Misleading Martigues

Knowing that Sundays in France are on par with bank holidays – in the sense that they’re hardly a hive of activity – we decided to take a little jaunt along the coast to Martigues. Nicknamed ‘The Venice of Provence’, the accolades were stacked high in Martigues’ favour and we felt an urge to see it for ourselves.

Or perhaps that was just me. Either way, Laurence went along with the plan, and so it was that we found ourselves at the Gare de Martigues mid-morning on a Sunday without the foggiest idea how to get to Martigues proper. The slightly dilapidated station building was closed, and there were no signs nor maps directing poor lost souls to the town centre. Hedging our bets, we trotted off down the hill. Before long, we reached a roundabout which both confirmed our sense of direction as correct and deterred us from going any further on foot. (Why? It turned out the edge-of-the-road dirt track ran out and the road leading to the centre was a dual carriageway, albeit a rather empty one.) Back up the hill we plodded, feeling acutely disheartened. As luck would have it, just as we were scanning the bus timetables and wondering how on earth we would get into town, a bus pulled up! €2 (and an amused face from the bus driver at our idea of walking into town) later and we were finally on our way.

After accidentally hopping off the bus one stop earlier than we should have, we then followed the bus over the Canal Galiffet. So far, so unlike Venice. (Having never actually been to Venice, I’m making assumptions – but relatively well-informed assumptions nevertheless.) Discovering an open supermarket, we picked up some satsumas and ham for lunch to go with a freshly baked baguette from the adjacent bakery.

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Eventually, we found Canal St. Sébastien. At last, things were looking Venice-like.

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Pastel-hued buildings bordered the canal, reflected perfectly in the clear water. At the local market, stalls were piled high with fresh mussels, oysters and seasonal fruit. Sailing boats adorned with quintessentially French names were moored at the edge of the canal; a handful of (eye-wateringly expensive) restaurants spilled out onto the pavement.

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We sat down at the water’s edge, noshing away on our picnic whilst simultaneously eagerly pointing out the tiny fish swimming in the clear waters of the canal; I don’t think I’ve ever described – or, for that matter, seen – a canal with clear waters before.

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Picking ourselves up, we peeked into Église St. Marie-Madeleine, a remarkably ornate church for a relatively small town. Emerging into the bright, early afternoon sunshine, we looped through the town’s backstreets, admiring the colourful shutters and faded paintwork.

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When we’d contented ourselves with extensive wandering, we simply plonked ourselves down in the sun by the canal.

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Eventually, we decided to meander back to the bus stop. It quickly became apparent that buses run as and when they fancy in Martigues. As one bus went by, then another, and another, each driver telling us to catch a completely different bus from the one before, we began to wonder if we’d ever make it back to the station. Eventually, we caught one – only to discover we had ninety minutes to kill on the platform before the next train arrived. Oh the joys of French Sundays . . .

En route back to Marseille we stopped off at Niolon, a small fishing port with stunning views across the bay towards Marseille. Aside from befriending a friendly feline, we saw a beautiful sunset – hazy hues of peach and salmon, with the most vibrant colours half-hidden from view behind the headland. Back at the station, we discovered our train had been cancelled; after a longer than anticipated wait, we finally caught a train onwards to Marseille.

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Tips:

  • If you’re taking the train to Martigues from Marseille, sit on the left hand side of the train for the magnificent coastal views; expect to pay €8.70 for a single ticket (un aller simple) if you don’t have a railcard.
  • Catch bus n°23 to the city centre from outside the station; you’ll need to catch it from the opposite side of the road from the station. The fare is €1 per person, one way.
  • The similarities between Martigues and Venice begin and end at Canal St. Sébastien. (Though whether or not they even start remains up for debate.) If you’re hiring a car, you could stop by, grab an ice cream and get the gist of it within a couple of hours. For those relying on public transport, the train times aren’t so favourable. On a sunny day, it’s easy to while away a few hours soaking up the current bun; without the sunshine, it’s difficult to imagine what one would do.
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