Gay Marseille: France's oldest city by the sea

If there's one word that's often used to describe Marseille, it's "salty." Of course that has something to do with the sea air wafting in off the Mediterranean, but a lot more to do with the unapologetically bold character of the city itself. Marseille is indeed a somewhat less fancy France than you might be used to, an ancient port city built by centuries of saucy sailors from around the globe. (There's evidence of human habitation in the area for a staggering 30,000 years, but it's the city's official founding by the Greeks circa 600 BC, as Massalia, that makes it France's oldest.)

Though it's also long been France's second biggest metropolis (or third, if you believe the folks in Lyon), Marseille hasn't long enjoyed the tourism spotlight of say a Nice, nor certainly a Paris. Despite a host of unique charms and a prime location on the lovely Mediterranean (lying at the very gateway to gorgeous Provence), Marseille's rough and tumble reputation has made it a place foreign (and even French) travelers continually pass through, but too often have been a little too skittish to linger in too long.

That's all about to change, in a major way. The entire city is now in the final stages of a dramatic makeover, in preparation for its upcoming role as a European Capital of Culture throughout 2013. All across town, museums, hotels, even entire neighborhoods are getting major facelifts. In the ancient Le Panier area, one of Marseille's most famous buildings, Hotel Dieu, is being transformed into the city's second 5-star hotel. In the already picturesque harbor, the stunning and long-awaited new MuCEM (Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean) is gearing up to open in January.

And as luck would have it for the gay traveler, 2013 will also be the year that Marseille hosts its first ever EuroPride, happening next summer from July 10 to 20. A full slate of conferences, debates, exhibitions, films, music, and shows are promised, all culminating in the Marche des Fiertes (Pride Parade) and a giant beach concert.

Meanwhile, Marseille's quirky gay scene is spread across the whole city rather than concentrated in any one area. The lack of a particular gayborhood -- plus that infamous salty tough-guy image -- means that you likely won't see a lot of public displays of same-sex affection here. But you will find a diverse array of gay and gay-friendly venues, and local crowds that definitely enjoy getting their fun on.

A few must-do's in Marseille: Wander the narrow streets of Le Panier, the city's oldest neighborhood, first settled by the Greeks, and now home to myriad captivating shops and cafes; try bouillabaisse in the city where it was born, at one of the select restaurants that locals consider the best (asking for advice will be part of the fun); and set sail for the nearby Calanques, a series of spectacular rocky inlets just east of the city center.

Getting to Marseille is simple, with Marseille Provence Airport being served directly by a host of international airlines. Since no one flies directly here from the U.S., most Americans either connect through Paris (via another flight or fast train), or opt for the scenic route by flying into nearby Nice Cote d'Azur Airport and wending westward (by train or car) along the coast.

More info about traveling to Marseille can be found at http://www.marseille-tourisme.com/en/
More info about Marseille-Provence 2013 can be found at http://www.mp2013.fr/?lang=en
More info about EuroPride Marseille can be found at http://www.europride2013.com/

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