A Capital Idea: Marseille

18964 Designated a European Capital of Culture for 2013, Marseille has a long and rich history with many interesting threads to explore. Keith Hall seeks out the more cultured side of this famous port city.

Each year the European Union selects one or two cities to be officially awarded the title “European Capital of Culture” for a year. Throughout this period, the chosen cities host events highlighting the richness, diversity and inter-connectedness of European culture. In 2013 there are two European Capitals of Culture: Košice in Slovakia and Marseille-Provence in France.

At first sight, the idea of Marseille as a culture capital seems slightly odd. Its popular image is that of a rough and tough seaport, not a centre of culture. But looks can be deceiving. Behind its tough exterior, Marseille has a lot to offer visitors, including amazing sites spanning several millennia of European history.

Archaeologists have found evidence of human habitation around Marseille dating back about 30,000 years. The Ancient Greeks founded the town itself as a trading port in around 600BCE. They called the town Massalia, from which its modern name is derived. The Greeks built the original town in the area now known as Le Panier. It is the oldest part of Marseille and is full of narrow winding streets, interesting old shops, and cafes that spill out onto quiet squares.

30199During the Roman Empire, the town fell to the Romans who renamed it Massilia. Thanks to a strange quirk of history, you can actually see part of the ancient Roman port today. During World War II, the German army was clearing old buildings around the port and accidentally uncovered a warehouse from Roman times. The site is now the Roman Docks Museum and has many archaeological finds on display.

For the next millennium, Marseille suffered many upheavals including catastrophic invasions and bouts of bubonic plague. In the 15th century it was the most fortified city in France outside of Paris and, in the 17th century, two forts were built on either side of the entrance to the port. Known as Saint-Jean and Saint-Nicholas, these two ominous-looking forts add a touch of drama and old-world romance to the view across the harbour.

In fact, these two forts were mainly built to suppress local unrest, not to defend against invasion. Marseille has had a reputation for rebellion for over 500 years. During the French Revolution, the city was quick to support the revolutionary government. Local volunteers marched to Paris in 1792, singing La Marseillaise – the Revolution’s rallying song that became the French national anthem. You can learn more about the song and the Revolution at the Memorial de la Marseillaise, one of the newest museums in Marseille.

Some of the grandest buildings in the city were built in the mid-19th century, when Marseille underwent a boom in trade and manufacturing. Across the road from the tourist information centre near the Vieux-Port (Old Port), you can see the imposing, neo-classical Palais de la Bourse (stock exchange), which opened in 1860. This building houses a small history museum with Roman and Greek artefacts, plus a large collection of model ships.

86026Marseille Cathedral, a massive building in Byzantine-Roman style, was completed in 1896 on the site of an earlier cathedral. It has an impressive interior hung with colourful flags, and boasts excellent views across the port. But, for the best views of Marseille, visit Notre Dame de la Garde on the south side of the port. This enormous basilica was completed in 1864 and is one of the most conspicuous landmarks in the city. From the basilica, there are stunning panoramic views across the city and port.

Yet there is more to Marseille than its impressive collection of historical buildings and artefacts. Much of its charm lies in its narrow streets, old-fashioned shops, cosy little cafes and bars, cosmopolitan restaurants, and occasional glimpses of the harbour between the buildings.

The city’s rebellious past seems to have continued into the 2190142st century in the form of eye-catching street art. The traditional view of Marseille as a tough and dirty seaport is changing rapidly, however. When I was there late last year, there were building works underway all around the port. New art galleries and concert halls were being constructed and the whole city was having a makeover in readiness for its new found role as a culture capital.

It isn’t just Marseille that has been designated a European Capital of Culture for 2013 but the entire region of Marseille-Provence. So there will be cultural and artistic events throughout the year in Marseille, Arles, Aix-en-Provence and other nearby towns. For more details, visit www.marseillecityofculture.eu.

Photos by Keith Hall










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