France: Bonjour Marseilles

By Sabine Glaubitz

The southern port of Marseilles is unlike other French cities. That becomes apparent as soon as the visitor steps from the train at Saint-Charles terminus, high above the city.

Climbing the stairs of Marseilles' train station. Photo / Supplied
Climbing the stairs of Marseilles' train station. Photo / Supplied

The facade and vestibule of Marseilles' train station is covered in statues from Africa and the Middle East. They hark back to long journeys into faraway places, to lively trade, foreign tongues and heady, exotic spices.

"I am convinced that Marseilles is the most beautiful of all French cities. It is simply so different,'' enthused German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer more than 100 years ago.

For 2013, the French metropolis, along with the Slovak city of Kosice, has been declared European Capital of Culture.

France's oldest city has been a melting pot of Africans and Europeans for more than 2600 years. Many of the 800,000 inhabitants can trace back their ancestors to Morocco, Italy, China or Senegal. The heart of the city is dominated to this day by citizens who have come to work here from all over the world.

"You ask me what a typical Marseilles dweller is like?'' said Anthony.

"Look at me,'' is his reply. His mother was of Italian blood and came from Corsica, his father was a Jewish "Pied noir'' or "black foot,'' the name given to more than a million Frenchmen who went to Algeria from 1950 onwards.

Anthony works for the "Euromediterranee'', a major project designed to turn the city upside down. It began in 1995. The October 2008 choice of Marseilles as European cultural capital simply accelerated the metamorphosis and boosted the budget by €600 million.

Since then, the settlement founded by seafarers as Massalia has been busy re-inventing itself. The new Marseilles is scheduled to be completed by 2020. Some of the most reputable architects are working to achieve that goal. So what is it going to look like?

The 147m-tall tower of glass and concrete drawn by Anglo-Iraqi maestro Zaha Hadid gives an idea of the way things are heading. It's a clean design, chic and very modern. The headquarters of CMA CGM, the world's third-largest container shipping line, is an iconic, curving tower that rises skywards dramatically.

A few months ago, the city witnessed the opening in the new harbour of "Le Silo,'' a former corn storage depot which has been converted into a venue for concerts, theatre productions and exhibitions of various kinds. Our guide Anthony boards a lift taking him up to the fifth floor.

Anyone who wants to see the transformation in Marseilles for themselves should follow suit. The view from here is better than any city map. On the right the Hadid skyscraper, flanking the centre with its ferries to Corsica and North Africa.

Behind the rejuvenated silo are a range of old brick-built warehouses, which have been turned into upmarket shopping malls and offices. The left-hand side is dominated by the futuristic architecture of the MuCem, a museum dedicated to the cultures of Europe and the Mediterranean, a bombastic cultural centre which is due to open next spring.

Marseilles 2013 is likely to consist too of fenced-off construction sites behind which bold designs are taking shape.

The Corniche is being redeveloped into a promenade with a huge shopping centre, the Terrasses du Port, as its focal point. The streets around Saint Charles are not far from here and they remain a symbol of times past in this mighty port between the Occident and the Orient.


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