My alarm sounds at 9am, and I immediately pop out of bed. I’ve never really been one to hit snooze repeatedly, preferring instead to go to bed early and nap whenever possible. I need a lot of sleep, even when I am traveling, but that need counterbalances that of exploration and discovery. I also try to regularly post on Nathan’s Notes, and while there isn’t an article going up today, it wouldn’t hurt to sit down in the blue padded chair in my thinking position, laptop at the ready while I outline one for later in the week. I tend to write all the articles from a single destination over the course of a few weeks, and my Southeast Asia trip has plenty of fodder left. Perhaps today I will focus on the temples of Angkor (now Siem Reap) in Cambodia. Let’s see, there’s Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm…
I look up again to see that it’s now 10:30. Ugh, time to get a move on. A quick rinse and a protein bar; I don’t need to shave today. My backpack gets its familiar daily items put into their familiar daily places. I put the water bottle in the side pocket, sunglasses in their case, portable charger, umbrella and sweatshirt just in case, a copy of my passport, and my reusable bamboo cutlery set with a straw. That ought to do it. I grab my room key off the desk and head out.
Marseille has two subway lines, but those don’t especially help tourists like me, since most things of interest are right around the Vieux-Port, or within a fairly easy walk of it. The Musée du Savon de Marseille, the Marseille Soap Museum, is just on the other side of the harbor, and a pleasant stroll past tourists, locals out for a walk, street performers, vendors of most shapes and sizes, and the ever-present and magnificent Notre Dame de la Garde. A small, worn facade, blue trim over brown shutters, and a friendly “Bonjour, monsieur”, greet me as I walk in.
Only two other people are in the small museum, half of which is taken up by a collection of old, ancient even, soap making apparatus, ingredients, and piles of soap that dates back centuries. The other half is a much more modern looking machine. A sign tells me that for only €5, I can tour the museum and make my own soap to take home as a souvenir. Uh, yes, please! I pull a small €5 note out of my wallet, remembering in the process how much I love that European bills look so differently from one another, and are different sizes to make it easier for the visually impaired. Apparently I look like a tourist, even in my unmarked clothes, and the man who greeted me at the door asks me, in English, if it is my first time here.
“Oui,” I respond, eager to show him that I have a few words of French under my belt. Few is the key word, as I get rather little of his rapid French response, so we switch back to English. So much for my appearing cultured.
“You can visit the museum first, and when you are ready, I will teach you to make the savon,” says the man. I don’t give him a nickname yet. Perhaps I will in a few minutes, but at the moment, I find myself distracted by a huge pile of soap.
Each bar is less like a bar of soap as we’d think of it today and more like a soap box or soap brick, easily a four by four by four-inch cube, some larger. All are beige or olive green in color, and marked with a stamp of “72%” somewhere on it. In addition, each has its manufacturer and weight stamped. The bars are stacked to be a pyramid, piled up to my chin, though there seems to be no method to which soaps are where.
“To be true savon de Marseille, it has to be 72% olive oil.” I turn to find the man standing beside me. His graying hair is cropped close to his head, and his maroon sweater hides all but the white collar of his shirt underneath. “Before, soap was made with animal fat, combined with water and lye. But Marseille, being the center of trade, could get oil to replace the animal fat. And so olive oil became the main form of soap in the world, but this is where it began.” His accent is noticeable but not overbearing, and I enjoy hearing the man speak.
“Soap was so important to the economy that in 1688, Louis XIV declared that it must be to that standard, and still today, to be called savon de Marseille, it must remain 72% pure.” Another man and woman enter the museum, and the man turns away to greet them, leaving me to wander. Fortunately, lacking my live narration, I find that signage is in English as well as French.
One panel tells me that with the certainty of purity and ingredients of savon de Marseille, by the year 1900, Marseille was manufacturing about half of the world’s soap, about 120,000 tons per year! Another says that in 1913, roughly 50% of the city’s workers were employed in the soap industry. Today, however, only four operating soap factories remain in Marseille, but what a legacy. I walk from panel to panel, from machine to machine, thinking about how truly important this city was to a single industry. I snap some photos and jot down some of the more relevant factoids for a future Nathan’s Notes article.
“What do you think of our soap?” The man is again next to me. He must be half cat, or half Prius, to sneak up so quietly. Or I’m oblivious; I can’t discount that possibility.
“I didn’t know anything about this until coming here. It’s amazing,” I respond. Yes, I’m buttering him up a bit. But yes, it’s also true. I love when those things line up nicely like this. “I am so excited to make my own soap!”
“If you are ready, we can begin.” He looks at me expectantly, and I nod, smiling.
We walk to the other side of the building, a modern looking space with metal tables, some machinery, and a bunch of stuff that might have come out of a children’s craft catalog: stencils, stamps, and the like. Sadly, the soap seems pre-made, but the man moves over to a machine loaded with olive-green material.
“This is where the soap is formed,” he tells me, and presses a button. A ribbon of soap, probably two inches on each side, is extruded almost like pasta, but with no hole in the middle. I guess it’s just super thick soap spaghetti? I’m so good with words. After about a foot of the soap rope is pushed out, he turns off the machine and cuts it off.
“We also make it in lavender scent,” he says and repeats the process on a second extruder, producing an equal amount of purple soap. “You can find savon de Marseille in every scent now, but these are the most traditional.”
He hands me some stamps of letters and numbers, and a scalpel, and I am left to decorate my soap and to cut it into bars for him to wrap. I make a cool-looking interlocking NN for Nathan’s Notes on each piece. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gifts are now covered. Thanks!
The museum has emptied out, leaving just my host and me. I figure now is a good time to bring up the real reason I am here. “I am curious about a specific soap merchant,” I tell him. “I was wondering if you knew of one who was a messenger for Napoleon on his return from Elba.”
His eyes narrow as he stares to the ceiling, deep in thought. “Many in Marseille would have been sympathetic to the emperor in those days,” he says. “I don’t know of any in particular who would have been what you say, but if a man were to have been caught being a messenger for the emperor, he would have been sent to the Chateau d’If. But nobody ever returned from prison there. It is said that a man arrived there with only the rags on his back and a bar of soap, and that both would outlive him.”
He turns back to me. “I am sorry I cannot be of more help, but I hope you find who you seek.”
I thank him, wrap up my soap, and walk back along the water toward my hotel. I know the Chateau d’If as the prison in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. An island just outside Marseille’s harbor, it is now a popular tourist destination. Perhaps something there will give me hope in picking up a trail that has now seemed to go a bit colder.
There is only one thing to do at a time like this. Arriving back in my room, I put my stuff down, close the curtains to the early afternoon sun, and lie down for a nap.
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The Ring of Marseille
A pdf of a short story combining travel and mystery, set in the south of France.