PHOTOS: Olympic Flame travels to France on beautiful historic ship

The 127-year-old ship set sail on Saturday with ‘the most important passenger it has ever carried’

The flame has been lit in Athens and will be transported to Marseille aboard the Belem
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A beautiful historic ship is bringing the Olympic Flame to France in a 12-day, 2,000 km journey that began in Athens, Greece, on Saturday (April 27).

The Belem ship is now travelling towards Marseille, where it will dock at the Vieux Port on May 8. 

Tourist accommodation in Marseille has already seen a 63% increase in bookings (compared to the same time last year), as visitors prepare for the arrival.

The Olympic Flame was officially conferred to France at the Athens Panathenaic Stadium. 

It spent one night at the French Embassy before beginning its Mediterranean journey for the Paris Olympics and Paralympics. 

The flame will then travel across France (including the overseas territories), before arriving at the Opening Ceremony on July 26. You can see the route it will take around France in this article.

The Belem is 127 years old and is now considered an important historic monument

‘The 65th passenger, in the most beautiful part of the boat’

On board the ship, the flame is being cared for by 16 members of staff and 48 trainees aged 16-24, who will see the torch as the “65th passenger”. 

They will supervise it 24 hours a day to ensure it does not go out, and is never a danger, said Christelle de Larauze, general director of the Fondation Belem Caisse d'épargne, which owns and manages the ship, to FranceInfo.

The flame is being held in the ship’s large roof saloon, which is often used as a briefing room and reception space.

"We opted for the most beautiful part of the boat, as it is very symbolic," said Ms de Larauze.

What is the history of the Belem ship?

The three-mast ship is 127 years old, and is the last great French merchant ship still sailing. Its largest mast reaches 34 metres tall when on the water, and the ship itself is 58 metres long. It has 22 sails with a total surface area of 1,200m2, and two 575 horsepower diesel engines.

Originally used as a merchant ship from 1896 to 1914, it was a luxury British yacht from 1914 to 1951, before becoming used in the Italian naval cadet school until 1979. It then returned to France.

Now considered to be a historic monument, it is used in large, national celebrations, including notably at the Diamond Jubilee of the late Queen Elizabeth II in 2012.

Ms de Larauze said that the chance to use the Belem for such a journey was “a reward for work carried out over more than ten years" at the head of the foundation. “It's our greatest achievement, a source of pride," she said. "It’s France's recognition of the work we have done to preserve this historic monument.”

The flame is “the most important passenger we have ever carried,” she said.

Will the ship be at risk from the flame?

One of the ship’s commanders, Mathieu Combot, said that there will be “no risk” to the historic vessel, as the flame will be “kept in a lantern and will be supervised” - for the ship’s safety, but also to ensure that the fire itself never goes out.

It will be contained safely within a lantern and overseen at all times, confirmed Delphine Moulin, director of celebrations for Paris 2024, to 20 Minutes.

And not just any lantern; these special containers are used for each edition of the Games, and are “a symbol of the perpetuity of the relay", said the Organising Committee for the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Cojop).

The flame remains lit "in the air, on the sea or on the road…thanks to a specific combustion oil”, the committee said. “This makes it possible to carry the flame over long distances and protect it from various conditions.”

The flame will not remain stuck in the ship’s saloon, however. It will be moved around as necessary, to ensure it “shines across all of the ship”, said Ms de Larauze. 

Another of the ship’s commanders said that he was looking forward to experiencing the wonder of “contemplating the Olympic Flame at two in the morning, in the dark, away from the world, in the middle of the sea, on a 127-year-old ship”.