Not always thought of as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, Marseille has since ditched its edgy reputation in favour of a new era of sophistication. In fact, France’s second-largest city has done so well in turning around its fortunes that it was named European Capital of Culture in 2013. Eager to show off its artistic side we were invited by ATOUT France to explore what the city has to offer. Our writer Holly Daffurn attended on our behalf…
The South of France is a popular holiday destination with its beautiful beaches and world-renowned resorts such as St Tropez and Nice. However, the South of France isn’t all only about stunning film locations, yachts, and luxurious apartments. Marseille has its own unique flavour that sets it apart from the rest of the area. Its rich cultural history has resulted in an intense fusion of different influences that you won’t find anywhere else; and it’s geographical proximity to North African has resulted in cultural influences from Algeria and other North African countries. There is definitely a Spanish flavour seeping through too.
At the heart of Marseille’s personality is an overwhelming taste for the arts. Art that expresses opulence in places such as the brand new conservatoire or the elegant Palais Longchamp, and urban art that lines the streets and fills the more contemporary galleries. The city is brimming with the most incredible graffiti and expressive sculptures, and yet still hosts an elegant sense of the refined.
Marseille has been a haven for artists for many centuries with revolutionary figures such as Antonin Artuad who founded “the theatre of cruelty” and the composer Darius Milhaud creating their influential work in their hometown of Marseille. You only need to be in Marseille a few moments to realise that the light quality is different, and perhaps this is why it has attracted artists throughout history. Within a few days you start to see how the rich colours of the landscape are reflected in the paintings, they filter through the food, they influence the architecture.
The landscape is seeped in sepia tones with sandy coloured houses and dramatic rugged coastlines, there is a rich red tone to the earth, the wide expanses of tranquil sea where the harbours nestle are deeply azure and studded with intriguing islets, and there are lush verdant patches of forest in the spaces where civilisation has neglected to flourish. Marseille has its own palette, its own taste, and quality and it’s own distinct personality. Whether you adore it or abhor it, there is no denying that the place is identifiable.
The food in the area is mainly centred around golden-green olive oil, sandy toned crusty bread, red and yellow peppers, deep green courgettes, the hot tints of paprika and saffron, the fiery hues of nasturtium petals, rich fragrant basil leaves, sunlit white wine and earthy red meats. This spectrum of terracotta, green and gold is certainly an interpretation of the earth it is all farmed from.
With its proximity to the sea, the menu features a lot of fresh fish too with bouillabaisse being one of the popular local dishes. Lovers of seafood must sample a little bouillabaisse when in Marseille. It is a rich velvety smooth fish stew with intense vivid flavours and whole pieces of fully intact crab and local seafood. The fish is brought out on a large platter and distributed into the rich terracotta toned soup. There is a very theatrical side to this that enhances the whole experience.
Because of its proximity to North Africa, there is plenty of authentic Moroccan cuisine on offer too and there is something about fresh mint tea served in an elegant silver kettle and a fruity rich tagine that suits the warm climate and burnt colour palette of Marseille. There is a certain type of person who sums up the Marseille experience; the artists and artisans, the curators they all have a very real passion and huger for their creative endeavours and expression.
It’s a city where you can taste the political history and periods of unrest that have shaped these people’s lives. 2013 was the year that Marseille was made the capital of culture, and they spent five years preparing for it. This is certainly the time to visit, now that the city has been changed to illuminate its creative heritage and to highlight it’s artistic streak.
Places of interest include the Hotel de Gallifet which consists of a varied modern art gallery with a healthy schedule, a restaurant which specialises in top quality local food, a café and a shop. The staff are friendly, knowledgeable and passionate about art. Cézanne and Zola went to school in the building opposite and spent their days gazing out the window at this elegant yellow-stoned building. This adds a certain romance to the whole experience.
It is not just an immense programme of art that makes Marseille a cultural city but it also features an abundance of musical talent. The recently built conservatoire designed by architect Kengo Juma offers views of the splendid city from each window and features classes in each classical discipline as well as electronica, reggae and many sub-genres of music.
While we are there we are lucky enough to experience the collaboration between filmmaker Stéfane Barbato and the globally renowned beatbox group Under Kontrol who are native to Marseille. The films are projected onto a stage in the courtyard space outside of the stunning Conservatoire with the gritty urban greyness of the city providing an apt backdrop. The current characteristic of Marseille is about discovering art and creativity everywhere, in a way that is accessible for all.
Other highlights of Marseille include La Savonnerie Marius Fabre: The soap factory which manufactures the finest soap made from all-natural ingredients. This world-renowned soap still uses the traditional family recipe. The Bobo (bourgeois boheme) district around Cours Julien perfect for buying vintage, retro and bohemian chic fashion items and curios, vinyl and hanging out with the beautiful people.
The majestic Chateau d’If which is only accessible by boat, filling its own tiny island. It’s a scenic one-mile boat ride from the bay of Marseille and featured in the Alexandre Dumas novel ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ as the place where the Count was imprisoned. The castle is used to host art exhibits, performance and theatrical events. The basilica of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde (which holds an opera house, theatre and concert hall and is home of the national dance school which has its own ballet company).
All words and photos by regular contributor Holly Daffurn