Marseille: a year of culture

The port relished its time in the European spotlight and produced a legacy that goes beyond the city boundaries, says Jon Bryant

When Athens became the first European capital of culture in 1985, the European Union’s aim was to award the title in recognition of a city’s cultural importance. Over time the objective shifted to enabling cities to ‘become’ more cultural and this was the case with Marseille, which had its sport, port, churches and bouillabaisse, yet needed an aesthetic makeover.

In terms of numbers, Marseille’s year as culture capital has been a great success. At the opening weekend in January 2013, around 600,000 people, nearly one-third of the Bouches-du-Rhône département’s entire population, took part in the celebrations. By the end of May, more than two million people had been to cultural events and 15,000 people had visited the newly built Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (Mucem), even before its official opening.

Marseille’s dock area has been redeveloped and is a spectacular walkway and arts parade housing the J4 esplanade in steel and concrete, the Villa Méditerranée and Mucem – all stunning modern designs.

In addition to the centres built for 2013, the city refurbished the Château Borély museum, the museum of Marseille history, the Palais Longchamp housing the Musée des Beaux-Arts and La Friche Belle de Mai cultural centre.

Matters have even improved on the roads. Marseille may not yet have the free-flowing centre that residents and visitors anticipated, but jams have been reduced and the city no longer resembles a giant car park.

Spiritually and socially, the legacy can be seen in the way that the surrounding towns of Arles, Aix-en-Provence, La Ciotat and Martigues were drawn together to celebrate the year with their cultural events. Jazz and rap nights, walks, street theatre and concerts brought a feeling of togetherness to a whole region, not just a single city.

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