Saturday, May 16, 2015


France’s new capital of culture

executive summary by darmansjah

On a once derelict jetty, opposite the stone ramparts of 17th-century Fort St. Jean, a new glass-and-steel building shimmers behind a lacy spider’s-web facade of finely cast concrete. Poised between lapis sea and Marseille’s sun-drenched hills, the National Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM) stands at the entrance to the Vieux-Port, the city’s historic heart. And when it opens in May 2013, MuCEM will be a bold symbol of Marseille’s reemergence as a flourishing pan-Mediterranean hub.

Cities may rise and fall, but the great ones—and Marseille is among them—always rise again. Founded by ancient Greeks, France’s second largest city was already 500 years old and a bubbling stew of many cultures when Caesar laid siege in 49 B.C. A 20th-century wave of immigrants from Algeria and some other former French colonies led to Marseille’s modern reputation as a city far removed ethnically and psychologically from the rest of France. Despite recent headlines about drug-related crime, Marseille still stands tall as a world-class city.

These days Marseille has every right to act the cagou (slang for a show-off) as it and the surrounding Provence region assume the role of 2013 European Capital of Culture. “There is a new energy in the city, especially in music, theater, and museums,” says MuCEM director Bruno Suzzarelli. Young, multiethnic crowds gather for cutting-edge happenings at La Friche la Belle de Mai, a tobacco factory turned art and performance center. Major renovations have polished up many of the city’s 20-plus museums, including the Musée Cantini, whose trove of Picassos and Mirós is housed in an elegant 1694 town house. For all the new energy, Marseille’s old pleasures remain as alluring as ever: a stroll along the narrow lanes of the Panier Quarter, the lusty aromas of a good bouillabaisse, a boat ride into the fjordlike inlets called calanques. It’s no wonder that visitors are becoming fadas (big fans) of France’s southern gateway. —Christopher Hall

Travel Tips

When to Go: June-August for beaches, April-May and September-October for comfortable temperatures and lighter tourist traffic.

Where to Stay: Walk to the Vieux Port from the sleek and affordable Mama Shelter Marseille or see the boats from your private terrace at the luxurious Sofitel Marseille Vieux Port.

How to Get Around: The Régie des Transports de Marseille public transportation network includes metro, bus, and tramway lines. Consider a tourist City Pass for one or two days’ travel, museum admissions, and tours. March-September, a batobus (water shuttle) runs between the Vieux Port and Pointe Rouge. Kitschy, blue-and-white tourist trains wind through the streets of the oldest districts.

Where to Eat or Drink: Bouillabaisse is the homegrown culinary art form. Try Le Miramar in the Vieux Port or Chez Fonfon or L’Epuisette in Vallon des Auffes.

What to Buy: Wander through the maze of indoor and outdoor stalls at the Marché aux Puces and the daily Prado Market. Shop for santons (clay crèche figures), olive and lavender soap, olive oil, navettes (small, rowboat-shaped orange or lemon cookies), and pétanque balls.

What to Watch Before You Go: The Fanny Trilogy (Marius, Fanny, Cesar), 1948 (DVD 2004). Beloved 1930s French films (English subtitles), adaptations of the plays by Marseille’s preeminent writer, Marcel Pagnol, are considered national cultural treasures.

Fun Fact: France’s newest national park, Parc National des Calanques, is located on the outskirts of Marseille. Created in April 2012, the land (lagoons, cliffs, beaches) and sea (dolphins, turtles, seabirds) preserve is accessible only by foot or boat.

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