MuCEM Marseille latticework facadeThe MuCEM (Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée, or the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) is Marseille's most dramatic new museum. logoClick here to book a hotel in Provence

But the MuCEM has turned out to be much more than that. Sitting on the J4 Esplanade, the ultra-modern new buildings and the adjacent mediaeval Fort Saint Jean form a brilliant series of interlocking, open-air public spaces.

From them you can enjoy stupendous panoramic views of the sea and the city, from the Cathedral and commercial port on one side to the Old Port and Notre Dame de la Garde on the other.

Also in this area to the north of Old Port: the Musée Regards de Provence, the Villa Méditerranée, the Tour Panorama and the FRAC PACA. It's difficult to think of another city which has acquired so many new art-oriented spaces in such close proximity and so short a time.

Best of all, you don't have to pay to see the MuCEM. While there is a charge to visit the exhibitions, access is entirely free to the gardens, cafés and restaurants, open-air theatre and scenic strolls.

These areas are usually packed with locals as well as tourists on sunny weekends and visitor numbers have vastly exceeded predictions. And now that the MuCEM has been awarded a much-coveted top, three-star rating in the Michelin Travel Guide, its popularity is only likely to grow.

Inside the MuCEM MarseilleIts architect, Rudy Ricciotti was born in Algeria, trained in Marseille and Geneva and remains based in Provence, where he also created the equally bold - if much smaller scale - Pavillon Noir in Aix.

For the MuCEM Ricciotti has imagined a breathtaking design with a double façade. The main building, with its glass windows, is wrapped in an intricate black concrete mashrabiya lacework screen that creates a North African feel.

The building changes colours constantly depending on the weather and the time of day and, viewed from the inside, the sun streaming through the screen creates beautiful dappled effects of light and shade. In theory it also offers some protection from the wind as well as the sun.

A long ramp, pictured, runs all round the MuCEM between the latticework screen and the main building from the ground level to the roof terrace.

You can go up or down this ramp while the museum is open without entering the exhibitions. Both the MuCEM and - more surprisingly - the ancient Fort Saint Jean are wheelchair- and pushchair-friendly and, in fact, are well-equipped for a range of handicaps: click here for more details.

A high walkway above the water connects the MuCEM to the adjacent Fort Saint Jean, a fortress dating back to the late twelfth century. Its rich history complements MuCEM's sharp modernity.

View of Notre Dame and Fort Saint Nicolas from Fort Saint Jean MarseilleInitially occupied by the Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John, which originated its name, the site was co-opted by King Louis XIV in 1660.

The King built a second fort, Saint Nicolas, at the same time on the other side of the Old Port. In both cases the purpose was not so much to protect the city from invaders as to deter local uprisings against the Parisian authorities.

Pictured: The Old Port, Notre Dame de la Garde and Fort Saint Nicolas viewed from the Fort Saint Jean.

As well as these military facilities, the Fort Saint Jean incorporated the Knights' hospice. A phallic watchtower was constructed in the 15th century by King René I of Provence.

Closed to the public for centuries, the Fort Saint Jean has now been restored and transformed into additional exhibition spaces.

There's also a promenade and a "dry garden" of drought-resistant Mediterranean plants, the Jardin des Migrations. It's landscaped to evoke the different homelands of successive waves of immigrants to Marseille.

This whole area provides a spectacular setting for outdoor concerts, film screenings and other shows in summer.

You can wander around the compound of the Fort among its lovely old buildings, again without going inside, and enjoy a series of views of the sea and the city, each more remarkable than the last. Or you can simply relax in the gardens and shady seating area.

MuCEM and Fort Saint Jean Marseille aerial viewA second footbridge links the Fort Saint Jean to Saint Laurent Church in the Panier (Marseille's Old Town). It has to be said that these walkways aren't things of great beauty - but they do look reassuringly solid.

And, if you suffer from vertigo or prefer to remain on firm ground, you don't need to use them. The Fort Saint Jean can also be accessed by steps and the MuCEM has its ramp as well as the usual stairs and lifts / elevators. Pictured: an aerial view of the whole complex.

But what's inside these vast new spaces? The MuCEM and the Fort Saint Jean host permanent and temporary exhibitions from an enormous collection totalling a million works.

Around three-quarters of these come from the former Musée national des arts et traditions populaires (National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions) in Paris, which closed down in 2005.

Additional artefacts have been acquired from other museums, including the Musée de l'Homme (Museum of Mankind). Others are newly purchased by the MuCEM itself.

It's not an entirely smooth match. The Musée national des arts et traditions populaires concentrated on French history and artefacts.

By contrast the MuCEM is shaped by a broad range of disciplines: archeology, art history, sociology and political sciences, among others. And its remit is Mediterranean Civilisations in the plural. Its pieces come from Greece, Israel, Syria and even further abroad.

The MuCEM Marseille by nightThe eclectic mix includes documents, paintings, prints and sculptures, furniture, tools, vehicles, reliquaries, jewellery, traditional clothing, textiles, fairground art, bull-fighting paraphernalia, Edith Piaf's stage costume and even Pink Floyd's mixing console.

