CREATIVE HUBS: MARSEILLE
Marseille is preceded by its reputation. Plagued with crime, violence and unemployment, the gritty port city is a stark contrast from the rest of Provence – a region famed for lavender and sunflower fields à la Van Gogh. Netflix has dedicated a new show to Marseille – which stars Gérard Depardieu and depicts his surrounding as corrupt and dangerous – and has even erected a Hollywood-style sign in the surrounding hills.
Marseille has its fair share of controversy, but there’s regeneration afoot here, too. Euromediterranée is an urban renewal project, which, since 1995, has been dedicated to creating a business district in the area of La Joliette. It has overseen the construction of the CGA-CGM tower designed by Zaha Hadid, and by 2020, a park will link up three arrondissements with greenery.
Back in 2013, Marseille was named European Capital of Culture, an accolade which attracted 11 million visitors to the city, and has helped demonstrate its creative spark. The Museum of the Civilisations of Europe and the Mediterranean (Le MuCEM) opened that same year, and the landmark has become a testament to the city’s Mediterranean and Gallic identities. Meanwhile Norman Foster architects transformed the historic Old Port into a pedestrianised zone, which is home to pastis bars and shops.
Today Marseille is rebranding itself as a ‘smart’ city, and is set to become a digital media hub. It’s home to one of Europe’s biggest data gateways, with ultra-fast undersea cables to Africa and Asia, and is birthing film and television studios, which are tipped to boost the economy of France at large.
For all it its troubles, Marseille is representative of the multiculturalism of its country. Yes, it’s chaotic, but it also has an undeniable energy that gives it a creative edge. Emmanuel Macron began and ended his election campaign in the city and paid tribute to its rich ethnic fabric. He said: “I see Armenians, Comorians, Italians, Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Malians, Senegalese… I see citizens of Marseille; I see citizens of France.”
WHERE TO STAY
Designed by the architectural mastermind that is Philippe Starck, this hotel is the most design-led offering in Marseille. It’s the second outpost of the Mama Shelter brand (Paris came first) and has all the same convivial joy and kooky touches e.g. staff wearing aprons with Pop Art-style portraits of the founders’ mothers.
The Alex Hotel is located just across from Marseille’s Eurostar terminal, making it an ideal option for those whizzing into the city from London. All of the 18 rooms here are minimal in style, with bright doors and patterned tiles offering the odd burst of colour.
The five-star Sofitel is a beacon of luxury in this rather rough-and-ready city. Inspired by the history of Marseille’s port, there’s a nautical theme throughout – think walls lined with glass sea creatures, lamps shaped like sea urchins and oil paintings depicting sailing knots. Oh and there’s a top-floor restaurant serving seafood with views over the Med.
WHAT TO SEE
A true cultural space for the city, La Friche lies on the site of a hulking former tobacco factory. On weekends there are pop-up film screenings, DJs spinning tunes and bars serving affordable drinks. There’s even room for impromptu football matches downstairs.
This open-air gallery space is housed on the rooftop of CitÃ© Radieuse, a 1950s apartment complex designed by the acclaimed architect and urbanist Le Corbusier, and has played host to large-scale art installations from the likes of Daniel Buren.
Inaugurated in 2013, this seaport museum is impossible to miss, surrounded as it is by a concrete honeycomb structure. It explores Mediterranean civilisation through the lenses of art history, archaeology and anthropology – guests can pass from from Franco Zecchin’s mafia-themed photographs of Palermo to paintings by Joan Miró.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
This three Michelin-starred restaurant headed up by chef Gérald Passédat is situated on a rocky outcrop that overlooks the sea. If you can’t splash out for dinner (the testing menu is €200) then come to Bar 1917, which does lighter dishes at less bank-breaking prices.
Marseille’s North African influences take centre stage at this Old Town restaurant. Expect dishes like lamb tagine, vegetable couscous and duck confit in honey with figs. All served up in a setting with intricately carved wooden chairs – more Marrakech than Marseille.
With a menu that changes with the seasons, Le Bouchon Provençal offers up the best of regional cuisine year-round. The knuckle of lamb comes highly recommend, though it’s pretty much illegal to leave Marseille without trying bouillabaisse, the rich fish stew which is the city’s signature dish.