Friday, 18 November 2011

Cacti and cave-paintings on the way to Marseille

On the way to a meditation workshop in Marseille we stopped off to do a bit of hiking in the Calanques, which are the inlets and caves to be found along that stretch of the coast. The hills were full of a smokey blue light and the air was very clear and fresh, making everything seem much closer than it really was, as though you might be able to reach out and touch it.

It's amazing how quickly the French countryside changes; one moment you're driving along beside sandy golden stone laced with iron deposits and the next you're looking at limestone stuff like this. I would be interested to know what happened however many millions of years ago that concertinaed the landscape in such a way, or whether, like Douglas Adams' award winning fjord-designer, Slartibartfast, somebody amused themselves putting down all their artistic flourishes too close together to be really believable. I seem to remember the science fiction epic Saga of the Exiles by Julian May was set in this neck of the woods, though in the Pliocene Era. For anyone who hasn't read it I won't spoil the premise, but I think one of the plot-lines involves the landscape being rearranged by some cataclysmic event. If I can't remember properly then it's time to read it again!

We were also very close to the Cosquer Cave, on whose walls can be seen these paintings dated at about 20,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic Age; some even older. The entrance to the cave is 37 metres below sea level, so I think we can be forgiven for not visiting it this time. These photographs are by one of the scientists supervising the site, Jean Clottes. You can see the layout of the cave by clicking here. There seem to be a lot of prehistoric cave paintings in France; it's anybody's guess why that's so. For a truly stunning virtual visit to a decorated cave, you might also like to take a look at the official website of the cave paintings at Lascaux in south-western France; I found them very moving.

So, back to our hike; here you can see my companions; from the top, Keyarie, Mukunja and Padmasini. Of course I am at the end of the procession, cooing appreciatively over the plants and rocks. This whole area is quite arid, but the variety of plant-life is still remarkable.

Cacti next to pine trees. A strange mix, but alluring. A few years ago I saw something similar in a Sicilian lemon grove where the cacti were growing much taller than this and bearing fruit a bit like papaya but covered with mildly poisonous spikes. We put gloves on, filled the boot of the car with them and drove them all the way back to Milan, where I then found the same thing in a market. Ours tasted better, of course!

Keyarie and Padamasini waiting on the other side of a hairpin bend for me to catch up as I stop yet again for photographs.

Some of the bushes had blossom and fruits at the same time, which is a bit unsettling but you see it everywhere now; others, like this, were doing their best to pretend we had bypassed winter and headed straight into spring.

Rounding a corner, I saw a very young cat staring meditatively into the distance and a little boy about to throw a stone at it, probably just to see it do something exciting rather than with any particularly malicious motive. My French was sufficient to prevent this happening and the cat turned around and fixed me with a dreamy but penetrating gaze.

This is what the cat was contemplating; no wonder it was so calm! And no, I didn't alter the colour of the sea in Photoshop, it really is turquoise. Or "azure", if you happen to be Shelley or Keats. The darker blue areas are banks of seaweed.

Dali trees.

Mukunja trying to get a portrait of herself with the sea behind her.

Usually it is best not to suddenly loom over people when you are all trying to keep your balance on the side of a steep hill in a strong wind, but you get the best smiles when they don't expect the photo, right? It will not surprise any of my Italian friends to know that I did actually lose my balance on the way down this hill and slid over in such a way that I haven't been able to sit down comfortably since! When I was living in Milan I was so completely accident-prone that after a month or so they reckoned I was well enough known at the hospitals to leave my identity papers at home... I injured my knee, had a very amusing allergic reaction to strawberries in which my face swelled up (I'm not even allergic to strawberries so I don't quite know what happened), broke my foot stepping over a roll of linoleum, and also managed to be so ill flying from the UK to Milan that I had to be carried off the plane and into the airport hospital. I also had a few accidents navigating their public transport system on my crutches, but the one that springs most easily to mind is a tram door closing on my plaster cast and the other passengers having to pull me free. Embarrassing! But you get used to that kind of thing when you're me. 

Here in France I have been lucky so far; only the minor cuts, burns, bruises and scaldings that you get for the first couple of months at any restaurant. I now have some golden rules: "*Do not attempt to do anything complicated with one hand whilst holding a sharp knife in the other (sounds almost Biblical, doesn't it?) *Do not use knives whilst hands are buttery *Do not put sharp knives in washing up water with other cutlery" etc etc. The only good thing about cutting yourself before a three hour washing-up shift is that hot water seems to stop the bleeding more quickly.

More cactussy things. They looked edible so I ate a bit and it tasted nice. Salads here are so much more exciting! Especially when bloodstained...

Here you can see Marseille in all it's glory! I know it looks a bit rough but it's a fascinating city; the second largest in France and a Greek colony originally, I think. Money is being pumped into it now and lots of it's dodgier areas are being stylishly revamped. I like it, and I'll be back at some point to investigate further; especially the business bit of the waterfront, which has really huge ships and forbidding-looking dockyards full of things in crates to be carried onboard. Very exciting.

And, of course, the best thing after a day of hiking is an icecream, on this occasion courtesy of "Le Glacier de Roi" in Marseille. I am not very adventurous with icecream flavours so I had a scoop of caramel and chocolate, but we have a whole list of places with advanced flavours to visit as soon as it gets warm again.


  1. Wow, what a brilliant travel journal this is becoming! I think it should be published, or at least sponsored by the Carmargue Tourist Board!
    How amazing it would be to see those caves! We shall have to come and visit you!
    Wonderful photos and writing as ever...
    And I bet the cat sent you a feline merci bien for the rescue :)

  2. Hita - I love your photos! The landscapes are stunning and I laughed to think Slartibartfast might have had a hand in it!
    I've been to Lascaux and also visited a cave in Spain - (Altamira) - both are amazing even though they're not the original caves but clever reproductions. We even have a print of a bison from one of the caves on our wall at home.
    You sound dreadfully accident prone. That's quite a list of catastrophes you've built up - enough to last a lifetime, I suggest. Do take care!!
    And ice cream on top of a wonderful day.
    Lots to meditate about. :-)