From Marseille to Civitavecchia - Old ports, No storm

The light is different in Provence, even on an overcast day it has a luminosity that gives the rather dreary landscape approaching the port of Marseille a lift.

The light and dark of Marseille

The approach to Marseille

Good light or not, Marseille is far from a bright prospect. I'm sorry to say that within an hour I had had enough, and as the little road trains trundled past full of all the other cruise passengers, the thought of walking all the way to the top of the La Garde to visit the admittedly beautiful basilica, Notre Dame de la Garde, was not one I savoured. Built in a Neo-Byzantine style, the basilica's belfry is topped with a gold statue of the Virgin and Child. It looks down over the old port which on a summer's day, when the cafes that surround it spill onto the streets, I can imagine would look appealing. 

Notre Dame de la Garde looks down on the old port

Protected by the forts of Saint Jean and St. Nicholas, the old port was trying very hard to create a festive spirit with cabanas selling nougat and Christmas trees, but there was little vibe. The daily fish market, the night's catch lying on ice waiting to be picked, was an insight into the normality of France's second largest city; but there was a flatness to the place, a lack of energy.

Daily fish market

The shuttle bus from the ship* had taken us past old wharfs that after a face-lift were home to shops and bars, and then having negotiated the tight turns and one way system deposited us not far from the old port. It was not the most appealing area, however. Wandering the back streets to find the bus stop, we got a little lost. Normally this is a good experience - not so this time. The streets were unwashed, litter strewn everywhere and a feeling that it was not safe. It turned out we were not alone in this, a number of others at the table also found it unnerving.

Compare then Marseille to our next port of call, another commercial port town this time in Italy, Genoa.

Birthplace of Columbus and pesto

Panorama of Genoa

The Daily Telegraph asked last year, Is Genoa Italy's most underrated city? It probably is underrated, as it has to compete with all that Liguria has to offer - the Cinque Terre, Portofino and Portovenere. 

The view from the ship window was of multi-coloured buildings tumbling down the hillside to the cranes and docks on the shoreline. Though romantic sounding it is not quite the Cinque Terre, but with the domes and spires catching the odd  ray of sun as it eeked through the clouds it was a definite improvement on Marseille.

The short walk (a mile or so) from cruise port to to the centre of town did not disappoint. While a few chaps lined the side of the road selling all manner of unwanted wares under the post-war flyover, the feeling was not ominous. Once out of the shadow of the fly-over, the little fishing boats with their colourful jackets and nets lightened the feeling.

Genoa has been a port since before the rise of the Roman Empire and continues to this day. The birthplace of Christopher Columbus it is also home to the perennial favourite pasta sauce - pesto. For us it was piazzas, churches and coffee. 

Walking along the carruggi (narrow streets) we reached Piazza Matteotti, a relatively small piazza that is dominated by the cathedral of San Lorenzo. Guarded by stone lions that made me think of Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia, the externally beautiful building of black and white stone is a blend of Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance styles. 

Cattedrale di San Lorenzo

Inside, a number of small chapels line the sides, but it is not the largest of cathedrals and I felt the interior did not match the promise of the outside. The church of Gesu in the next square up, by comparison, was plain on the outside but with wonderfully ornate gild decoration on the inside. In both we were regaled with organ music as mass ended and the organist continued to play.

A Fiat spied on the way to Piazza Ferrari

The piazzas were filled with markets and the unmistakable sound of an Italian Sunday as families emerged en-masse, mingling and browsing through the offerings on sale. In the Piazza de Ferrari, which we entered by passing a completely different kind of car, we were treated to a huge book market and the sight of the columned walkways stretching off along via XX. Setiembre. I care not a jot what language books are written in and spent a goodly time browsing the covers and finding on a record stall some vinyls from my youth and before that I had not seen in decades.

Nostalgia put to one side, we dipped into a cafe for much needed coffee before wandering down Via 25 Aprille in search of the funicular and city panoramas. Coming to a crossroads, we followed the masses (fairly large group of people to be more precise) making the assumption that they too were headed funicular way. Never assume. We did ascend, but by lift; and it did afford us sweeping views across the city. The port offered some interesting silhouettes that only became clear when we departed that evening and sailed past the workhorses of any commercial port.

Port silhouette

Our meandering stroll back to the ship took us past the Palazzi Ducale, Rosso and Spinola, with side streets offering enticing bars, restaurants and shops. As I sat in our cabin with daylight fading, writing up the notes from our Genovese day, the city lights started to appear. It is, I reflected, a city with enough to entertain you on a day ashore, with a comfortable atmosphere that makes it a pleasure to visit.

All roads lead to Rome

Whilst roads now lead in many and varied directions, the port of Civitavecchia is indeed the starting point for a Rome-bound road. And sadly, that is all it is - a starting point for journeys elsewhere. Even so, we spent more time wandering the streets of this port than we did Marseille!

Most of the cruise passengers who disembarked headed off on tours to Rome, with a few scuttling off along the railway to Pisa and Siena. Now, all three places are worth a visit - but having been there many a time, I was happy not to try and squeeze 4 days of Rome sightseeing, or a day in Siena into a couple of hours actual visiting time.

I would have loved to pop along to Ostia, the ancient Roman port, but alas it was Monday, and we all know what that means in Med Europe - lots of shut monuments and museums. And so it was that I spent the day mostly on board ship. It was relatively empty, so there was ample room in the hot tub and I could plough a few lengths of the pool, before trying out the cocktail of the day and several of its cousins. The old knee appreciated a bit of a rest and pummelling from the hot tub's jets, which turned out to be a wise move as the following day in Palermo we walked far further than we intended to!

Cin, cin!

* As a little aside, I was miffed in Marseille that I paid 15.90 euros for a Cruise liner shuttle bus from ship to town, when a short walk would have got me to the free port shuttle bus. Lesson learned there!


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