Friday, 14 August 2009

barnacle bill and his pirate ships – marseillans secret harbour

marseillans tuesday market, food, flowers and general household goods with a little vintage and local ceramics thrown in, is fast winding down as the church clock strikes 12.30. throughout the morning it has taken up the whole of the miniature 17th century colonnaded market place, meandered past the church square and spilled out into the place de republic beyond, up to the busy les marins sailors bar at the roundabout. traders are packing up into battered renaults or dawdling with old friends, sharing a smoke and a café noir before moving off. others shout encouraging cries of tout a cinq euro to stragglers, pleading with passers-by to take the last of the flowers off their hands, even though to do so is blatant daylight robbery...

...within minutes most of the town is staggering under the fragrant burden of bargain bunches of bougainvillea, fat headed sunflowers or overblown blousy dahlias and the square is ankle deep in a scented river as florists swill out empty vases and drag containers away. then as the market recedes the cafes and restaurants pick up the trade and, where bright awnings displayed boxes of vegetables and colossal hams so recently swayed, tables and chairs appear, plat du jour boards are written up and hung on trees and lampposts. waiters scurry back and forth with entrees, café noirs and aperitifs, and lunch is duly served.

we stroll away from the vieux ville past the pretty mairie and its obligatory petanque pitch, noisy with a half dozen devotees passionately squabbling as always over whose boule has actually displaced the cochonnet (victory hanging on curves, angles and geometry), and make for the harbour to eat our market goodies, enjoy the sea breeze and watch the boats bobbing about. of all the ports on the basin de thau, marseillan is probably our favourite – well this week at any rate. last week we were sure that meze was the one…and later in the week revisiting sete down the coast, we’ll remember that in fact sete is definitely the best.

one satisfying side effect of our unhealthy puce habit is that it affords access to a clutch of secluded backwaters along our little coast, a treasure trove for flaneurs, moochers and idlers like ourselves, revealing forgotten hamlets and stranded old ports tucked out of the way of the sun worshippers and beach revellers that flock to the stretches of sandy beach beyond the etangs. overlooked little spots that still have space for the workaday rhythms of quotidian life for its inhabitants, a life that though still acknowledging tourism, isn’t altogether dominated or relinquished to it. in these places can be spotted all sorts of relics, human, artefactual, architectural, all clinging unnoticed like barnacles on the underside of some great tourist steamer, quietly getting on with everyday life in the languedoc.

a spot of coast-hugging along the trusty old d613 in either direction will swiftly reward anyone wishing to observe the janus face of the petite camargue and the shifts in economy brought to bear in a mere generation. whilst one face basks in the sun, sea and parasol revenue, the other trades on the cliché of its traditions and distinctive way of life. whether this delicate balance can survive the rapid development of the latest section of the shiny a75, the toll route currently gobbling up everything in its path on the way to the sea, remains to be seen.

marseillan and marseillan-plage offer a perfect example of this common schizophrenia. whilst marseillan-plage is inundated with holiday makers and weekenders attracted by its sandy beach and plethora of sun loungers, marseillan itself, once a flourishing fishing town with a splendid harbour and fine old market place, is now ignored. it’s a typical tale - marseillan sits amongst a pocket of old fishing ports lining the petite camargue, an evocative string of salty but unfortunate smelling etangs and scrubby flats populated by birds and not much else. some of these lovely old harbours handled trade for the romans, whose great via domitia passes close by, carrying goods from cadiz past gibraltar all the way to rome. indeed, the ruins of ambrussum lie only a few kilometres inland, further evidence of the regions former glories. but time has played a cruel game - in recent generations the petite camargue has become all but forgotten as the old harbours either silted up and faded into obscurity or flourished in the 70’s tourist boom like the modernist resort of le grande motte further up, a planned futurist community that now looks as dated as an episode of thunderbirds. (though secretly im quite smitten with this too….)

yet marseillan has a trick or two up its sleeve - it sits at the extreme end of the camargue on the shallow expanse of the basin de thau, one of the biggest salt lakes in the languedoc and a major centre of shellfish cultivation. along the coast roads are frequent glimpses of wooden oyster racks protruding from the water, cruel rows of torture chambers for marine life. this has brought marseillan both independence and a sense of purpose, its harbour bustling with various old salty sea dogs repairing their vessels, scraping barnacles off the raised flaking hulks of their sturdy little yachts and sailing boats, clambering about the riggings and crows nests or simply huddled in clusters doing routine maintenance or repairs, re-painting a faded eye on a prow, raising a jolly roger (no really! these be actual pirates…); a vision of faded peaked caps, dusty blue shorts, espadrilles, assorted white beards and fancy moustaches. it’s also the home of the famed noilly prat distillery – another plus for both the resident sea captains and vermouth pilgrims who book themselves in for a daily tour and degustion. so as another lazy afternoon beckons and the oppressive heat of an august day takes most residents indoors for lunch, a siesta or an afternoon under canvas, marseillan blatantly ignores its passing tourists.

oh, you’ve found us, marseillan shrugs, so what…? take us as you find us, we wont be putting on any shows or making a particular effort, but you’re welcome to eavesdrop and take a peek at whatever we’re doing today; stay or go, linger or scarper, its all the same to us.

and with that marseillan gets on with patching up its nets, indulging in a spot of fly fishing in the curve of its sheltered horseshoe harbour, or simply padding about weather beaten old vessels - the odyssey, the antigone - all brass portholes and wooden cabins, fiddling over sail cloths and flagpoles, inspecting gang planks, or snoozing in their hammocks, not a care in the world….

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