Those of you who have been reading my blog for awhile know that I visited several cities in the Mediterranean last year. If you were to ask me which one was the biggest surprise to me, I would say Marseilles, France. It was the sleeper hit of the trip for me. Why? Because I had no expectations for it. I knew almost nothing about it going into the trip, since I had signed up for a ship excursion and didn’t need to research it. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself absolutely enchanted by what I saw of it.
I loved it so much I found myself wanting to return for a longer stay and a bit more exploration. That’s when I did some research and discovered just how much this city has to offer. What’s more, 2013 is going to be a big year for the city of Marseilles: It has been named “Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2013”, beating out seven other cities in France for the title. (Technically, Marseilles is one of two Capitals of Culture this year, the other being Kosice in Slovakia.)
What does it mean to be named a “Capital of Culture”? Cities compete for this distinction by creating a program for the year that highlights the “richness of cultural diversity in Europe”. During the year, Marseilles will host more than 400 cultural events, involving artists from the entire region. Sounds like the perfect time to visit, doesn’t it?
The Capital of Culture Program
The city has plans for exhibitions, such as one that runs from January through May exploring the Mediterranean through the lens of history and mythology. Another exhibit focuses on how the region was depicted by famous painters such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Matisse. In January and February, they are celebrating the art of acrobatics via several circus performances. The city has been creating new spaces and renovating buildings and other important areas of the city in preparation for these events, such as a pedestrian walk along the Vieux Port. In one of the city’s more creative moves, it has converted an old wheat silo located on the docks into a new concert arena called (appropriately) “Le Silo”.
Marseilles is located in the heart of the region of Provence. It is the 2nd largest city in France (after Paris) and the largest on the Mediterranean coast. It is the largest port in France and the 5th largest in Europe. Needless to say, a focal point for the city is its Vieux Port, or Old Port, where you can see sailboats bobbing in the harbor and visit a daily fish and seafood market that is an attraction in itself. What else can you do in Marseilles?
Notre-Dame de la Garde Basilica
This basilica, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is located on the highest hill in Marseilles. Built on the site of a former fortress, it features marbles and mosaics and a Neo-Byzantine style that is quite striking. There is a massive statue of the Virgin Mary covered in gold leaf that overlooks the harbor from the top of the basilica. Sailors visited the basilica to pray that “Our Lady of the Guard” would keep them safe during their voyages. From the grounds of the basilica, you can enjoy stunning views of the Mediterranean and the city of Marseilles. (Take the #60 bus or the Petit Train to get here.)
This island fortress-turned-prison is France’s version of Alcatraz, and while it housed numerous prisoners over the years, its most famous prisoner is also a fictional one: Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. You can catch a ferry from the Vieux Port to explore the prison and enjoy views of the coastline.
Marseilles is home to several museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts and Natural History Museum (located at the Palais de Longchamp), The Museum of Old Marseilles, The Museum of Mediterranean Archeology, and the Museum of African, Oceanic, and American Indian Art (located at Centre de la Vieille Charite). Slated to open this year is the new MuCEM (Museum of Civilizations from Europe and the Mediterranean).
Le Panier (“The Old Town”)
This historic neighborhood was settled by Greeks and later ravaged by the Nazis during World War II. It is now home to artisans of all kinds and to La Vieille Charité, a renovated 17th Century poorhouse that is now a cultural center and home to several museums.
If you want to mingle with locals, go to a football (soccer) game at this stadium located in the Prado section of Marseilles. Football is huge in Europe and the OM (Olympic Marseilles) is the biggest football team in France. You’re sure to get caught up in the enthusiasm of rooting for the home team.
Marseilles is a good base from which to take day trips out into Provence. Aix, Avignon and Cassis are easily reached by bus and/or train, as are the Calanques, a series of impressive fjords along the coast. If you’re a hiker, definitely check out the Calanques.
If you would like to visit “Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2013” you can fly directly to Marseilles or you can fly into Paris and take a train to Marseilles. If you stay at a hotel near the Vieux Port, you can walk to many of the sites you’ll want to visit. Your public transportation options once in the city include the metro, buses and trams, all on a single ticket.
Have you ever visited a city during its celebration as being a “Capital of Culture”? What was your experience like?