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Meandering around Marseilles
William Yeoman Meandering around Marseilles

Think of all those artists who at one time or another painted in the south of France, including Monticelli, Van Gogh, Signac, Cezanne, Matisse, Braque and Bonnard. Catching bright colours out of the air with their brushes before fixing them, still quivering, on to the canvas.

BATHED IN LIGHT PICTURE GALLERY

Unsurprising then that next year Marseille-Provence, as the 2013 European Capital of Culture, will host one of the most ambitious art exhibitions ever mounted. Drawing on major collections from around the world, Le Grand Atelier du Midi will comprise two concurrent parts: From Van Gogh to Bonnard (Musee des Beaux-Arts, Palais Longchamp, Marseilles) and From Cezanne to Matisse (Musee Granet, Aix-en-Provence).

It will undoubtedly be one of the jewels in the crown of a year-long festival of music, dance, literature, gastronomy, cinema, theatre and visual arts celebrating an area that stretches from Arles in the west to Aubagne in the east and takes in the all-important Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles as well as La Ciotat, Gardanne, Istres, Martigues and Salon-de-Provence.

But I'm from Australia, the land of Tom Roberts, Sidney Nolan, Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and Shane Pickett.

The intense light is hardly a novelty. And I'm in Marseilles now: construction cranes are still breaking up the horizon as France's most ancient city, wary of being caught in dishabille, dresses for the eyes of the world as the sparkling Mediterranean stretches before her.

The capital of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region, Marseilles was founded by Phocaean Greeks in 600BC. They named it Massalia, but its name derives from the Roman Massilia. The French national anthem is named after the city: La Marseillaise.

Long before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the consequent economic benefit to the port city, Marseilles was an important centre for trade during the Crusades (11th to 13th centuries), when Christians waged holy war against the so-called Infidel.

Now Marseilles is a bouillabaisse of races, cultures and religions. More than a quarter of the roughly 850,000-strong population is Muslim.

I have about a day and a half in Marseilles, waiting along with other international journalists to board the newly built MSC Divina ahead of a maiden voyage during which we'll visit Civitavecchia, Rome, Messina, Valletta, Dubrovnik and Venice. So I make the most of it with a combination of guided tour and aimless wandering.

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From my room in the Sofitel Marseilles Vieux Port I can already see Fort St Jean, which houses the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, and the Phare de Sainte Marie, on the inlet to the Old Port.

Before breakfast I cross the road to explore its brother, Fort St Nicholas, built by Louis XIV in the 1660s and sacked during the French Revolution before being repaired in the 19th century. In the pre-dawn light it's an eerie place, foreshadowing my later visit to the fortress-like Abbey of St Victor, which dates from the fifth century.

More fortresses await as I and my companions speed along the coast in a tour bus after a hearty buffet breakfast. We stop to look at the Frioul archipelago, one of whose four islands hosts the Chateau d'If (first a fortress, then a prison) which features in Dumas' novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.

The bus struggles up a steep incline, the narrow laneway just wide enough. Finally we arrive at Marseilles' highest point, on which sits the magnificent neo-Byzantine Basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde, built in 1853 and rising out of an old fortress which itself was built on the site of an old church.

The spectacular interior, with votive model ships hanging from a vaulted ceiling decorated with coloured mosaics, is matched only by the colossal gold-covered statue of the Virgin Mary, La Bonne Mere, as she is known to locals, which stands on the belfry, and the panoramic views of the city she watches over.

It's in stark contrast to the austere, unadorned former almshouse, La Vieille Charite, built between 1671 and 1749 and featuring an ovoid dome which I look at from below, marvelling at its harmonious, hypnotic structure.

It's also in stark contrast to the modest church I enter after having smiled at the political posters in the streets (the elections which saw Nicolas Sarkozy make way for the Socialist Party's Francois Hollande had been held only two months before) and snacked on panisses in Marseilles' Arab quarter, the Noailles.

I dip my fingers in the holy-water font just inside the door and make the sign of the cross as my eyes adjust to the dim interior.

Paint peels off the walls and there are wooden chairs instead of pews. I genuflect in front of the altar before sitting down, not to pray but to meditate on the little I have experienced of Marseilles and how much I'll have to leave for another visit.

A woman sits down across the aisle from me, a black mantilla covering her head and shoulders. A true believer? Either way, it is thus that I spend my final moments in Marseilles: in silent communion with a stranger. And I'm happy. Perhaps it's the quality of the darkness.

·William Yeoman travelled to Europe courtesy of MSC Cruises, Emirates, Rail Europe and Sofitel Luxury Hotels.