Δευτέρα, 2 Νοεμβρίου 2009

Marseille by day and by Night

No sooner than my nightly arrival at the hotel, somewhere in the proximity of Lycee Perrier, I started my walk around the port city of Marseille. Marseille may not be so famous to common travellers; at least it does not reach the glitter of Paris. But to people who love French culture, Marseille is something like a gospel. Probably because Marseille is more real than Paris, in the sense that it has not adopted a glamorous image, but they way the city presents itself to the tourist is closer to its reality, rather than try to hide its problems under the carpet. Other than that, Marseille is by nature multicultural, and some of France’s most prominent faces in sport and culture (like Zinedine Zidane and Rashid Taha) were born there, or made their name there. Other than that, the city has to show a great old quarter, the Mediterranean coast, the cosy old port, and one of the most famous fests of modern art in Southern Europe.

As the night was beginning to settle down, I went for a ride in the Old Port. The place is full of people taking a walk across the bars and restaurants of the area. In Marseille you can find just about everything edible. After sampling prices, I decided that the local fish soup plates were too expensive and that I would rather sample the more exotic tastes offered to me in town. This meant Tunisian, Moroccan, Vietnamese or Corsican food, maybe even some of the fine products of Provence, like its salami and cheese, and, of course, the wine. In the end these were an economic and tasty solution, especially Briq and the lamb kushkush. I decided that I really loved Tunisian cuisine. Madre de Dios que linda! The night went on with no further incident, just me walking along a taking a peek of the local nightlife. In the end I danced to some lounge dj set near the museum of modern art, drinking beer I had just purchased from the kiosk there, and listening to some French deli owner boast that “French girls are the most beautiful because they have this sweet and very little pussy”. The stereotype of French people not speaking foreign languages has become some sort of a joke. Some do not speak any other language than French, that is true, but here this one was talking to me in almost perfect English. In other areas I heard French people speak Spanish or Italian, and some of them even speak German (let alone Arabic). I will leave behind the sexism behind this comment, because I have heard sexist remarks all around the world, so why should a port city like Marseille be left behind?

The next morning was somewhat late in its arrival. I slept practically until midday, before opening the rooms TV set to get a small glimpse of French TV. And what was the first thing I saw there? It was her. She was talking on a talk show dedicated to France and the French the way foreigners living there saw them. She was sitting next to Charlotte Rampling and Carl Lagerfeld, but she was probably the shining light throughout the show, despite the fact that she was no actress or singer, or either a fashion icon. In fact she is a comic artist that turned her life and times in Iran and Austria after the fall of the Shah and during the Iran-Iraq war. Marjane Satrapi. With just a smile she was sending out waves of good vibes, even though I could not understand a thing she was saying. It was just her bright smile and nothing more. I decided to close the TV and visit a delicatessen, to buy some food. Delis in France look very much like a de-louxe edition of the general stores that one can meet in small villages or neighbourhoods. There you can buy food, but for anything else one has to visit the store next-door. I bought some salami, baguettes, cheese Provenciale and wine, and returned to the hotel to make some sandwiches for my next trip. Then I went back at the museum, to see if there was anything happening there. Actually there were some pieces of performance art going on there. In one, some Japanese artist was moving hanging inside what looked like a huge nylon bag that was practically wrapped around him, while breathing from a tube. After two hours of this performance, a Basque took over, with a show of moving table-like objects across a small pitch with a wooden floor. As the objects were spinning around the Formica-wood pitch some suspicious moves made me look around. A group of guys that seemed out of place in the area. They were wearing wide jackets, and they seemed to wear the colours of some gang. As I observed them move around the small crowd, they seemed to fit into my idea of them being gang members. I kept watching them with one eye while they were getting closer and closer. They stopped at the when they reached a girls standing near me. One of them yelled at her something that I could translate into “Bitch”, ant then he reached out and grabbed her earrings, before disappearing almost into thin air. Crime is raging in the streets of Marseille. Not any kind of crime. Petty crime. This is not really a sign of moral decay or anything that your run-of-the-mill conservative would say. This is a sign of people living in poverty and not seeing any other chance in getting out of it, than getting involved in crime of any sort. Most of these people are the children of migrants living in France. These young men and women probably have no rights under French law, and thus have no chance of getting away from their poverty or becoming full French citizens. And, even if they manage to gain citizenship, whenever they get to deal with anything that has to do with any aspects of the French State, they will be treated as second-class citizens, since this is the way the state sees anyone coming from the banlieu, the French ghettos. This fuels these kids with anger, and despair, a pair of very evil and treacherous advisors. And crime does not really come alone. There are drugs running around in the city, and to the extent of my knowledge, it is not the recreational drugs that make high sales around town, but drugs that cause a serious addiction, like heroin and crack. Drugs that go with poverty too. And people that are under the influence will usually stop at nothing in order to get their dose. Again moral decay has nothing to do with this situation. The aforementioned advisors do. But for people with virtually no way out, and have to cope with the idea of having no job, or money, or decency, drugs and crime seem to provide a solution, or a way out of their problems. Nevertheless, I returned to the hotel, listening to the soundtrack of sirens blazing and while patrol cars were muscling their way through the evening traffic to respond to some urgent call.

