Marseille (South of France - aka French Riviera - aka Cote d'Azur) is a city of surprises, an oceanside formerly fortified enclave where strong accent and slang-ish dialect rule the quays of the old port. Mariners of all seas and all fish still sit down on wooden chairs discussing the weather, some smoking a pipe. This is the second city in France, by size.
Of course the weather is an all-consuming subject matter for rugged people living of and on the water, and their livelihood depends on whether they will sail that day or not. So the topic is huge, along with football (or soccer) and pétanque games. This feels like an old black-and-white film from the 1960s, indeed some things never change.
With the traditions firmly anchored in the psyche of the old men came a new wave of ultra creative people, high tech designers, explosives architects and avant-garde daring projects. The south has always been a nest of artists - be painters, writers, sculptors - and the whitewashed town has been very receptive and welcoming to challenges and renewals.
The immigration problem is still present, with boat people coming across the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa, from former communist countries, or from struggling Greece and Turkey, trying for a better future in a traditionally wealthy land. The various exposures to other cultures, and the mingling of migrating minds have created a unique environment where succeeding and inventing new ideas became a vital mode of survival.
Marseille has seen a great amount of highly creative endeavors, and one of the creation from a genius imagination is a so-called "concept" hotel named "Au Vieux Panier" - charmingly nested in a former Corsican épicerie (food store) from the XVII century. The outside distressed baby blue doors will have you think you made a mistake. Those are the original doors of the former place; they just kept them as is. Transformed in a Maison d'Hôtes Urbaine (B&B) with five completely crazy rooms, each re-invented by talented artists.
A true art gallery with beds, each room is a temporary masterpiece from artists around the world; the décor will be changed each year and new creators will redesign the bedrooms in different styles. For now, one room is a dark purple lodge reminding of David Lynch' strange and obsessive mood. Another is a pixilated canvas of thousands of dashes in a sky-blue color. And another is a black and white geometrical spider web.
My very own disclaimer: Some of the rooms are weird and may not please a classic voyageur in need of simple and "normal" rest. Do check out the pictures on the website before you book a room. This is more like a psychedelic experience, and one may not want to spend an entire week here, in case the concept gets too overwhelming to sensitive eyes and minds.
This a city where you walk - walk to the old port, to the terrace cafés, to the market, to the boutiques, pick up an American newspaper, a few French croissants and sit on a bench to watch boats coming in at sunset, a lovely way to loose the stress. The hotel also has a wood-planks rooftop terrace to soak in the rays, or some fizzy drink. Plenty of nearby restaurants offer the local dish of Marseille, the famed bouillabaisse, a hearty fish and shellfish stew with herbs and spices, often served with boiled potatoes and coarse grain bread.
INFO: Au Vieux Panier - 13 rue du Panier, Marseille 13002; Tel 011-33-(0)4- 9191-2372 - Prices: 100-210 euros per room per night, including breakfast. The slogan of the hotel is "Sleep in a work of art." On the main website there is a link to each artist's own site where you can discover their talent and see more of their creations.
Amazing photo of a room: