Marseille: the biggest city in southern France, capital of Provence, first harbour and second largest French city after Paris, actually contending this place to Lyon, which has no sea by the way – so, in humble opinion of this writer, that’s it.
It is a town shining in a sun of its own. Walking without a coat along its streets in mid-January, under a sky without a cloud that seems to blame you for leaving your dark glasses at home, you feel as if you heard sort of a background accordion, giving a soundtrack to movements, breaths, even to the lapping of the waves.
Such a feeling is difficult to describe, after all douce France is such at all latitudes, proud of itself and happy to be contagious with its allure, but in Marseille this is a hundredfold. Its territory encompasses a boundless bay, with many small ports popping up in every inlet: a panorama that inspired Cezanne and was immortalized by Braque, Derain, Dufy, Monticelli and Renoir. To the east, the hills of Pagnol unabatedly spread their perfumes, bucolically colouring the whole of the city, including the industrial districts, now converted into residential areas as well as trade centres.
The centre of Marseille is a joyful hive dominated by the Old Port, whose counterpart is the square of Mucem (Museum for Europe and the Mediterranean) or the Euroméditerranée Boulevard, called “Smartseille” to emphasize its innovative character – all this, under the eye of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde, watching from the top of the highest hill.
With this background it is just logical that the MICE tourism is more than something for the city. The most recent data, about 2015, tell of 520 meetings for a total of 2,172 days of events (+29.5% compared to 2014), more than 93 thousand participants and almost 293 thousand days/delegate, for an average duration of 4.2 days per event – a figure worthy of New York City.
My visit was organized by InspireME Monte Carlo, one of the leading DMCs of the French Riviera, specializing in extraordinary bouquet events, showing and bringing to life the spirit of the towns where they take place. Marseille is overflowing with spirit, and actually its bid for incentive events is even richer than the one – yet great as certified by the figures above – for conferences and congresses: sailing regattas, city rallies in vintage cars, balloon flights over the sea or Provence inland, a trip to the vineyards of Cassis, with rich wine tastings, trips to the immortal towns of Arles – still full of Roman remains – and Aix-en-Provence, mini cruises to the Calanques (creeks).
Right from here I would like to begin my brief review. The Calanques are emerald fingers dipped into the rock. They got shaped 12 thousand years ago, when the water level went up to invade the valleys, after the slow heating following the ice ages. The great sun conditions as well as the wind and the dry heat have given rise to a lush flora, with rare and fragile species, such as Gouffé grass, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
Visiting these paradises and organizing corporate incentive trips over there is possible right through InspireME, which offers the added excitement of face-to-face meetings with fishermen and their traditions.
I was staying at the Intercontinental Hotel Dieu, one of the flagship venues of Marseille: 194 rooms, including 15 suites, a fitness centre and a Spa. 72 rooms look out on the harbour, offering one of the most spectacular views in Europe, and 33 of them have private terraces. The hotel is also famous for its main terrace, over 750 square metres, overlooking the marina, very used for outdoor receptions, properly levering on the 300 average days of shining sun per year over Marseille and offering a unique and spectacular atmosphere. In addition to this terrace, one thousand metres of modular rooms allow convenient place for major events (the largest room can accommodate up to 400 people).
Among conference hotels, the Golden Tulip Euromed, opened recently but already hitting a big time in the business tourism, is worth a mention too. Facing the sea, not far from the city centre and well served by public transport (the line 2 of the local subway runs under there), it offers 210 rooms, including 15 suites and a conference centre of 395 modular square meters, plus 160 square metres of dedicated terrace – an original combination of two worlds (Mice and BT) which often, inexplicably, scowl at each other.
Among traditional venues, one just can’t fail to mention the immense Palais du Pharo, in a position overlooking the old port and allowing a panoramic view also of the new port. Built in the fifties of the nineteenth century for Napoleon III (who never lived there actually), it is now devoted to congresses, conventions and conferences. It has 7 thousand square metres of conference areas divided between the historic building and a dependence of 2013, and can accommodate around 2,500 people. Among the trump cards there’s a private parking for 400 cars: a major advantage.
Also the Palazzo dei Congressi Marseille Chanot: plays a big role obviously: 15 thousand square metres, two 600- and 1200-seat auditoriums, 15 rooms and 3,700 square metres of exhibition areas – a gem on the French Riviera.
As a whole, the city has 15 conference hotels and 17 unconventional venues, among which the Museo delle Civiltà d’Europa e del Mediterraneo, designed by Rudy Ricciotti on the seafront near Fort St. Jean – a seventeenth century castle steeped in history and built on the Greek and Roman ruins of the ancient city-state with, inside, a chapel dating from the twelfth century. The museum is arranged on three levels with a number of exhibition halls, an auditorium and a library. The roof is a peculiar feature and is set to become an iconic city venue with panoramic views of the sea and the harbour. At night, a light show designed by Yann Kersalé creates a magical atmosphere with shades of blue and turquoise.
The rooftop terrace provides a sloping walk made with 115 metres of bridges branching out of the roof and crossing the harbour basin. The facility connects the Museum to Fort St. Jean, home to the main restaurant. In addition, public outdoor spaces around the fortress have been redesigned to display a unique botanical collection of Mediterranean plants along a scenic walk.
Here too InspireME provides an exceptional added value design, setting the Museum for unique events and adjusting its spaces and atmospheres to gala dinners and unforgettable receptions.
Another pedestrian bridge takes visitors to Le Panier, the oldest and most traditional district of Marseille, with its charming narrow streets and steep stairways.
Finally, a special proposal, always by InspireME: it’s called Unexpected Marseille and it’s a special visit to the city, comprising all the “hidden” and precious corners as craft shops and private houses, mixing many encounters with the locals all the way. Marseille… differently!