The next morning I decided to go to the beach, and maybe visit the “more prestigious” part of Marseille. So I took my towel and my swimming trunks, and went for a walk alongside the coastal avenue, looking for a suitable beach, meaning a public one and not one of those “exclusive club” things. To my surprise, exclusive beaches were a rare sight along the boulevard. On the other hand I saw a lot of public ones, swarming with people of all colours, nationalities, sexes and religions. The second thing that surprised me was the lack of rented umbrellas and armchairs. Back home all these are something of a prerequisite for any “decent” beach, especially when they cover the whole of it. I found the ideal spot and went down. The first thing I did notice was the amount of good-looking guys and girls that where there. The girls from Marseille seem to be the most beautiful girls in the whole of France. Sweet faces and incredible bodies, that turned them into a feast for the eyes. Some Magrebine beauties especially captivated me. The African girls looked gorgeous too.

I got lost in the waters of the Mediterranean, only to resurface after about an hour. And then, I swept into the sweet hug of Morpheus, with the help of the red-hot beams of the Mediterranean sun. I woke up hours later, checked out my wallet and cell phone. Though crime is raging in the city, and even though I was not in an exclusive beach, nobody had even dared to touch them, probably because there were a lot of people around. I left early in the afternoon for the hotel. There I packed my bags for the next day’s trip to Barcelona, slept a bit more, and then left for a night in town.

On my way to the beach, I had stopped at a building that I thought was something like a cultural centre. In it, there was an invitation-only jazz concert, but when I was passing by, the band was outside the building playing for the people that where coming in, and of course the passing onlookers. And at the entrance, one of the promoters told me that it was “part” of the European Music day. And that meant that I had the opportunity to take a peak of the city’s music scene. There was nothing happening at the museum, but all the action seemed to come from the old town. I followed a steady stream of people that was heading up towards the old town. After one point, the whole ride through the narrow streets of the old town, looked like a huge moving street party. Every small bar and deli of the area had a grill, or a big PA system, or both, out in the street, and was adding to the enjoyment of all the punters around. The local communities where taking part in the celebrations to, with benches around the area serving specialities from each community. I sampled some Arab food again, and moved toward the central stage where a group of local drummers was performing. The beat was complex but altogether very solid, and the crowd was responding well to that. If someone was looking from above, I am quite sure that he would see a crowd of people moving spontaneously and harmonically to the beat. Then a Latin band took to the stage. The party became wilder and the dancing became more spontaneous. Marseille has a very vibrant music scene. There are jazz bands playing around town, but you can listen to ethnic music from a lot of regions of the world. But the big deal here is hip-hop, dub, and electro music. Most of the PA systems outside the small venues where manned by selectors and disk jockeys (that’s what MC’s are called in dub music). And there are a lot of dub bands coming from Marseille and Provence in general. But the most amazing thing about these bands is that they have a crossover appeal. Outside any of these places I saw white, black, Arabic and Asian youths dancing to the music. This was one hell of a groovy atmosphere that is hard to find outside the Mediterranean coast.

The next morning I woke up, I was feeling a little sad, because I was leaving the town. But my destination was familiar and way too tempting. I was visiting Barcelona again, trying to chase away the ghosts of my previous trip there, and to see what I had missed on my two last prolonged stays in town. The stay in Marseille had to end at the central station. And it ended with mixed feelings. At first, a feeling of disgust and resentment towards really ugly situations that one could see there. As I was waiting for my train, I witnessed an extremely vulgar sexual attack on a girl sitting close to me. He was definitely touching her in places where she did not want him to, and she at one point, while he was trying to complete his actions with a rape in public, was about to burst in tears. Then there was a feeling of being amazed. While I was making a move to try and make him move away, she managed to get her hands in her bag. When they re-emerged, she was holding a canister of pepper spray. She aimed it directly at her attackers eyes, and sprayed him without any hesitation. I do not have the slightest idea how she found the courage to pull this off, while this guy was trying to humiliate her in public.

