Ed Leahy reports on the European Capital of Culture for 2013.
Ever popular with Irish holidaymakers, France makes for the ideal summer holiday destination - whether taking a trip to the romantic city of Paris, exploring the northern province of Brittany, enjoying an Alpine adventure holiday, surfing the rugged west coast or living the high life along the stylish Cote d'Azur.
But travel further along that Mediterranean coast, heading towards the Iberian Peninsula, and you will arrive at the port of Marseille, a historic French city dating back to 600BC when it was founded by the Greeks.
Marseille has been named as the European Capital of Culture for 2013, making it a great year to visit the largest city on France's Mediterranean coast.
A cultural calendar will continue throughout the year, including the opening of new galleries and venues, exhibitions, street entertainment, firework displays and open air concerts.
Apart from the year of cultural celebrations, Marseille already has a lot to offer for tourists exploring the vibrant Mediterranean city.
First stop for most tourists is to climb up the hill to Notre Dame de la Garde. The 19th-century Byzantine-decorated basilica includes thousands of colourful mosaics, however, its main attraction is the panoramic views that it offers over the sprawling city, the harbour area and beyond towards the hills of Provence.
Marseille is very walkable and en route back to the old port and harbour area, you can stop off at the abbey of Saint-Victor and at the renowned Four des Navettes bakery to taste the orange blossom flavoured, boat-shaped specialities.
The Place des Moulins and the Accoules church are among the most historic places in the city with over 26 centuries to discover. In fact, the entire city centre is steeped in history, from its Greek and Roman origins through to middle-age fortifications, 18th and 19th-century prestige and modern-day North African colonial influences.
The Palais Longchamp offers old-style grandeur to the ancient city. The historic building, filled with spectacular sculptures and bright open spaces, dates back to 1869 and commemorates the arrival of the water of the canal between the river Durance and Marseille.
The Palais also houses the Musée des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museum) where you will find two large painting by Puvis de Chavannes, depicting Marseille, the Greek colony, and Marseille, Gateway to the Orient.
The Museum of Natural History is also located at Longchamp, while a night-time visit will also impress as the illuminated Palais is quite breathtaking.
Watching the world go by is another of the many highlights of a Marseille summer visit as you enjoy a coffee, croissant or a croque-monsieur along one of the sunny harbour-side terraces.
Whether partaking in that very French pastime of people-watching or viewing the many impressive yachts setting sail, you could spend hours enjoying the non-stop show.
And you can take a boat trip of your own out from the Old Port to visit the historic former fortress Château d'If.
Built in the 16th century, the castle is located about one mile from the harbour and is often likened to the San Francisco island of Alcatraz.
The castle is also the setting of Alexandre Dumas' adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Capital of Culture also applies to the entire area of Provence, so a few extra days will allow you to get out of the city and explore this very special part of France.
Travel north along the majestic Rhone River to the old town of Avignon, famous for housing the Papacy from 1305 to 1377. The cobblestoned courtyard of the Palais des Papes takes you into the giant gothic palace that dominates the old town. And apart from the main landmarks, the city is a joy to stroll around with interesting squares and walkways around every corner.
The famous winelands of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are located about 20 kilometres from Avignon, while the old town of Aix-en-Provence is also interesting.
Cassis, Vitrolles and La Ciotat are all worth visiting as you venture along the spectacular Provence coast.
Capital of Culture Information and Accommodation
Upon arriving in Marseille city, the main place to go is the Pavilion M, a building of wood and glass in the Place Bargemon (metro line 1 to Vieux Port then on foot towards the Hotel de Ville). The Pavilion will provide information on events, exhibitions, accommodation and transport.
Many hotels in Marseille are getting involved by offering special deals for certain dates throughout the year, making it easier for you to experience all that the European Capital of Culture has to offer during 2013.
Marseille shares the honour of being chosen jointly with the Slovakian town of Kosice, which has also been selected as a European Capital of Culture for 2013.
Aer Lingus flies from Dublin to Marseille three times a week. www.aerlingus.ie.
For more information on Marseille's Capital of Culture, visit: www.mp2013.fr.
For more information about visiting France, go to: www.FranceGuide.com.
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