Given its gritty past, it was perhaps no surprise that Marseilles stars as the setting for the Netflix series starring Gérard Depardieu as the coke-snorting mayor. Yet France’s second city has undergone a huge metamorphosis from criminal to cultural capital of the Mediterranean and, in 2013, was crowned European capital of culture.
As part of a massive €7 billion (£5.3 billion) facelift, it is now home to some seriously eye-catching architecture. Norman Foster’s Ombrière, a huge mirrored sunshade of polished steel, graces the revamped Vieux Port. The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, France’s only standalone national museum outside Paris, cuts a stunning silhouette on the waterfront, covered in a lattice work of black concrete. Just next door is the Villa Méditerranée, with a cantilevered exhibition hall above a swimming pool and conference centre.
Direct Eurostar services from London started last year, taking six-and-a-half hours. Add to that Marseilles’ star role in Euro 2016, with a crunch semi-final in the revamped Stade Velodrome, and it’s easy to see why this city is taking centre stage.
Corks were popping in France’s wine capital last week for the official opening of the Cité du Vin. A high-tech museum showcasing Bordeaux’s wine heritage, the futuristic building with a vast glass tower rising from the banks of the Garonne is also symbolic of the city’s recent makeover.
Under visionary mayor Alain Juppé, the city’s tram network has been expanded, the centre pedestrianised and the riverfront opened up. Much of Bordeaux is now on the Unesco World Heritage List as an “outstanding urban and architectural ensemble”.
The transformation has attracted a raft of chic hotel openings, including Philippe Starck’s Mama Shelter, and some gastronomic eateries; both the chef Gordon Ramsay and Philippe Etchebest from the French equivalent of the television show Kitchen Nightmares now have restaurants in the central Place de la Comédie.
Add to this faster train links, which next year will see the journey time from Paris cut from three hours and fifteen minutes to two hours, plus a new football stadium that will host games in this summer’s Euro 2016, and it’s easy to see why Bordeaux has cause to celebrate.
A 12-metre high robotic elephant, a three-storey carousel, and a mechanical menagerie from caterpillars to crabs aren’t what you’d expect in a city once famous for its shipyards, biscuit production and as a slave port. But the wacky workshop of Machines de l’île has helped transform Nantes into a vibrant city where culture is king.
The change started when Jean Marc Ayrault became major in 1989, investing massively in culture. The biscuit company LU’s former factory became a cultural centre in 2000. Seven years later, the Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne opened celebrating the city’s eclectic history, and the robotic heaven of Machines de l’île opened in the old Chantiers de la Loire shipyards.
In the summer, they form some of the 30 stops on a giant cultural trail and arts festival. It’s clearly been a success; in the five years from 2010 to 2015, the city had almost a 50 per cent increase, to half a million, in overnight stays in July and August, according to the tourist board.