But the final feeling was that Marseille still is a party town, with its bright and dark spots. And maybe Marseille has to face all the problems creating those dark spots, in order to keep the good vibes. It was a match-day, and not any match-day, but the day of the final of the French rugby league. And the teams of Clermont Ferand (in blue), and Perpignan (in red). And, although rugby is a violent sport, its’ fans are not violent. In fact most of the people going to rugby matches are just fans who go there to support their teams and have some good clean fun. So any confrontation between groups of rival fans lead only to….taunts and nothing more, while some of the fans of both teams found the chance to renew old friendships, or to share the fun with their “rivals”. As both groups slowly left the station, I could only see some actions of friendship and kinship, like the scene when two groups of fans of both teams joined and shared their wine and sandwiches with each other, exchanging jokes and hugging each other. This was only a part of the contrasting images and feelings I got from the city. Marseille is definitely a long way from being the city of sin and crime, but in contrast to every stark image it gives you, there is scene, or a moment, that turns things around and puts a bright colour in the picture. However a visitor must handle the place with caution, but without any prejudice, if one wants to “survive” there.

Castellon -La Coruna

As the night was approaching, the trip to Aragon was turning more and more into something inevitable. Due to my short projected stay there, and the fact that travelling to the village where my friend was staying was extremely difficult and long, my friend suggested that I drop the plan and that we might see each other later on in the trip. So I decided to go on to Barcelona, spend the night there and then move on to La Coruna. I was visiting my friend Paldi there, before his departure for Brazil. So, I rented a room in a place overlooking La Rambla, and spent the night there. In the next morning I left for the Barcelona Sants station. Unfortunately, all trains to Galicia, by some strange misfortune were fully loaded. So I opted for the sleeper to Bilbao, getting which was the closest thing to going to La Coruna that I could do, and try from then on. Sleeper trains in Spain are especially comfortable. Hence, the multi-hour wait for it was worthwhile. In the end, before I could even realise the passing of the time, the train was zipping through the early morning mist, into the Basque country. It was a rather cold morning when I saw the first Basque flags, in the outskirts of Bilbao. Then, I saw the first houses of the city, and, in the distance, the Guggenheim. We went in the station, and I finally bought my ticket for La Coruna. I had to backtrack for about half an hour, and get the train to Miranda Del Evro, and then take the train that goes through the wine country (La Rioja), into Castile and Leon, and then onto Galicia. That summed up to a total of about 24 hours constantly on the move, and if you put into consideration the pit stop at Barcelona, a 30-something hour trip. Whatever, the sights and sounds of La Coruna would make things up for all this. I stood for about half an hour in the cold concourse of the station, and then went into my train. As I zipped back to Miranda del Evro, I was taking a glimpse of what I had missed while asleep, during the first leg of this trip. The magnificence of the nature of the Basque countryside, and the amazing atmosphere of the city and its surroundings. I made a mental note to visit the area again, in the near future. I arrived at Miranda del Evro at around nine in the morning, and spent the next hour or so looking at the wooden complex of the ceiling. Then I started the long last leg of the trip, slowly cruising around the plains of the northern regions of Spain. As I cruised the vineyards of La Rioja, probably when closing to Burgos, the call came in. It was Paldi, asking about when I would arrive, and informing me that our friends Kabale, Kay and Boo where arriving from Salonica within the next two days, and Caro was coming in from France also in two days time. The mechanisms of the universe, or in this case Paldi, where conspiring in a Paolo Coelho kind of way so that we, the crazy gang from the University, would meet up for some days in a crazy town at the other edge of Europe. Unbelievable! After hanging up, I rested on my seat, watching the endless fields and the villages pass by, as I was thinking of the possibilities of the next five days turning into a gran fiesta and wondering if my friends had gone into some serious drug collection for the ensuing binge, or if we had to find our way into that through Paldi’s friends. As I was thinking about all this, the scenery changed once again, since I was well out of the plains and into Castilla y Leon, slowly moving through the old imperial capital of Spain. Now, the city still keeps its imperial grace, though it is nothing more than a town that lives partly out of tourism. A few hours later, as the sun was setting once again, I was travelling through the forests of Galicia, savouring every last bit of light during my trip. After Vigo, I was in the final hour of my trip, and was about to enter La Coruna, and cherish the opportunities of good, dirty, fun waiting for me there

