Marseille, the Secret Capital of France

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On Marseille’s once-abandoned J4 pier, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations and the Villa Méditerranée represent the city’s changing cultural landscape.

On Marseille’s once-abandoned J4 pier, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations and the Villa Méditerranée represent the city’s changing cultural landscape.

Will SandersOn Marseille’s once-abandoned J4 pier, the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations and the Villa Méditerranée represent the city’s changing cultural landscape.Despite an ambitious face-lift with gleaming new architecture and a refurbished waterfront, Marseille remains a stubbornly glorious melting pot of seediness and sun — which is precisely why it’s so wonderful.

THIS YEAR MARSEILLE is a European Capital of Culture, so new museums have opened, the streets have been spruced up for tourists, and there’s a yearlong arts festival. The city has also been remaking its port — its historic identity and bygone glory — and trying to become a regional business hub, refurbishing abandoned and decrepit buildings around the harbor and erecting glamorous office towers.

It gleams, where the money has been spent, although just in the shadow of Zaha Hadid’s new skyscraper along the waterfront lie some of the poorest inner-city neighborhoods. Marseille remains a patchwork sprawl of rich and poor neighborhoods, a melancholy, compelling mess of corruption and sun — the anti-Paris and secret capital of a France that doesn’t pretend the country is race-blind.

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