Marseille-Provence Wins Big as European Capital of Culture

 

Cours d’Estienne d’Orves in Marseilles
Cours d’Estienne d’Orves in Marseilles is home to many galleries, restaurants and bars.

 

 

Marseille is arguably the hottest destination of 2013. Forget Hollywood images of fedora-clad characters from yesteryear (i.e., The French Connection); the vibrant port town has witnessed a massive metamorphosis as it ushers in the New Year as European Capital of Culture. Provence is already one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations, and with a stellar line-up of events, Marseille-Provence 2013 is expected to draw an additional two million foreign tourists.

“Marseille-Provence 2013 is an incredible opportunity to show off the cultural richness of the territory,” Maxime Tissot, director of the Marseille Tourism Office, told Travel Agent. “Our strategic goal is to capitalize on this year-long event to promote long-term touristic and economic growth. In fact, the tourism sector has the most potential for development, especially with the cruise and conference business. Since there is so much unemployment here, this is a really good thing. Marseille is a city with a future.”

Marseille’s makeover has been dramatic. As if it wasn’t enough to have award-winning architect Norman Foster pedestrianize the Old Port, the city also commissioned a team of starchitects to build landmark museums like the Museum of Civilisations from Europe and the Mediterranean (MuCEM) by Rudy Ricciotti. At the same time, the city is in the throes of the ambitious Euro-Mediterranean project, the biggest urban development project in European history, which is transforming the Joliette docks area. (On the horizon: the opening of a glossy new cruise terminal with luxury shops galore.)

“2013 has been a big booster for urban development, regenerating the city,” said Alexandra Blanc-Vea, an art specialist (www.artvisitprovence.com) and tour guide who works with major cruise ships (like Norwegian Epic and Carnival Sunshine) on shore excursions. (Note: Blanc-Vea can customize her itineraries for your VIPs.) “Our hope is that these architectural projects will have a perennial appeal, continuing to attract visitors well after 2013. Marseille-Provence 2013 can’t just be a fireworks display… spectacular and then fading.”

Traditionally tourists are attracted to the sun, sea and cuisine in the south of France, but 2013 will put Marseille-Provence firmly on the global cultural map.

Alluring Authenticity

After spending days interviewing artists, locals, and tourism officials, Travel Agent is convinced of Marseille’s powerful potential as a destination. Today’s traveler is looking for authentic experience, and this city—full of color, personality, and melting-pot diversity at the crossroads of the Mediterranean—fits the bill. A stroll through the Au Vieux Panier, the city’s oldest neighborhood, quickly reveals that Marseille is a city with a soul. Rising on a hilltop above the sea, this tangle of cobblestoned streets is lined with pastel buildings and crisscrossed with clotheslines. Within this atmospheric quarter, art galleries and trendy boutiques have taken root.

“In Marseille you can experience the real way of Provençal life,” prides Cyril Denoix, director of Mama Shelter, the second outpost for the hip hotel brand that first opened in Paris in fall 2008.

It’s not just the city’s authenticity that’s a draw. Its geographic location is a major asset. Flanked by beaches, Marseille is the gateway to the Calanques—the magnificent fjord-like inlets that now comprise a national park, the first new one in mainland France since 1979.

Program of Events

Marseille-Provence’s year in the spotlight kicked off in an appropriately big way with the “Grand Clamor.” At dusk on the weekend of January 12-13, the city unleashed a wave of sound—foghorns, city sirens, church bells echoing through the streets—and people were encouraged to join in the cacophony by making as much noise as possible.

Throughout the year, hundreds of events will take place across the territory—a diverse line-up that guarantees something for everyone. Think music concerts, art exhibits, culinary workshops, even circus performances, staged alongside existing annual events like the Arles’ summer photography festival. Marseille is a hotbed for contemporary art, with France’s biggest concentration of artists outside of Paris, and this local creativity will be showcased alongside major blockbuster exhibits like L’atelier du Midi. (In a first-time collaboration, Marseille’s Fine Arts Museum and the Musee Granet in Aix will co-host a retrospective of masterpiece works by artists, like Picasso, inspired by the region’s landscapes.)

Not content with the usual Capital of Culture fare, Marseille-Provence 2013 has also devised some innovative events that have never before been seen anywhere in the world. Our favorite: TransHumance—when thousands of horses, sheep, and cows will be driven across Provence and into the city of Marseille, echoing the traditional migration of livestock between Provençal pastures. Open to participants, this collective hike will take place from May 17-June 9, 2013, complete with caravan camp-outs under the stars. Photographed from above, the migration will appear like a large-scale work of art.

