Revamped Waterfront, World-Class Museums
Formerly dismissed as grimy and crime-ridden, Marseille has undergone a major facelift. Part of the 7 billion-euro Euromediterranee project, Europe’s biggest urban redevelopment project, the Old Port and surrounding quarters have been totally reimagined. The waterfront has been turned into a stylish pedestrian zone by British architect Norman Foster, while other renowned architects like Zaha Hadid and Rudy Ricciotti have graced Marseille with stunning 21st century buildings.
In June, France’s first national museum outside Paris, the MuCEM (www.mucem.org), or National Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, opened. Designed by Rudy Ricciotti, the Algerian architect who designed the Louvre’s new Islamic Art wing and Menton’s new Cocteau Museum, the MuCEM marries seaside Fort St. Jean, where the 17th-century Knights of St. John of Jerusalem once held sway, with the J4, a striking new waterfront building whose lacy facade highlights Provence’s most splendid assets: the sparkling Mediterranean and the intensely brilliant sunlight. The building’s facade also recalls the lacy wood facades of traditional Moroccan dwellings-and that’s no accident. The museum’s eclectic collection, including paintings, sculpture and historic artifacts, showcases the entire Mediterranean from France, Spain, Italy and Greece to Morocco and Algeria and beyond to Israel and the Middle East. There also are three restaurants, and an aerial walkway stretching high above the sea between Fort St. Jean and the J4.
A handful of other Old Port buildings have risen or undergone massive renovations. The J1, a huge waterfront hangar, is now a cultural center with art galleries, exhibit space, a new restaurant and a bookstore. Also on the waterfront, the new CEREM, or Regional Centre of the Mediterranean, hosts film screenings, concerts and Mediterranean symposia. But crowds flock there just to see Stefano Boeri’s ground-breaking design, featuring a corbel-like structure cantilevered over the docks. The new Regards de Provence Museum (www.museeregardsdeprovence.com), once the port’s maritime sanitary station, displays photos, painting and documents in its gleaming white structure. A new Musee d’Histoire, covering the port’s history from 600 BC to today, displays Greek and Roman archeological finds. Anyone overnighting in the Old Port will find, along with deluxe Sofitel and Radisson Blu hotels, the new InterContinental Marseille-Hotel Dieu (www.intercontinental.com) with 194 rooms, two restaurants and a Clairins spa, housed in a palatial 18th-century landmark near le Panier, Marseille’s oldest district.
Just beyond the Old Port, past Marseille’s iconic Cathedrale de la Major and north of the city’s revamped Joliette quarter, the new FRAC PACA (www.fracpaca.org), or Regional Contemporary Art Collection, designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, has exhibit space, a restaurant, terraces, and lodging space for resident artists. Not far away, there’s another new cultural center in the Silo d’Arenc (www.silo-marseille.fr), once used to house grain. East in the Belle de Mai quarter, La Friche de la Belle de Mai (www.lafriche.org), a renovated tobacco factory, hosts exhibits, concerts, film screenings and dance performances.
New and renovated buildings are also cropping up in neighboring cities and towns. In La Ciotat, the world’s oldest cinema, the ornate Eden Theatre, has undergone a complete renovation. In early October, its grand reopening celebration will include a formal ball, film screenings and other events. In Aix-en-Provence - also marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Albert Camus, author of the famous novel, The Stranger - the Conservatoire de Musique has reopened in a new building with a 500-seat auditorium. Meanwhile, Arles eagerly awaits the opening of Frank Gehry’s sprawling Parc des Ateliers, a veritable village of studio and exhibition space.
From Marseille, it’s an easy trip by train, bus or rental car to cities like Aix-en-Provence, where Cezanne painted; Arles, whose countryside inspired Vincent Van Gogh; Aubagne, known for its colorful miniature figurines called santons; Avignon, with its famous Palais des Papes, and Orange, known for its splendid Roman ruins. North of Marseille, charming hilltowns like St. Remy de Provence beckon. Take in the cultural landmarks in and around Marseille, but remember that Provence is one of the world’s best places to simply slow down, sip a glass of rose or pastis, and contemplate the beauty of the countryside and the glorious Mediterranean Sea.
For information on direct Marseille flights or connections through Paris, contact Air France (www.airfrance.us), British Airways (www.britishairways.com) and XL Airways (www.xl.com). For complete events and other details, log on to (www.mp2013.fr), (www.marseille-tourisme.fr/en), (www.tourismepaca.fr) and (www.franceguide.com).