This sweeping view shows MUCEM in the foreground with its footbridge to Fort St Jean, while the harbour entrance behind is overlooked by the Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica. Photo: Yoan Navarro
France’s oldest city was born around 600BC as the Greek trading post of Massalia. Through the centuries it became a Roman city, an early centre of Christianity and a focal point of the French Revolution. (France’s national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’, acquired its nickname after being sung by revolutionary volunteers from Marseille marching to the capital.)
More recently, Marseille’s cultural legacy was boosted by its stint as the 2013 European Capital of Culture, usually a powerful force in boosting a host city’s economic and cultural development and its attraction on the world stage. For Marseille’s one-year reign, over €660 million were earmarked for the refurbishment or construction of some 60 cultural facilities to host almost 500 events.
Built on reclaimed land at the entrance to the harbour, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations – known, mercifully, by the French acronym MUCEM – is the first museum devoted to the history and civilisations of the Mediterranean. The complex comprises a huge cuboid building clad in a concrete lattice linked by a footbridge to the 17th century Fort St Jean. Selections from its million-piece collection trace historical and cultural cross-fertilisation in the Mediterranean basin through the ages. Within a year of its June 2013 opening MUCEM had become one of the 50 most visited museums in the world.
Directly opposite MUCEM, the Musee Regards de Provence (Museum of Provence Scenes) was installed in a 1940s sanitary station where immigrants had their clothes cleaned and disinfected upon arrival. A series of temporary exhibitions features selections from a collection of over 900 works amassed by Pierre and Michele Dumon of classic and modern from the 18th century to the present day inspired by Provence and the Mediterranean. Popular subjects include seascapes and harbour scenes, coastal views, fishing villages, landscapes, figures and Oriental studies. There are sweeping sea views from the museum’s glass-fronted terrace cafe.
In the historic Le Panier (The Basket) district is a three-museum complex in a delightful setting. The Museum of African, Oceanian and Native American Arts – again, thankfully, known by its French acronym, MAAOA – is located in a series of rooms on the upper floors of La Vieille Charite, a former 18th century alms house arranged around a large courtyard where stands a chapel with Roman-style oval cupola. The Swiss architect and pioneering designer Le Corbusier was instrumental in saving the complex from demolition in the 1950s.
In rooms devoted to artefacts from Africa, Oceania and the Americas (MAAOA is the only French museum outside Paris dedicated to these regions), artefacts such as masks, sculptures, reliquaries and daily objects are displayed behind glass in darkened rooms, beautifully lit to highlight their exquisite detail. The Africa room contains objects from colonial museum institutions in Marseille, the Mexico Room features folk art gathered by the documentary film-maker François Reichenbach and the Oceania and Americas room shows objects from the Henri Gastaut collection and other acquisitions. There is a delightful cafe, where you may spot freshly baked fruit pies cooling on the windowsill.
In a 17th century mansion in a smart district popular with luxury fashion brands, Musee Cantini offers an overview of French art from 1900 to the 1960s, with fine examples of works from that period’s main movements, such as Neo-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism. Signac’s ‘L’Entree du Port de Marseille’ (1918) draws many admirers, while Derain’s ‘Cassis’ (1907) reflects artists’ love of southern light and landscapes. This impressive civic collection includes work by many leading artists, from Kokoschka, Ernst, Dubuffet, Leger and Picasso to Miro, Leger, Matisse, Giacometti and Bacon.
Out in the southern part of Marseille, where the Chateau Borely houses the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Museum of Earthenware and the Museum of Fashion. The chateau is approached through a Versailles-style French garden. The entrance hall, with its swirling staircase and elaborate ceiling fresco, leads visitors straight into the main reception room overlooking the French gardens. Off here, and on the first floor, some two dozen rooms house objects from three of Marseille’s former museums. Rather than being displayed separately, pieces from all three collections are mingled together to show the links between the arts and crafts. Periods are also juxtaposed to set up contrasts between past and present.
Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2019, the ostentatious Palais Longchamp has a massive, horseshoe-shaped colonnade centred around the vast ‘chateau d’eau’ (water castle) fountain, with a triumphal arch and museums in either wing, the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Fine Arts (Fr: Musée des Beaux Arts).
Marseille’s first museum, its collection covers 400 years of art history, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, including examples from all the great European painting schools. The 19th century French school is particularly well represented, with works by Courbet, Corot, Daubigny, Millet and others. A special feature is a selection of art in Provence in the 17th and 18th centuries, while work by artists of the Marseille school show their original vision of the luminous landscapes of the Midi. Rodin’s masterpiece ‘The Inner Voice, donated by the sculptor to the museum, is a highlight of the 19th century sculpture gallery.
The surrounding park, the ‘Jardin du plateau’, is a classic garden ‘à la française’. There are also some exotic remnants of the 19th century zoo which was closed in the 1980s due to public opinion against traditional zoos.
WHERE TO STAY
Every room in La Residence du Vieux Port Hotel boasts a sweeping balcony view of the Old Port and the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica on the hilltop opposite. Room decor is in a lively, modern art style with an emphasis on primary colours and geometric shapes. (Think Mondrian or Miro.) The hotel restaurant, Le Relais 50, offers gourmet cuisine with a southern accent.
FURTHER INFO www.marseille-tourisme.com