Marseille spruces up for its time in the limelight as European Capital of Culture 2013

Marseille Waterfront, (photo by Wadey James)
Marseille Waterfront

In The New York Times’s ‘Top Places to Be in 2013’, Marseille came second behind the all mighty Rio de Janeiro. And since the official opening ceremony as European Capital of Culture back in January, the city is buzzing with its very own carnival atmosphere. We look at the city's transformation...


A shiny new waterfront

Fresh from a £6 billion rejuvenation, Marseille is intent on shedding its shady ‘French Connection’ past. And nowhere is the transformation more visible than on the town’s iconic waterfront. First there is the stunning new Villa Méditerranée, an exhibition and conference centre jutting out like a diving board over a pool of water, where visitors can ‘see and live’ the experience of the Mediterranean. Nearby, Sir Norman Foster’s L'Ombrière is a huge silvered sunshade which reflects both the sea and the crowd below. And since June, the waterfront also boasts the MuCEM, a museum dedicated to the cultures of the Mediterranean, courtesy of French media-darling architect Rudy Ricciotti. Still in the old port area, a huge hangar has been transformed into J1, a huge space housing three galleries, a performance space and a bar/restaurant. This is where many of the major events are taking place. There are also countless new art and exhibition spaces like the FRAC (Fonds Régional de l’Art Contemporain) and The Friche, housed in an ex-tobacco factory, both focusing on contemporary art.


A box set of celebrations

The 2013 celebrations have been divided into three ‘Episodes’. Episode 1: ‘Marseille Provence welcomes the world’, from January to May 2013; Episode 2: ‘Marseille Provence under open skies’, from May to September 2013 and Episode 3: ‘Marseille Provence - a Thousand Faces’ from September to December 2013. June and July also see the Festival de Marseille (19 June–12 July). This is a festival of dance and related arts with events taking place in various venues around the city.


Marseille's old charms

Of course, it’s not all just about the shiny new buildings: Marseille’s inherent charm lies in its old stalwarts. And the best way to see them is to follow the Marseille stretch of the GR2013, a freshly inaugurated long-distance footpath spanning the rural and urban landscapes of Southern Provence. Overlooking the Old Port, stands Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, the guardian and protector of the city. Down below, the fish market is an institution where the day’s catch is still landed and sold. Listening to the colourful banter that goes on there is part of the Marseille experience. Wander the streets of the Old Town, also known as ‘le Panier’ (the basket), with its honey-hued stone buildings and steep narrow streets. This is a good place to buy Marseille’s famous ‘savons’, which now come in an array of colours and scents but the original is still the best. Lunchtime brings the prospect of a pastis apéritif and taste of the local speciality, bouillabaisse (fish stew).

For more information on the programme of festivities when you get there, visit the M Pavillion, a temporary structure showcasing the cultural programme and the Marseille Provence region. There’s never been a better time to be a Marseillais.


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