Benicassim-Castellon de La Planna-D’ares (as in rock’n’roll, tourism and scams)

I left Barcelona quite early in the morning, to catch my train to Benicassim, so that I could go to FIB, the famous festival which the crème de la crème of the British scene visits every year since the late nineties. And, as I was travelling there, I had the chance to see what the hell was happening to the Spanish Mediterranean Coast. My mother had visited the south of Spain at the time when Franco’s regime was coming to an end. She walked through picturesque small fishing villages, full of paved walkways with their interior being almost inaccessible by car. And she returned with stories full of them. Two years later, one of her friends went there. And she came back with the impression that my mom had had visited some parallel universe. Actually the picturesque villages had given way to big holiday resorts, and the paved streets to wide streets ready to receive thousands of cars. The tourist craze was sweeping Spain. And what I got to see was a whole set of carcasses or live buildings of tourist complexes effectively distorting the picture and destroying the coastal landscape. But, to the brighter side of all of it, some of them where in the process of being destroyed. It seems that Spain is in the process of completing a leap from mass tourism to more eco-friendly forms of holidaymaking, like agricultural tourism. But on the other hand, even though the style has changed, the mentality of some of the people that are in the tourist business has not changed. This is particular in the rooms-to-let outlets.

Benicassim during the festival was fully booked. Despite my efforts to find accommodation of some sort in the area, everything fell really short, since all outlets were full of British holidaymakers and festival- goers. And not having a tent at my disposal, I was ready to settle for anything, provided I could leave my things someplace. Finally, after searching through the net, I was able to book a room in D’Ares, a medieval village eighty kilometres away. An hours taxi ride and eighty euros later, I discovered not only that the village was in the middle of nowhere, but also that the bus service to the village was very irregular, and, not really helpful for any festival-goers. Fortunately, after some time of searching for some place to stay, the hotel’s Catalan bartender came to my rescue. Or, so I thought. He offered me to let me stay in his house, which was much closer to the site, at a reasonable price.

With all that in mind, I decided to take a peek around the village. The good thing about it is that it has not been touched by modern architecture. It is one of the best-preserved medieval villages in Southern Spain. As I was walking around, I did not fail to notice the Arab-influenced structures, the walls, the gate and of course the towers. The Arabic influence is highly visible around Spain, though the Muslims (like the Jews and the Protestants) where violently persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church after the end of the reign of the Arabs in the Iberian Peninsula. The only evidence of the existence of the Arabs in Spain to survive the purges by the Spanish Inquisition was their architecture. This architecture blends with the natural landscape of the mountains in the northern part of the autonomous community of Valencia.

In the morning, I graciously climbed aboard the Catalan’s Renault 19, to move onto his house. It was actually a small cottage, again in the middle of nowhere, and someplace where a non-local could get easily lost. But, bus services seemed punctual. And it was only about 15 minutes away from the festival site. Nevertheless, it took a lot of explaining to get directions to the area. And, furthermore, the place was dusty and…needed a lot of repairs. Upon leaving the place, the Catalan told me the price. 400 euros for 3 nights! Scam! I was really duped! But I needed the residence, and I agreed. Maybe if I had booked anything in advance, things would be better. So I headed for the festival. The first day was probably a really good introduction in the world of FIB. 5 Stages, and about 80 acts a day. I spent the afternoon and the whole of the night absorbing just about everything, with my satchel pelted with food, and my isothermal bottle full of alcohol. Dyonyssos, who were playing back to back with the local chamber music orchestra, really stole the show. Their singer was something like a young Nick Cave with the energy of Iggy Pop, while the whole stunt sounded like a head on collision between ELO and the Cramps. The Babyshambles were really a shambles, with Pete Daugherty being a real wreck. Even the cameo of FIB regular Shane McGowan in their set did not save the day. Manta Ray did a decent closing set, while Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Pixies where having fun onstage. Perhaps the treat of the day where the Strokes. They played a rocking set, in an art deco styled stage.

