Marseille off the beaten track: La Friche la Belle de Mai

The main tourist attractions of this southern French sea port are well known, so let’s focus on one of her hidden gems. La Friche la Belle de Mai is located several kilometers outside the city center and has a lot to offer. This former tobacco factory has been transformed into a cultural complex with a skate park, some stunning street art, several bars, a playground for children, an art gallery and much more. 

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This old factory complex is situated next to the rail tracks.

When I visited Marseille a decade ago, I was confronted with a nice, but somewhat sleepy big city, compared to her Mediterranean sisters like Barcelona. But something has been changed ever since: Marseille has been grown. Not only in population numbers, but on a cultural level as well.

For example, Marseille was in 2013 European capital of culture (officially this project was called Marseille-Provence 2013 or MP2013). For this occasion, the city constructed big cultural hotspots like the MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean civilizations).

Near Marseille’s main station Saint-Charles is an old tobacco factory transformed into the cultural center La Friche la Belle de Mai. This means literally “The wasteland of the beauty of May”. Friche or wasteland because a wasteland has been left after industrial activities have shut down. And La Belle de Mai or the beauty of May because the name of the neighboring quarter.

In the year 2013 La Friche has been transformed from just a cultural center into a huge cultural complex which one expects in cities like London or Berlin. It’s decorated with fascinating street art and a cool skate park.

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How to combine street art and graffiti tags? In Marseille they managed it!
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Younger and older skaters are enjoying this nice skate park.

But that’s just what you see when you enter this hotspot of art. If you climb the stairs, you’ll enter the former factory that used to have its own rail acces. The former rail tracks have been replaced by some cute city garden initiatives. While trains are passing by, locals are enjoying their public gardens.

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One of the first thing that you’ll notice when entering Marseille by train: city gardening.
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Graffiti tags and gardening: you can enjoy both at La Friche!

Next to the gardens and playgrounds you’ll find a huge bar. After having some small talk with the bartenders, I learned that it’s possible to dive into the Mediterranean Sea in the month of February. When I explained them that the temperature in Brussels was a that moment 7 degrees, they showed me immediately their compassion.

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The local bar has an industrial design.
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The walls of the old factory are decorated with stunning street art.

At the moment of visiting this complex, their were no exhibitions. Often at La Friche you can enjoy socially committed art exhibitions. For example, in April 2019, they’ll show different point of views on the issue of Marseille as city of arrival. Before there was a photo exhibition about social inequality in the northers quarters of Marseille. But, even without an event, photographers can enjoy the results of the local photography scene in the bookshop in the old factory.

At the time of writing, the rooftop terrace was closed. And that was a shame, because the view seems to be good. Apparently it’s opened during exhibitions and cinematic shows. They organize good parties as well!

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How hipsterish this cultural factory became, the industrial design remained.

You can walk endless on the stairs, terraces and corridors. The complex hosts a lot of artists in residence and has even a food market, two theaters, the Mediterranean Institute of Show Crafts and more.

While leaving this complex to the quarter La Belle de Mai, you’ll enter a tunnel of art. This tunnel seems to be just a normal tunnel, but watching the walls can be a nice experience.

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The local arts tunnel.

So, this wasteland of the beauty of May is a must do for arts, culture, skate and train lovers. It’s an ode to the transformation of a wasteland into beauty.

How to get there? Get of the train or metro at Marseille Saint-Charles, quit the station via the intercity bus platforms and walk straight ahead through the Rue Honnorat and Rue Guibal with the railway tracks on your right side. After one kilometer you’ll enter this hotspot.

More information? Visit LaFriche.org or search for them at Facebook or Instagram.  

How to travel cheap over land to Marseille from the north? Use OUIGO, France low-cost high-speed train!

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