Sprawling between white limestone hills laced with greenery and the blue hues of the Mediterranean, Marseille shares in the natural beauty that makes the French coastline so appealing. But unlike so many destinations along this stretch of the Med, Marseille isn’t primarily a tourist town, but a working city’ of more than 850,000, the second largest in France. It’s also its oldest, dating back 2,600 years to the Greek port of Massalia.
Not all 26 centuries have been kind. Blighted neighborhoods, crime and a gritty, industrial look kept Marseille from reaching its potential as a destination for visitors, especially cruise passengers.
But the biggest regeneration project in Southern Europe has transformed France’s largest cruise port and a rapidly growing one. Last year more than 1.6 million passengers alighted from cruise ships here, compared to 1.3 million in 2014. Even in tough economic times for tourism, the cruise sector has continued to grow and shows no sign of stopping. Estimates put the number of cruise passengers at 2 million in 2020.
The turnaround began in 1995 with the launch of Euromediterranee, a massive urban renewal project funded by the European Union, France and local governmental bodies. Then Marseille was named a European Capital of Culture of 2013 and more money flowed in.
Passengers on small to mid-size cruise ships lucky enough to dock at J4, one of two cruise ports in Marseille, will see the change right away. The other, larger cruise port six miles north sits in an industrial area, not so pretty to the eye, though the new Marseille Provence Cruise Terminal has brought welcome amenities.
But J4 takes pride of place in the revitalized Joliette neighborhood, walking distance to the heart of the city and next door to one of its newest and most exciting public spaces.
MuCEM, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, and C-shaped Villa Mediterranee, with cantilevered exhibition floor and underwater conference center, both opened in 2013. They sit next to one another on a broad public plaza connected by elevated walkway to the 17th-century Fort St-Jean.
MuCEM immediately catches the eye. A black concrete lattice drapes the building’s cube shape like a mantilla. The work of architect Rudy Rcciotti in association with Roland Carta, it houses two exhibit halls, one displaying temporary exhibits, the other a permanent collection of artifacts from Mediterranean civilizations. It’s the first French national museum to be located outside Paris.