All Roads Lead to Marseille

  • © OTCM

    © OTCM

  • © H.Auer

    © H.Auer

  • © Agence Rudy Ricciotti

    © Agence Rudy Ricciotti

All Roads Lead to Marseille

By Mary Winston Nicklin

“Everything is still possible in Marseille,” says Alexandra Blanc Véa, an art specialist and tour guide with ArtVisitProvence. “There’s a freedom of creative experimentation not seen in other global cities.”

Imagine sipping a pastis at a sidewalk café and looking up to see thousands of horses march into the center of Marseille and herds of sheep and cattle rumble into the Old Port under the watchful eye of Notre Dame de la Garde. This mass migration of men and beasts has originated in three different locations Morocco, Italy, and France’s own Camargue and merged in the Crau plains near Arles before flooding into the second largest city in France. This isn’t the fantasy of fiction. This event, called TransHumance, will be one of the cornerstones of Marseille-Provence 2013, when the world’s gaze will fix on the south of France as the European Capital of Culture.

For centuries, shepherds have moved their flocks between Provençal pastures with the changing of the seasons. Echoing this timeless phenomenon, TransHumance is a collective adventure, open to public participation. It’s the brainchild of the Théâtre du Centaure, a Marseille-based theater troupe that stages thrilling productions with highly-trained horses. (The fearless stallion leaders, Darwin and Graal, enchanted audiences all over France as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in the Shakespeare classic.)

Taking place from May 17- June 9, 2013, TransHumance has a poetic goal: the union of the natural and the urban. Along the way, aerial photographs and streaming video will project the migration as a large-scale work of art a human and animal mosaic resembling the glyphs found in the region’s prehistoric caves. At night, the caravan will camp out in festive bivouacs under the stars with special invited guests (poets, astrophysicists and biologists, oh my!). Culinary treats will be served beside crackling campfires.

“TransHumance will unfold like a cartography that’s rooted in a Euro-Mediterranean framework. From Morocco, four T’bourida will ride 60 horses representing Fantasia (the Maghreb’s traditional equestrian performance). A large group of cavaliers from Italy will drive a herd of long-horned Maremma cows, following a historic migration route into Provence. On foot and on horseback, the participants will come from all over Europe,” explain Camille and Manolo, directors of the Théâtre du Centaure.
Thus, TransHumance represents the true “melting pot” nature of Marseille, France’s oldest city and its most important Mediterranean hub. Indeed, MP-2013 focuses on Marseille as a strategic interchange between Mediterranean shores, fueling the conversation between Europe and North Africa.

The 2013 cultural calendar is decidedly ambitious. Even just one of the 400 events would be worth traveling for. Take, for example, Le Grand Atelier du Midi, a blockbuster exhibit that will be showcased in both Marseille (Musée des Beaux-Arts) and Aix-en-Provence (Musée Granet) in a first-time collaboration. More than 200 masterpiece paintings by artists like Van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso will illustrate how the Midi’s landscapes have inspired cutting-edge artistic creation.

An exhibit on the great architect Le Corbusier, whose iconic Cité Radieuse in Marseille provided a modernist answer to the urban housing crisis, will take place at J1, the boat hangar in Marseille’s Old Port converted into a MP-2013 focal point. Aix-en-Provence will fête the 100th birthday of Albert Camus, an appropriately symbolic figure for this Mediterranean-centric year because he lived on both sides of the sea. And MP-2013 will inaugurate an innovative urban hiking trail called the GR2013 in a nod to France’s famous Grande Randonnée (GR) routes. Covering 360 kilometers, it will pass through both natural areas and commercial zones.

There will be circus performances, music concerts, culinary workshops, street art and movies at the newly renovated Eden Théâtre in La Ciotat, where the famed Lumière brothers screened films. Coupled with this original program, Provence plays host to established events like “Les Rencontres d’Arles,” pivotal in the international photography world, and the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, where the Grand Saint-Jean will stage Francesco Cavalli’s opera Elena for the first time since it was created in Venice in the 17th century.

MP-2013 coincides with the pharaonic urban transformation of Marseille. Starchitect Norman Foster was recruited to pedestrianize the Vieux-Port, while Euro-Méditerranée the biggest urban renovation program Europe has ever witnessed is reclaiming the old Joliette docks area with a glittering seafront promenade anchored by Zaha Hadid’s new skyscraper. Call it the Bilbao effect (the Spanish city experienced a renaissance when it opened the Guggenheim museum). But Marseille is unveiling not one architectural landmark, but multiple cultural venues designed by superstar architects: the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) by Rudy Ricciotti; FRAC PACA, the contemporary art museum by Kengo Kuma; and the Tour-Panorama at the Friche la Belle de Mai by Matthieu Poitevin and Pascal Reynaud. 

“Everything is still possible in Marseille,” says Alexandra Blanc Véa, an art specialist and tour guide with ArtVisitProvence. “There’s a freedom of creative experimentation not seen in other global cities. Outside of Paris, Marseille has the largest community of artists in France. And to see what’s happening right now on the contemporary arts scene, the Friche is a must-visit.”

Occupying an old tobacco factory, the Friche is a cool cultural center that houses artist studios, office space for associations, concert halls, and even a skate park. The new addition aptly named the Panorama for its birds-eye views was designed as a white cube perched on the roof. (For MP-2013, it will showcase the works of 40 internationally renowned artists from the Mediterranean Basin.) During its construction, local artist Pascal Martinez was tapped to photograph the process, capturing it through an artistic lens. “I had complete freedom to photograph what I wanted. I didn’t choose to view the spectacular transformation of the building, but the small details inside the structure’s envelope, as if within the human body,” says Martinez, who moved from Paris to Marseille in 2000 and has garnered much acclaim for his work.

“It’s fitting and symbolic that an artist, not a professional photographer, was commissioned to track the Friche construction work. Pascal went three times a week and snapped thousands of photos,” says Lydie Marchi, whose Saffir Galerie Nomade champions the city’s emerging artists.

A native Marseillais, Marchi speaks of the city’s dynamism. “Just in the last two years, Marseille has changed a lot. New galleries have opened; artists are drawn here because of the lower rents. Just look at how trendy the Vieux Panier neighborhood has become. And now the arrival of the InterContinental, the city’s first true five-star hotel, will attract an entirely different audience.”

“Marseille is a city with a future,” affirms Maxime Tissot, Director-General of the Marseille Tourism Office. “MP-2013 is a vitrine for the territory’s incredible cultural richness, and a springboard for continued growth.”

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