By ROBIN ROBINSON, QMI Agency
MARSEILLE, France -- One thing that has always intrigued me about the French is how they manage to preserve time-honoured traditions but, at the same time, embrace the avant garde.
This results in interesting experiences for visitors who can not only tour whole museums dedicated to age-old crafts such as making wine, soap or olive oil but also visit galleries showcasing ultra-modern art or take in street performances that can best be described as "out there."
These contrasts are particularly noticeable this year in southern Provence, as Marseille -- France's oldest and second-largest city -- along with a 150-km swath of its surrounding region celebrate a year in the spotlight as a European Capital of Culture. The designation has injected more than $750-million into Marseille-Provence and sparked a flurry of urban renewal projects.
What can visitors expect? A year-long, nonstop party with more than 400 cultural events and festivals in 100 cities, towns and villages. These events -- major art exhibitions, concerts, circus acts, dance, digital art, film, fireworks, literary happenings, parades, festivals, gastronomy, street "spectacles," theatre, visual arts and more, from the mainstream to the cutting edge -- continue throughout 2013. Among the highlights:
-- Marseille's once-gritty Old Port has been transformed into a vast pleasant pedestrian space. Local fishermen still sell their wares on the waterfront each morning but now there is a lovely sandstone promenade along the harbour for strolling and ogling the beautiful people and their beautiful yachts.
-- Ten new cultural venues will open in 2013 -- among them Marseille's new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilization (MuCEM), which opens in June, Villa Mediterranean, dedicated to culture and art of that region, and The Silo, an interesting new concert space in a converted 1926 wheat silo on the docks.
-- Across Marseille-Provence, some 60 spaces dedicated to culture have been reimagined or renovated.
-- Many towns hold small events marking transhumance -- the seasonal movements of livestock and herders between summer and winter pastures. This year a giant TransHumance festival will see convoys of animals -- thousands of sheep, cattle, goats and horses from France's Camargue, Morocco and Italy -- and their handlers converge near Arles, then journey caravan-style to Marseille.
Starting May 17, spectators can watch or join the grand march as it passes through 40 communities, and visit nightly encampments to witness age-old traditions such as fantasias (demonstrations of Moroccan horsemanship). TransHumance culminates June 9 in Marseille with an enormous procession of man and beasts followed by an equally enormous street party.
-- A new hiking trail -- the 360-km Grand Randonnee 2013, or GR2013 -- will open March 22. Designed by artists and hikers, it leads ramblers through rural landscapes, past beautiful ocean vistas, even into industrial urban settings.
-- A new Easter Festival in Aix-en-Provence will present 20 classical concerts featuring international performers from March 26 through April 7.
-- From June 13 to Oct. 13, Granet Museum in Aix-en-Provence and Musee des Beaux Arts in Marseille will host Le Grand Atelier du Midi -- a two-part exhibition showcasing 19th and 20th century masterpieces. Aix will exhibit From Cezanne to Matisse, while Marseille shows From Bonnard to Van Gogh.
The exhibits cover major artistic movements from 1880 to 1960 -- Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealist and Abstract -- and include work by painters connected to Provence: Paul Cezanne, Amedeo Modigliani, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent Van Gogh, Salvadore Dali, Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard and more.
-- In the Roman town of Arles, the excellent Museum of Antiquity is the setting for Rodin: The Shadow of Antiquity. Running from April through October, the major exhibit will display the French sculptor's work with ancient counterparts on loan from some of the world's greatest museums. Arles' restored Roman amphitheatre is the venue for a major equestrian event from July 26 to Aug. 24.
-- A blowout light, sound and fireworks show -- Revelations --is being held in various coastal locations during 2013.
FACELIFT FOR MARSEILLE
Founded by the Greeks, Marseille is an important industrial port city that in modern times has sometimes been described as "gritty."
But its year in the cultural spotlight has spawned a much-needed facelift, and across Marseille stately old buildings are finding new life.
One example of the revitalization is the elegant 18th-century former hospital, which has been transformed in an Intercontinental Hotel -- Marseille's first five-star property -- opening in April.
For those of use whose budgets don't stretch far enough to cover stays in luxury hotels, the terrace overlooking the harbour -- where patients once recuperated in the sun -- is now a modern bistro with a down to earth menu and a million-dollar view.
ARTY ARLES AND AIX
If travelling to Marseille, be sure to put the nearby towns of Arles and Aix-en-Provence on your itinerary.
Arles is noted for its Roman ruins, its UNESCO World Heritage status, its Museum of Antiquity, and its place in art history as the setting for some of Vincent Van Gogh's most famous works including Cafe Terrace at Night and Garden of the Hospital in Arles. A map is available from the visitor centre for a self-guided walking tour to 10 locations in Arles that were painted by the Dutch master when he lived there.
Aix-en-Provence -- the City of 1,000 Fountains -- is most famous as the birthplace of groundbreaking painter Paul Cezanne and childhood home of his friend renowned writer Emile Zola. The city's Old Town and New Town are divided by Cours Mirabeau, a wide avenue that was created when the ancient city walls were demolished. The narrow stone streets on either side of the plane-tree-lined boulevard are wonderful places for strolling.
IF YOU GO TO FRANCE
Air Canada has regular flights to Paris from several Canadian gateways. See aircanada.ca. You don't have to leave the airport to catch the train to Provence. There is a TGV station at Charles de Gaulle, where you can board a train and be in Marseille in three hours. For the best prices, book rail passes from Canada through Eurail. See eurailgroup.org for a list of outlets.
Away from the seaside resorts favoured by the rich and famous, Provence has plenty of reasonably priced accommodations.
- In Marseille, we stayed at the sleek New Hotel, where modern rooms with a queen size bed and free WiFi start at 110 euros per night (about $147). Located near the Old Port, the hotel has an outdoor swimming pool, patio, art gallery and a good restaurant and bar. See new-hotel.com.
- In Aix-en-Provence, Hotel des Augustins has rooms from 99 euros per night (about $132) with WiFi. Just off Cours Mirabeau, and once part of a 12th-century convent, the atmospheric 29-room property is steps from Old Town. See hotel-augustins.com.
- In Arles, we stayed at Hotel le Calendal, where many of the colourful rooms have balconies and views of Roman sites. Rates start at 59 euros per night for a single room (about $80), 99 euros ($132) double. There is free WiFi, a garden, a restaurant and a spa with hot pools. See lecalendal.com.
Provence has wonderful restaurants but one not to miss is Marseille's La boite a Sardine on Boulevard de la Liberation. The fish-monger/restaurant opens for lunch Tuesdays-Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The name means The Can of Sardines, and while colourful sardine tins from around the world adorn walls, you won't find canned sardines on the menu, which is all about fresh seafood. The tiny, crowded eatery is the kind of place where the owner -- Fabien Rugi -- greets locals by name and stops by tables to chat with first-timers -- so reserve ahead. Rugi is moving to larger premises across the street soon. See laboiteasardine.com.
For details on all aspects of travel to France, visit Atout France at ca-en.franceguide.com or call 514-288-2026. For Marseille-Provence events, see mp2013.fr. For Arles, see arlestourisme.com. For Aix-en-Provence, see en.aixenprovencetourism.com.
This story was posted on Mon, March 18, 2013
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