Founded by the Phoenicians some 2600 years ago, Marseille has been a crossroad of immigration ever since. Throughout its long history, the city has received successive waves of populations of many nationalities, cast adrift by political and economical chaos. Over time, these strata upon strata of immigrants seeking to find a balance between new lives and old traditions shaped the city into a colorful, multi-ethnic threshold between France and the Southern Mediterranean shores.
For many decades, however, and especially since the Second World War, Marseille had suffered an enduring image issue. Although one of the most important Mediterranean ports, the city was dismissed for its seedy reputation, urban decay and high crime figures. Not exactly a compelling pitch for tourism-minded visitors. But with the new century, things are turning around.
From Regional Reprobate to European Capital of Culture
As part of a concerted transformation effort, Marseille prepared for, and won in 2009, the designation of European Capital of Culture 2013. It now had four years to get its act together. The city famous for its lethargic pace shifted into high gear. It was scrubbed clean and refurbished. Its waterfront got a radical facelift.
The Vieux Port (Old Harbor), the one-kilometer (over half a mile) long natural harbor that was the center of all maritime activities since antiquity had begun to decline in the mid-nineteenth century when its shallow six-meter (20 foot) depth made it unsuitable for the new steamships. Today, it is a large, sundrenched marina where sail and fishing boats bob alongside glitzy yachts and the occasional tall ship.
The entrance to the waterfront has become a vast plaza where British architect Norman Foster’s L’Ombrière (the sunshade) stretches atop slender steel stilts, six meters above the newly repaved water’s edge. The thin canopy, 46 by 22 meter (151 by 72 feet) of highly polished stainless steel, transforms the square into an astonishing inverted theatre that reflects the ever-changing space below. In the morning the fishermen selling the catch of the night right off their boats along the quay become a lively part of the show.
The Icon of Contemporary Marseille
The broad new pedestrian concourse to the right of the plaza is lined with sprawling, shaded terraces of restaurants that entice patrons with their fresh-of-the-boat menus. From there, they also get spectacular view of the south side of the Vieux Port, with the grand nineteenth century Neo-Byzantine basilica of Notre Dame de la Garde (literally Our Lady of Protection) soaring into the vivid azure sky, high above the forest of masts.
Then, at the mouth of the harbor, the latest icon of contemporary Marseille, the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM for short) has become one of the city’s most popular destination. Open in 2013, this new museum devoted to European and Mediterranean civilizations, was allocated a spectacular location, a former port pier with sweeping westward views of the sea and the setting sun. The daring contemporary building is adjacent to the historic Fort Saint Jean that has been guarding the entrance of the Vieux Port since the seventeenth century, and is now an integral part of museum complex.
From the top of the Fort a daring 135-meter (450 foot) long footbridge flies across the water to the roof terrace of the museum. The new MuCEM structure, designed by local architect Rudy Ricciotti, is a 72 by 72 meter (235 by 235 foot) square box of glass and steel wrapped in a veil of latticed concrete that also partially extends over the roof terrace. The fort grounds and gardens are free to explore, as are the museum terrace and the walkways that twist between the glass walls of the new exhibit space and its outer lacey shell.
A second high footbridge connects the top of the fort’s Royal Gate to the twelfth century Provencal Romanesque church of Saint Laurent, at the edge of the historic hillside neighborhood of Le Panier (the Basket). The bridge thus opens the new site to the city and contributes its own stupendous views of the Vieux Port and the waterfront.
What of the Actual Museum?
My visit of the exhibit space leaves me with a sense that the complex is less about content than adding a striking new architectural chapter to the three-millennia history of the city. There is a disconnect between the magnificent shell and the building it is meant to serve. The core of the MuCEM is a boxy 52 by 52 by 18 meter volume that contains a basement auditorium and two floors of cramped galleries.
Its main attraction is a lackluster retrospective of the history, genealogy and culture of the Mediterannean. It is supplemented by temporary exhibits that vary widely in theme. At the time my visit, it features an exposition tracing the influence of popular arts and traditions in the works of Picasso. It also includes an overview of the life and works of Jean Genet, a twentieth century French social outcast turned writer and political activist who, as a dramatist, became a leading figure in the avant-garde theatre.
While the museum is not without interest, it the site, with its unique blend of historic military architecture, contemporary structural creativity, pleasant terrace restaurant and stupendous views that I found to be most worthy of a visit.
Good to Know
- Getting there – Marseille is easily reached by train, with multiple direct TGV (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3.5 hours) and Lyon (1.5 hour), as well as Geneva (3.5 hours), Brussels (5.5 hours) and Frankfurt (7 hours). The trains take travelers to the Saint Charles station, right in the center of the city. For air travelers, the Marseille-Provence International Airport is 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) northwest of the city has numerous flights throughout the day from Paris, London and other major European cities. A shuttle bus runs every 15 minutes between the airport and the central bus terminal behind the Saint Charles station.
- Getting around – The greater Marseille area is served by a public transport system, known at RTM (Régie des Transports de Marseille), which includes two Metro lines, M1 (the blue line, runs east-west) and M2 (the red line, runs north-south), two Tram lines, T1 and T2, also running east-west and north-south respectively, and over 70 Bus lines. Note: most bus routes do not operate after 9:00 pm and metro and tram services stops at 0:30 am
- Boats Excursions – The Vieux Port is the starting point for a number of boat tours of the shoreline calanques (fjords) as well as excursions to the nearby Frioul island and the Château d’If (of Comte de Monte Cristo fame). Spur-of-the-moment tickets can be purchased at their berthing point. However, to find the tour best suited to your interests and budget, see the Marseille Office de Tourisme site for a comprehensive list of tour companies and their offerings.
- Visiting – MuCEM. Promenade Robert Laffont, Marseille (official address). Its main entrance, the Fort Saint-Jean Lower Entrance is located at 201 Quai du Port. Open Wednesday through Monday. Closed on Tuesday and December 25, as well as May 1. Open at 11:00 am year-round. Closing time varies with the seasons from 6:00 pm in winter to 8:00 pm in summer. For exact opening information, check their website or contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 84 35 13 13.