Villa Mediterranee Marseille by nightA cultural centre designed by the Milanese architect Stefano Boeri, the ingeniously conceived Villa Méditerranée is structured roughly in the shape of a "c".

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NewsThe Villa Mediterranée is closed for two years from 2018, in order to transform its large basement floor into a full-scale reproduction of the prehistoric Cosquer caves.

Located underwater in the calanque of Morgiou south of Marseille, these deep caves were above sea level many millennia ago and inhabited during two periods, 27000 and 19000 BC.

At that time they were decorated with some 500 paintings and carvings, of animals as well as of mysterious signs and symbols.

The caves were discovered in 1985 by a local diver named Henri Cosquer, but are now closed to the public.

It's hoped that the replica at the Villa Mediterranée will become a major tourist attraction, as has been the case elsewhere in France with replicas of the Lascaux caves and other prehistoric sites. Meanwhile here is a guide to the Villa as it has existed so far.

The Villa Méditerranée is a dramatic addition to the rapidly transforming area of Marseille along the seafront towards the commercial docks and cruise ship terminals.

Villa Mediterranee Marseille Pictured: the Villa Méditerranée on 12 January 2013, the opening night of Marseille-Provence 2013 European Capital of Culture (the interior of the Villa opened to the public four months later).

Next to the MuCEM and behind the Fort Saint Jean, the Villa's sleek white structure forms a striking contrast with its chunky black neighbour.

Until recently, this part of Marseille was an industrial desert. Now it hosts some of the most exciting and innovative architecture in town.

As well as the Villa and the MuCEM, you can find the elegant, 1950s-style Musée Regards de Provence, Kengo Kuma's FRAC PACA with its Japanese origami-like facade, the Silo d'Arenc (a concert venue in a former grain silo) and Zaha Hadid's thrusting office block for the shipping company CMA CGM.

However the Villa Méditerranée - formerly, and more prosaically, known as the CeReM - has always been controversial. There's a great rivalry with the MuCEM: the two buildings opened within weeks of each other.

What's more, the Villa Méditerranée and the MuCEM have very similar missions: to promote Mediterranean culture. The main difference: the MuCEM is nationally funded while the Villa Méditerranée's 70 million €uro price tag was paid for by the region of Provence.

Many eyebrows have been raised at this duplication, which arose for apparently political reasons. But, from a purely visual and architectural point of view, the two buildings complement each other perfectly with their bold, contrasting shapes and colours.

The upper floor belvedere Villa Mediterrane MarseilleSo what's to see at the Villa? It hosts conferences and debates with Mediterranean themes and film screenings, plays and concerts, as well as exhibitions. But, as with the MuCEM, the building itself is the main attraction rather than its contents.

You can view the Villa Méditerranée on a free, half-hour guided tour in small groups of about 20: these tours are offered in English and other languages if there are sufficient visitors to form a group.

Alternatively, you can simply stroll around yourself. Entrance is free, though you need to ask for a ticket at the front desk.

Head directly for the jutting third-floor belvedere on the precarious-looking cantilevered upper floor. It's a full 40 metres / 130 feet long and overhangs a large artificial pool.

Here you can enjoy the play of luminous reflections, pictured, as well as splendid views across the port and the sea, while walking around on a sloping floor with vertigo-inducing glass inset panels, pictured below, looking down on to the water.

The echoing basement is accessed by a huge, suspended spiral staircase which is a remarkable feat of engineering. It houses an enormous "agora", or meeting area, of 1825 square metres / 19650 square feet.

It's right under the seabed which, in theory, you can look at through glass portholes, though these have been leaking and have had to be sealed off! The resulting, airless space is a little underwhelming, though it does sometimes house interesting exhibitions.

Glass Floor at the Villa Mediterranee MarseilleFinally, the Villa's own restaurant, the Café des Méditerranées is one of the best places to eat in the area and has terrific views.

You can dine there (during the day only) even when the Villa is closed. Click here to read our review.

How to get there: The Villa Méditerranée 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 MuCEM, 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.

Photo credits: all images © SJ for Marvellous Provence

 

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