MARSEILLE, France (AP) — Excitement is building in the southern French city of Marseille, where a majestic three-mast ship carrying the Olympic torch arrived from Greece ahead of a welcoming ceremony at sunset Wednesday.

Paris Games organizers have promised “fantastic” celebrations in the city, where the Old Port has been placed under high security.

The torch was lit in Greece last month before it was officially handed to France. It left Athens aboard a ship named Belem, which was first used in 1896, and spent twelve days at sea.

More than a thousand boats will accompany the Belem’s parade around the Bay of Marseille. The ship will dock on a pontoon that looks like an athletics track in the Old Port.

The welcoming ceremony at dusk on Wednesday will include a demonstration by the jets of the Patrouille de France, the acrobatic team of the French air force.

“The return of the Games to our country will be a fantastic celebration,” said Paris 2024 Olympics Organizing Committee President Tony Estanguet.

“As a former athlete, I know how important the start of a competition is. That is why we chose Marseille, because it’s definitely one of the cities most in love with sports,” added Estanguet, a former Olympic canoeing star with gold medals from the 2000, 2004 and 2012 Games.

Safety of visitors and residents has been a top priority for authorities in Marseille, France’s second largest city with nearly a million inhabitants. About 8,000 police officers have been deployed around in the harbour where tens of thousands of spectators are expected to gather for the ceremony.

Thousands of firefighters and bomb disposal squads have been positioned around the city along with maritime police and anti-drone teams patrolling the city’s waters and its airspace.

“It’s a monumental day and we have been working hard for visitors and residents of Marseille to enjoy this historical moment,” said Yannick Ohanessian, the city’s deputy mayor.

The torch relay will start on Thursday in Marseille, before heading to Paris through iconic places across the country, from the world-famous Mont Saint-Michel to D-Day landing beaches in Normandy and the Versailles Palace.

Many people and families were strolling along the boardwalk on the Mediterranean, beaming with excitement and curiosity. A band of musicians, wearing T-shirts with the slogan “Marseille, proud to welcome the Olympics Flame,” entertained tourists and residents as well as workers who were setting up the Olympic stage and the ponton bridge over which the Olympic flame is expected to be carried from the boat to France’s mainland.

“I wanted to see how things are going and maybe come back later with the kids, if it’s not too crowded, to see the flame arrive,” said Paul Vuarambon, a Marseille resident, on a walk along the Old Port with his son. Despite high security and the overhaul of the entire city for Wednesday’s ceremony, Vaurambon said, “People here are pretty happy with the Olympics.”

France’s Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera stressed the symbolic and practical importance of the event after years of preparations for the Paris Games.

“We really want to make sure that the beginning of the torch relay here will drive enthusiasm and a sense of pride for French people. That will give us a a big moment of celebration and joy,” Oudea-Castera said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“Sport can bring up these type of emotions and Olympism is much more than sport,” she added. “It conveys a message to the world and the torch relay is a symbol of peace.”

Olympic swimmer Florent Manaudou has been chosen to be the first carrier of the flame in France. Manaudou, who won four Olympic medals, is the brother of swimmer Laure Manaudou, who won three Olympic medals at Athens in 2004.

“We are extremely proud,” Marseille mayor Benoît Payan said. “This is where it all begins.”

The show will “dazzle the world,” said Payan, adding that up to 150,000 spectators are expected in the Old Port.

Marseille people “have a sense of celebration, a sense of the game, sport and Olympism in their guts,” he said, recalling that the city was founded by Greek colonists some 2,600 years ago.

Heavy police and military presence was seen patrolling Marseille’s city center Tuesday, as a military helicopter flew over the Old Port, where a range of barriers have been set up.

French Interior Ministry spokesperson Camille Chaize said officials were prepared for security threats including terrorism.

“We’re employing various measures, notably the elite National Gendarmerie Intervention Group unit, which will be present in the torch relay from beginning to end,” she said.

The Olympic cauldron will be lit after the Games’ opening ceremony that will take place on the River Seine on July 26.

The cauldron will be lit at a location in Paris that is being kept top-secret until the day itself. Among reported options are such iconic spots as the Eiffel Tower and the Tuileries Gardens outside the Louvre Museum.

____

Barbara Surk contributed from Nice, France. AP journalists Jeffrey Schaeffer, Oleg Cetinic, Nicolas Garriga and Daniel Cole contributed to this story.

___

AP Olympics https://apnews.com/hub/2024-paris-olympic-games