• Tomás S. Ó Ceallaigh

The Orient Unexpress: Marseille to Milan


Plage des Catalans, Marseille, in all its disorderly brilliance. © Shutterstock

Following a late-night, or an early morning to be more precise, I woke up to the strains of an angry woman yelling at her male companion outside the living room window and with my derrière resting on the frigid floor, the airbed having gently deflated itself in the night again. I opted to curl up on the sofa for a bit and contemplate the day ahead.


Perhaps something that I've been criminally bad at doing over the years is diving into bodies of water at any given opportunity whilst travelling. It might be at the seaside in Morocco, or even at the side of a lake in Scotland, but either way I somehow always seemed to run out of time or come up with a justification not to do it. This was the year that this had to change.


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It was a slow start to the day. John had had to drag himself sluggishly off to put in a few hours work at the language college, and I had headed off to the large branch of Carrefour in the centre to buy some food for a slightly rustic picnic. It also gave me a chance to buy various things I may need for my travels eastwards to Istanbul – shower gel, toothbrush, deodorant, etc.


In the late morning, the sun beating down ferociously already, John found me in the shade outside of Bar Le Perrin on the corner of Cours Saint-Louis and La Canebière, not far from the waterfront. I’d stopped at this bar a couple of times over my short stay as it was a convenient central meeting point. The bar staff were friendly enough and could cope well with my atrocious spoken French.


In John’s opinion, all of the best beaches in Marseille were a little way out from the centre – the beaches nearer the city had a little more ‘edge’ was his implication. Either you could take a small bike ride or a bus. In my position, having a train to catch just after 3 pm, the beach nearest to the Vieux Port was to be the best choice for us.


Tour du Fanal, part of Fort Saint-Jean, Marseille.

Armed with food and a couple of drinks, we took the long but direct walk past the Vieux Port along Quai de Rive Neuve, cresting the hill past Parc Émile Duclaux, and back down again towards the Plage des Catalans.


At the very moment that we turned the corner and the compact little beach came into view, sunbathers taking up almost every square metre of the sand, the heavens opened. The squally rain shower sent people scattering to the shelter of bars, parasols and changing rooms. It was like watching God holding down the delete key and wiping the sand clean for another attempt at something. For many, it was all too much and they took the opportunity to start heading off for lunch.


In a manner reminiscent of the English summer weather, within five minutes the sun was back out again and people were gingerly starting to emerge from the shadows to find their space on the rain-pocked sand. Me and John, pre-empting this, had already got our spot and set about making the world’s most rustic sandwiches, ripping the baguettes open with our bare hands and stuffing in an obscene amount of filling.


The Plage des Catalans might not be the world's most attractive beach but was perfect for what I needed. Nestled between two small outcrops of rock, the beach is wider than it is long, with warm shallow waters.


The view isn't much to write home about, looking out as it does into the shipping lanes that head into and out of Marseille’s massive dockyards. A little further in the distance, perhaps a little more remarkable than the endless shipping traffic, is the Île d’If, known for being the setting of Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo – which I’ve never read.


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Naturally, time ran quickly and there came a point, one hour from my train’s departure time, that we had to pack up and head back towards to the city: firstly at a casual pace, then at a more rapid pace, before actually having to break into a jog (with a heavy backpack on) up the hill from John’s flat to Gare de Marseille Saint Charles.


Fully expecting to run around the station like a madman looking for my train, I was happy to find that it was sat in the second platform from the entrance – very useful when there was so little time left until departure.


The service I was catching was the once-daily service from Marseille to Milan run by Thello (owned by the Italian state), with whom I’d originally hoped to take the sleeper service from Paris to Venice.


As I'd saved so much money by not taking the sleeper train and sleeping on an airbed for two nights, I splashed out on a first class ticket and its promise of more legroom and wider seats. I had also deliberately chosen a seat that I knew would have a view of the sea for as long as we were by the coast.


