Until the European Union named Marseille a European Capital of Culture for 2013, it may have been one of the most underappreciated cities on the Continent. Situated on a splendid Mediterranean harbor, surrounded by hills and blessed with an average 300 days of sunshine, a variety of museums, great restaurants and a vital, multicultural population, it has just about everything a visitor could ask for.
Yet because of its rough-edged reputation, people usually preferred to spend their sojourns in the South of France in the quieter, smaller cities of Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Arles and Nîmes.
This year, invigorated by the tremendous financial investment tied to the honor, the city of more than 850,000 inhabitants now boasts so many new cultural institutions and attractions, has converted so many industrial buildings into arts centers and has revitalized so many neglected neighborhoods that it may now be impossible for travelers to resist.
In the past, the lively port, crowded with fishing vessels and luxury yachts, was never particularly conducive to just hanging out; there was too little space. Thanks to smart city planning that called for expanded walkways and plazas, all that has changed. No less than 660 million euros (more than $850 million) from public and private sources has poured into the city and surrounding region since 2008, when Marseille received the designation. (Kosice in Slovakia is the other city selected for this year.)
The designation has transformed many Marseille sites into cultural and architectural marvels. Dilapidated docks have given way to handsome wooden wharves and boathouses, and sculpture exhibitions have become a regular occurrence — recently, brightly painted life-size animals, created by local artists, could be found there and all over the city.
Because concerts and dance performances will be held on the main plaza through the fall, architect Norman Foster’s firm, Foster & Partners, was commissioned to provide some relief from the elements. The result is a sleek pavilion called Ombrière. This glistening sheet of steel, suspended by eight slender poles, reflects everything beneath and near it, so that at night the sea shimmers both on its ceiling and in the harbor.
A short walk along the north side of the port to the imposing 12th-century Fort St.-Jean takes you to two high, narrow footbridges. The first leads to the labyrinthine historic district, Le Panier (the Basket), site of the region’s first Greek settlements in 600 B.C. This hilly quarter, dynamited by the Nazis in 1943 because it served as a haven for Resistance fighters, has long been a home to immigrants who originally came from Italy and Corsica and have more recently arrived from Africa, South America and Asia.
In the historic district center, the Vieille Charité, previously an almshouse and a hospice, houses museums of Mediterranean archaeology and African, Oceanic and American Indian art. From arcaded passageways, the museums open onto a domed chapel and a peaceful courtyard with the new Charité Café and a general bookstore.
To get a feeling for the district requires walking through narrow alleyways lined with cafes, restaurants and artists’ workshops, chic lofts side by side with rundown houses, in an atmosphere like Montmartre’s in Paris. Upon reaching the small Place des Moulins at the top, you will find a tree-lined square framed by pastel-colored houses, with views out to the sea. Fifteen windmills once stood here alongside cannons, placed to defend the city.
The second bridge from Fort St.-Jean connects to a spacious esplanade and two new dazzling museums, the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM), which opened in June and was designed by architect Rudy Ricciotti; and Villa Méditerranée, opened in March and designed by architect Stefano Boeri. Both were built with financing that came with the cultural capital designation and offer breathtaking, panoramic views of the city and the Mediterranean, extending from the statue of Notre-Dame de la Garde on a hill to the south to the majestic Cathédrale de la Major to the north.
The block-shaped MuCEM has a black, lattice-patterned facade and towering windows, with a rooftop terrace, garden and restaurant, which like all the dining spots in the museum is overseen by the three-star Michelin chef Gerald Passédat. The first national museum outside Paris, it plans exhibits that will combine anthropology, history, archaeology, art history and contemporary art. One of its first temporary exhibitions, “At the Bazaar of Gender,” on view through Jan. 6, tackles how gender has been perceived in the Mediterranean countries.
Also dedicated to celebrating local cultures, Villa Méditerranée is a conference, exhibition and documentation center. Its mission is to encourage cultural exchange through events like lectures, debates, performances, films and concerts. Shaped like a giant C, it has a remarkable 130-foot cantilevered overhang, suspended over an interior pool that can harbor boats and accommodate swimmers. Concerts, seminars and film screenings will be held in the auditorium’s underwater base, which feels somewhat like being in an aquarium.
Continuing the water experience, you can take a boat near the Villa Méditerranée to the dikes that extend from the port where French-Algerian artist Kader Attia installed “Les Terrasses,” a series of variously shaped, brilliant white cubes, which will remain on view through September.
Within easy walking distance from the museums, heading north, you come to other new centers, several of them reused industrial spaces. The 1,700-seat Silo, a former grain storage facility, now presents theater, dance and music; the Hangar J1, a converted ferry terminal, functions as an arts and community center set up for 2013, a kind of pop-up space. And the Musée Regards de Provence, in a building that was once a processing area for incoming immigrants, houses a terrific collection of art from the region.
To reach two other outstanding exhibitions requires a bus ride from the city center. Well worth the effort is the sculpture garden, unveiled in June and designed by Ito Morabito, who goes by Ora-Ito professionally, on the roof of Le Corbusier’s famous 1952 “vertical village,” Cité Radieuse. In addition to more than 300 spacious apartments, the building — true to the village concept — has shops; medical, educational and sports facilities; a handsome hotel on three floors; and a marvelous restaurant, Le Ventre de l’Architecte (the Belly of the Architect), overseen by a well-regarded local chef, Alexandre Mazzia.
Not far away is the Musée d’Art Contemporain (MAC), with a show, “Le Pont,” on view through Oct. 20, featuring the works of 145 artists who deal with migration and exchanges between civilizations, a recurring theme in this polyglot city.
Marseille has not lost its reputation as a city burdened by crime. The Marseille region, which includes Aix and Arles, now ranks third in robberies after Paris and the region of Seine-St.-Denis. Authorities say a larger police force and more surveillance cameras downtown have reduced crime appreciably in the past year.
Just trying to see half of what’s new in Marseille takes a few days; to see all of it would take weeks. The city’s bustling cafes and restaurants offer respite when it is time for a break; the many performances in unusual venues offer great entertainment. Expansive, sandy beaches are also not far away.
The designation Capital of European Culture, created in 1985 by two influential politicians, Mélina Mercouri and Jack Lang, ministers of culture for Greece and France respectively, was meant to bring the people of Europe closer together by celebrating the key role played by cities in European culture. It would seem that it has done far more, this year turning the spotlight for all the world to see on the overlooked city of Marseille.