So, at around seven in the next morning, I jumped on the bus back to the cottage. But I jumped on the wrong one and ended up wandering the streets of Castellon, in an effort to find the bus back that would take me back to the cottage. Futile effort, since the route plan of the busses seemed incomprehensible. In the end I jumped on one of the local cabs, and after a few calls to the Catalan I managed to find my way to the cottage. There I decided that it was futile coming back and forth, so I decided to spend the next two days in the outdoors and return on the last one to grab my things. So I took out the small bag, packed a pair of trousers, a shirt, a towel, my shampoo, my sleeping bag and a few more useful things, took a wee nap and left for the festival grounds. Benicassim, and Castellon are basically areas depending on tourism. Not any kind of tourism. British tourists coming on travel vouchers from tour operators. That means working class people on full board holidays, who spend a great deal of their time drinking and looking for easy sex. Everybody around the area speaks English, a thing that is a little weird for Spain, but then again it is a change from speaking Spanish almost full-time.

As the beginning of the second day was coming close, I started moving again toward the festival grounds. This time I was better armed and I was ready to spend the next two days outdoors, in order to save myself from the trouble of searching for the cottage again. In day two Franz Ferdinand stormed the stage. They came, they saw, and in the end they conquered. Calla where perhaps the most boring and over hyped indie band ever to appear in a FIB bill, while Mojave 3 did everything they could after the storm called F F. The Kooks had a feel good vibe coming along with them during their set, but being stuck between the sets of Morrissey and FF, they could not withstand any comparison. Moz’s set was a little Spartan. A lot of his older work was out of list. But, on the other hand he had some good material to work with. In the end, Moz was a romantic interval before the rock’n’roll storm. I spent the night talking to some girls from the Basque region that had come for the festival. They were very keen on speaking in English, rather than Spanish. Same goes with a lot of their compatriots who speak English. They prefer speaking in English than in Spanish. Funny thing, same thing happens with Catalan people. But this is Spain, with its divisions. The Catalans feel that they are on the downside of the game, since they feel that even though they are the powerhouse of Spain’s economy, they don’t get the recognition for that, or some more autonomy. The Basques on the other hand are a different story. Basque nationalism rose as an answer to the persecution of the Basque people and their culture from Franco, and the crushing of their hopes for independence or a wide autonomy in the first years of democracy. This lead to a great deal of resentment towards the Spanish state and anything associated with it. The night ended with a bit of short-talk, and I left to find a quiet spot to get some sleep before daybreak.

I ended up with the option of the square outside the festival. It was crowded but, what the hell! After all everyone was asleep, or too tired to make any noise whatsoever. Hence the choice. We all woke up well after the break of dawn. I moved to the beach, just to catch some sleep there, and maybe take a bath later on because I was stinking like a bore. As I walked down the central avenue, I stumbled across the bodies of drunken tourists that had probably passed out on the night before. Ah! The joys of mass tourism and massive quantities of alcohol at a low price. A bad hangover, an empty wallet, and probably lying facedown on some non-descript street or alley. As I moved toward the beach the number of the bodies was becoming smaller and smaller. I lied down on the beach and felt the red-hot beams of the Spanish sun spread across my face. I slipped merrily in the arms of Morpheus. A few hours later I was brutally awakened by the screams of children speeding across the sand. Then I instantly dropped all my clothes, and got into my swimming trunks. It was about time I refreshed myself for a bit. I took a dive, and returned to continue sunbathing. In the afternoon, after an immensely expensive sandwich, I took a bath in the beach, and then moved back to the festival grounds for my last day of rock and roll. The night was really long. The Editors showed that they were probably overrated, while the early time of the day did not help Yann Tiersen in creating the needed atmosphere. In the afternoon Madness took the central stage, and they started the party, which went on until halfway into the Placebo show. Then they started to play their newer material and the crowd cooled down. But when Dave Gahan stepped into the stage, the crowd was on fire again. It was a glorious night for Depeche Mode, with Dave Gahan strolling across the stage with great ease, showing great charisma during the show. Deus where only a shadow of their good old self, and they made even “Suds and Soda” sound powerless. I left early in the morning for the cottage, slept 3-4 hours, and then continued on to the station at Castellon. I needed to board the Tarragona train, so that I would be in Aragon within the day, where I would stay for a couple of days before moving on to Galicia…