It takes a scorecard to keep track of the changes afoot in Marseille.
The Mediterranean port city, France's oldest (2,600 years) and second-largest metropolis, is this year's European Capital of Culture, a designation that has enabled Marseille to realize some big dreams.
The city's hottest new thing is the European and Mediterranean Civilizations Museum, or MuCEM. Its centerpiece is a tres moderne building overlooking the sea just outside the historical Vieux Port.
The facility, which debuted June 7, is linked by bridge, over water, to the 17th century Fort Saint-Jean, now also part of the museum.
As the name suggests, MuCEM is meant to focus on the Mediterranean-facing cultures, their connections, their histories and current challenges.
Marseille, a down-on-its-luck town by the late 20th century, earned its place in the sun. From 1995, it has been working its way to improved economic health through the ongoing Euromediterranee project, a long-term intergovernmental program designed to redevelop the central city.
The idea was to elevate Marseille's status among cities. Tourism rose with this boat: The rejuvenated Vieux Port, for example, is now a tourist magnet.
The city welcomed 2.8 million visitors in 1995, and there were 4.1 million last year.
I visited last month with journalists and travel agents. To best illustrate the city's comeback, our guide referred to the early 1980s, when there were only two bars in the city center open after 9 p.m. He also said that, when tourist trains first carried their charges through the Panier historical district, residents threw eggs and tomatoes.
Nightlife has picked up quite a bit, as we observed during a late-night bouillabaisse dinner at the Miramar, an eatery known for the local fish specialty, in the Vieux Port. And these days several tourist trains do a good, unmolested business in town.
Even our hotel, the InterContinental Marseille-Hotel Dieu, is an example of Marseille's rebirth: Opened this spring, it was masterfully created within the grand structure of an 18th century hospital that overlooks the Vieux Port.
Architects added square footage to accommodate an elegant modern interior space at ground level for the lobby and a terrace above the lobby with great views of the Vieux Port and the city's Notre-Dame de la Garde. But the new exterior harmonizes with the original building.
The hotel enlivened the city's social scene with the Capian Bar, providing service indoors or on the terrace; a brasserie; and the fine-dining Alcyone restaurant.
The 172 rooms and 22 suites are distinguished by high-tech modernity combined with subdued color schemes and design touches that bespeak the property's history. Rates start at about $360 for a standard room.
XL from the Big Apple
The various tourism developments in Marseille converged this summer with XL Airways' new service from New York. The seasonal operation, available through October, is the route's only nonstop. (Pan Am was first to serve the route, in 1939, with trips lasting 20 hours.)
Known for value pricing, XL's best New York-Marseille rate, with restrictions, is about $670. The main difference between two classes of service is wider seats up front.
There is no business- or first-class equivalent, yet XL hosted Virtuoso and other agents whose firms are known for upscale businesses.
Juliette Feffer, a travel planner for New York's Pisa Brothers, understood. Citing her own experiences, she said, "One upscale client called today wanting inexpensive air to Austria. A lot of people are cutting back," she said, so that even traditional spenders are "looking to save money."
She's had clients buy cheap air so they could splurge on hotels or book budget hotels to splurge on fine dining.
Feffer said she will push XL, "a good product," for the easy access to Provence and touristic destinations such as Aix-en-Provence and Avignon. -- N.G.