The first part of the route, like a thread and needle, ducked in and out of the edges of the south coast of France. Between Marseille and Cannes, the train rolled past back-streets by innocuous apartment blocks, before sweeping down to the seafront that looks out over endless azure seas and skies flecked with minute clouds like small brushstrokes of white, only then to dive into a cutting or jump over a bridge spanning the smallest of coves, hewn by nature from the golden rock.


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After around two hours, the train arrived in Nice, a city that I hadn’t visited for an inordinate number of years. Back then, Nice had represented the start of a much shorter railway trip to Genoa, via Diano Marina. My budget had been much tighter at the time only being a few years into my teaching career, but I’d still insisted on staying in hotels, most of which fell far below the quality of many hostels that I’ve stayed in since.


The Thello train waiting to depart from Gare de Saint Charles, Marseille.

Immediately after leaving Nice, the train enters a tunnel beneath the Fort du Mont Alban, before emerging alongside the Plage des Marinières in Villefranche-sur-Mer.


Here, all those years before, I had spent the majority of my time floating on my back in the water, occasionally retiring to the shade of my parasol for white wine and saucisson.


I think it must have constituted the first time in my life that I’d been able to stay in one place for so long without getting bored. I’d heard about people ‘spending the day at the beach’ but I didn’t know that I could do it. Only when the shadows were beginning to lengthen across the water, had I packed up and made my way back to the hotel via the local train.


Now, here I was passing by my old self – he didn’t know much about the world, was only just falling in love with West London and still had so much to learn. I gave him a quick wave on the busy beach as the train continued to accelerate away towards Ventimiglia on the Italian border.


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Something about the journey along the Côte d'Azur made it seem as if the sunlight was lasting forever. After leaving the French Riveria, and crossing over the border, the train stopped for a while in Ventimiglia, where the sun seemed to be taking on a more golden hue with the eastward sky picking up hints of violet.


It wasn’t until somewhere along the Ligurian coast, possibly between Imperia and Alassio, that dusk seemed to be winning the battle over the light, and by the time the train was snaking slowly through the maze of railway lines that surround the port in Genoa, it was completely dark. The only view from my window now were the lights on dock cranes and ships. Occasionally, as the train slowed down further, I would see small moments of real life, brief tableaux vivants visible through an apartment window or an open balcony door.


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From Genoa, the journey to Milan Centrale is another two hours and by the time the train was pulling into the grand train shed of the station I was glad of two things: firstly, that I’d had a reclining seat in first class for the whole journey, and secondly that the journey was over.


Leaving the train and walking into the ticket hall I got the sense, not that I was at a railway station any more, but that I had entered a 1930s parliament building, or some great monumental palace.


Originally built in 1864, it became apparent very quickly that the main building had all the trappings of fascist architecture: perfect symmetry and completely exaggerated in its form.


One history guide says: “At the insistence of Mussolini’s fascist regime the station building was decorated with symbols demonstrating strength and power. The roofs were adorned with bombastic sculptures of muscular animals from mythology: winged horses, lions, bulls and eagles.”


The station that you see today was opened in 1931 and is undoubtedly both impressive and bizarre in its magnitude, but does pose questions about whether it is ever really acceptable to like fascist architecture, however much the symmetry may appeal to the viewer.


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Leaving the station just in time for an intense storm to begin, I thanked my common sense that I had booked into the Ostello Bello Grande, just a street away from the station on Via Roberto Lepetit, and ran the distance in my flip-flops without managing to fall over in the dreich darkness.


Here, I was greeted by a friendly receptionist who gave me a drink, whilst in the background an impromptu samba jam seemed to be starting up. I was happy to have reached Milan, but, for now, only really had thoughts of sleeping.


Lessons Learned:

  • The Thello service from Marseille to Milan is a long journey. Buy your refreshments well in advance and if you can upgrade to a comfy seat on the right-hand side of the train.

  • Book your Thello ticket online in advance, especially if you're intending on going to the beach right before departure.

  • Keep your shoes in an easily accessible part of your backpack to avoid having to run in the rain wearing flip-flops.


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