 

 

Mama Shelter
The trendy bar at Mama Shelter is popular with the local Marseillais.

 

Accommodations

The Radisson Blu Vieux Port remains a tried-and-true favorite in Marseille. Each time we’ve stayed, Travel Agent has noted its high occupancy rate. With conference facilities, a beautiful pool, and a partnership with the luxe Cinq Mondes Spa next door, the Radisson Blu checks all the boxes for a comfortable guest experience. We recommend port-facing rooms on the executive floor—with perks like complimentary Super Breakfast Buffet, Nespresso coffee machines, and access to Pay TV Box Office movies. All rooms come with free Wi-Fi.

West of the Old Port not far from the popular Plage des Catalans, the New Hotel is a stylish option. Filled with colorful art, the hotel is a sponsor for Marseille-Provence 2013 and will host artist studios throughout the year. Rooms are stocked with bath amenities by beloved local brand La Compagnie de Provence, but note that guests are charged for each coffee prepared from the in-room Nespresso machines.

An unrivaled choice for art lovers is Au Vieux Panier. The outside appears like a shuttered shop typical of the Panier neighborhood. But behind the facade, owner Jessica Venediger has created an artistic masterpiece. Each of the six guest rooms was designed by a different artist of note, so guests have the sensation that they are sleeping in a work of art. The property’s rooftop terrace affords gasp-inducing views.

For a low-cost option (from $93 per night), consider B&B-type lodgings like Pension Edelweissor Casa Ortega, whose friendly owners provide expert tips for discovering Marseille like a local. Both properties are within walking distance of the train station.

High-design hotels such as Mama Shelter have injected a serious cool factor into the hotel scene. The Paris original was the brainchild of the Trigano family (founders of Club Med), philosopher Cyril Aouizerate and designer Philippe Starck. It’s a wildly successful product that Travel Agent declared a “luxury value” when test-driving the digs after the hotel brand’s debut. For its second location, the team chose an untouristed quarter to renovate a dilapidated building, thus helping revitalize a working-class neighborhood near Marseille’s hip Cours Julien area. Locals flock to the trendy restaurant helmed by famed Chef Alain Senderens, and to the terrace bar to sample one of the 40 different types of pastis on tap. In the summer, Mama Shelter pops up with a private beach in the south of the city.

 

 

Suite at the five-star InterContinental, which opens in April.
Suite at the five-star InterContinental, which opens in April.

 

The talk of the town is the arrival of InterContinental. “It’s the city’s first true five-star hotel, and will attract an entirely different population here,” said native Marseillais Lydie Marchi, owner of the Saffir Galerie Nomade. Housed in the Hotel Dieu—a historic monument abutting the old Panier—the InterContinental will open in April 2013 after a meticulous, $160 million renovation. We had a sneak peak with a hard-hat tour and were struck by the scale of the project. Archeological excavations have uncovered the foundations of a 12th-century chapel with an extraordinary mosaic that will be exhibited in the hotel lobby. Stylistically, the architects and design team have succeeded in harmonizing the contemporary interiors with a magnificent historic structure.

Of the 194 rooms, 22 are suites; 33 have private terraces; and 72 have panoramic views of the Vieux Port. Everything about the InterContinental Marseille oozes luxury—from the restaurants to the light-filled fitness room. Managed by Deep Nature, the Clarins Spa will boast an indoor pool, saunas, hammams, and six treatment rooms.

In Aix-en-Provence, a Renaissance will open this summer, Marriott’s sixth Renaissance hotel in France. The 133-room hotel will have an indoor pool, gym, and two restaurants overseen by Michelin-starred Chef Jean-Marc Banzo.

One of our favorite addresses in Aix is the Villa Gallici, a Relais & Chateaux property. Surrounded by Florentine gardens on a hilltop dotted with cypress trees, the hotel—a former archbishop’s palace—exudes the stylish grace of Aix itself.

Transportation and Tickets

MArseille is accessible by high-speed train from Paris in just three hours (agent.raileurope.com). Situated 20 minutes outside the city, the Marseille Provence airport offers connections all over the world. Starting May 31, XL Airways will offer twice-weekly service to New York’s JFK.

In the city, the Pavillon M—located next to the city hall on the Old Port—will serve as the Capital of Culture’s official headquarters and ticket office for events and such. Tickets can also be purchased online at www.mp2013.fr.

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