baths fed by a natural thermal spring (the town’s modern name is a contraction of Aquae Sextiae).
Today, in the same location, stands a pricey, modern spa, complete with white fluffy robes, mud packs and, yes, mineral baths fed by the same spring.
Modern France in harmony with the ancients.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s