These are displayed in rotation on the ground floor of the MuCEM and in spaces in the Fort Saint Jean. Those works not on show are stored in yet another new building, the Centre de Conservation des Ressources (the CCR) in the nearby Belle de Mai district. Parts of the CCR are open to the public too.

mucem souleiman the magnificentThe MuCEM's cavernous lobby area leads, on the ground floor, to two galleries containing a semi-permanent exhibitions about the Mediterranean.

When the MuCEM first opened, these rooms were, frankly, rather dull. But they received a complete makeover in 2017 and the new displays are much improved. In particular, Connectivities explores the region through the changing history of its major ports, including Istanbul, Venice and, of course, Marseille, from the 16th century to the present day.

Central themes are the power struggle between the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, Islam and Christianity, as well as the increasing globalisation of the big cities. Pictured: a 17th century French portrait of the aptly named Souleiman the Magnificent, from the new exhibition.

A second semi-permanent show called Ruralités reflects on farming and agriculture around the Mediterranean. The MuCEM also hosts temporary exhibitions.

NewsWho would have thought that the leading Chinese artist Ai Weiwei had a direct personal connection to Marseille? But he has, and it's explored in the current show.

mucem ai weiweiThis is the first major exhibition in France to be devoted to him. And it offers an intimate portrait of Ai Weiwei that we haven't seen before.

The link is his father, Ai Qing, who arrived in Marseille from Shanghai in 1929, landing near the very spot where the MuCEM stands today.

Ai senior was thirsting for art and freedom and he found them both in France, where he was inspired to become a famous poet. Pictured: the exhibition poster depicts Ai Weiwei in Marseille near the very spot where his father landed.

But on his return to China, Ai Qing soon fell foul of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. Like many artists and intellectuals, he was exiled to the countryside and redeployed in menial jobs such as cleaning latrines.

ai weiwei pavillon mucemPerhaps even worse, he was forced to burn his books in front of his children. That memory deeply marked Ai Weiwei and we can surely see in it the roots of his anger at authority.

This fascinating show is in part his son's homage to the man who inspired him. It's a mini-retrospective of Ai Weiwei's own work too. And the third strand is artefacts from the MuCEM's collection, chosen to highlight the fraught relations between France and China in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Called Fan-Tan for complex reasons explained in the show, it has signage in both English and French and runs until 12 November.

Around 100 pieces in total are on display, including two new works created by Ai Weiwei especially for the exhibition: giant cubes of Marseille soap inscribed with declarations of the rights of man and of woman.

Several pieces are spectacular. A huge pergola from a Ming dynasty house has been painted by Ai in garish colours (detail pictured above).

Another room is dominated by a vast chandelier made of dozens of smaller chandeliers: a sardonic comment on the bling décor of big Chinese hotels.

There’s also a new spin on Ai's famous series of photographs of himself deliberately dropping a priceless Han Dynasty vase.

ai weiwei vases mucemThe images have been reproduced using monochrome Lego bricks that create the illusion of photographic pixels. Pictured: the "Lego" photos and more antique vases, repainted by Ai Weiwei.

But there are many amazing smaller exhibits. The first room spotlights Ai Qing and Marseille as it was in 1929: a ten-minute film shot in that very year captures all the chaos and colour of street life on the Old Port.

It also contains the most touching item in the show: a bronze death mask made by Ai Weiwei of his father. Full of tenderness, it reveals a kinder, gentler side of this master-provocateur.

Also currently at the MuCEM: a show on the subject of gold, "an object of desire and conquest, and a traditional symbol of power and wealth". Until 10 September.

The MuCEM has an exhibition as part of Quel Amour! the love-themed cultural programme taking place all across Southern Provence in 2018. It's called L'Amour de A à Z and explores all the ways we declare our romantic affections, from exquisitely embroidered love tokens to text messages. Until 27 August.

Another show called Picasso et les Ballets Russes displays the artist's costume and set designs for four ballets by Serge Diaghilev between 1917 and 1921. Until 24 June. Another of the best and most ambitious recent exhibitions was also dedicated to Pablo Picasso. Click here to read our review.

The rooftop restaurant at the MuCEM MarseilleAside from its exhibition spaces, the MuCEM and Fort Saint Jean house an auditorium, two bookshops and a children's zone, a picnic area, snack bar, brasserie and restaurant.

Gérard Passédat, who holds three Michelin stars for Le petit Nice, his own restaurant on the other side of Marseille, oversees the catering. Pictured: the MuCEM's rooftop restaurant.

Insider tip for the MuCEM MarseilleIn common with many French museums, the MuCEM offers free admission to its galleries on the first Sunday of each month. Arrive early, though, to beat the crowds.

Website for the MuCEM Marseille. Note that the English-language section of this site is often not very up-to-date, so it's best to consult the French-language area if you can.

How to get there: The MuCEM sits to the north of the Old Port, just beyond the Fort Saint Jean, on the spur of land known as the J4 Esplanade. It's right next to the Villa Méditerranée near the Cathedral.

You can walk there in five-ten minutes from the Old Port. Alternatively, take bus 82, 60 or 49. The museum is a somewhat further walk from the nearest metro (Vieux Port or Joliette) or tram (République/Dames or Joliette) stops.


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