With the tantalising prospect of two bank holidays this month, offices across the capital are infused with the holiday spirit as the countdown to the summer holiday season begins. If you can resist the lure of B&Q’s reduced price emulsion, why not take your new-found joie-de-vivre for a spin in the sunny playground of the French Riviera. For those who’ve already done the glitzy casinos and palm-tree lined promenades, an all-together different city break experience awaits you just a few miles along the coast.
While the affectionately nick-named Rio-Sur-Mer may not top everyone’s wish list, all that may be about to change. As European Capital of Culture 2013 and the recipient of a £6 billion investment, Marseille’s ship has finally come in. Squeezed in among the pastis-swilling sports bars, Zaha Hadid office blocks and a Norman Foster art installation have suddenly shot up overnight as France’s enfant terrible is forced to smarten up its act.
But despite the gentrification, Marseille still retains its brassy demeanour. Strolling through the gritty back streets adjacent to the 3000 year-old Old Port, the heady scents of lavender and fresh fish mingle with shisha, Gauloise and the city’s spicy speciality – Bouillabaisse. Concocted from seven varieties of fresh fish simmered in an explosive fusion of saffron, garlic and red chilli peppers, the city’s hot-blooded signature dish is not for the faint-hearted.
To experience more of the city’s authentic appeal, head to Cours Julien, the city’s very own Camden Town where the bright young “bo-bo” (bourgeois-bohemian) crowd hangs out. An eclectic mish-mash of cafes, restaurants, theatres and achingly trendy boutiques jostle jarringly together on a living canvas of street art.
But will Marseille (and surrounding Provence) live up to the hype of European Capital of Culture? With a mind-boggling 400 events to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start. This Bank Holiday weekend kicks off in dramatic fashion with the old port drenched in darkness and illuminated by 6000 pots of fire fashioned into fountains, gyroscopes and giant flowers.
Visitors will be able to “walk on water” via floating docks before an explosive finale. Other creative and quirky highlights include Transhumance, (17th May – 9th June), a pilgrimage of horses, sheep and cattle meandering from Morocco, Italy and France through Provence and into Marseille, followed by photography exhibitions from the perspective of the region’s residents and international artists alike. You can also catch the long-awaited opening of the Museum of European & Mediterranean Civilisations and the MuCEM both on the 7th June.
No other French city packs a punch like Marseille. The city’s dramatic transformation into a dazzling cultural hot-spot makes it a must for a bank holiday city break guaranteed to still be a talking point months after the emulsion has faded.