From wild fjords to Roman ruins, Bouches-du-Rhône boasts a scintillating feast of natural and architectural riches complemented by spirited local traditions that can’t fail to enchant, says Zoë McIntyre
Soak up the sunshine and enjoy a feast of natural riches and local traditions in south-west Provence
At first glance, Bouchesdu-Rhône aligns with the quintessential Provence of our imagination. An evocative coastline graces its southern fringes while sun-baked interiors promise scenic vignettes of vineyard-draped hillsides and pastel-hued villages, limpid Mediterranean light and majestic mountains that inspired the likes of Cézanne and Van Gogh to pick up a paintbrush. But explore the department further and you’ll soon discover a wilder side, from the dramatic canyons of the Calanques to where the Rhône river splits into streams to create the Camargue, a mystical wetland of bull-herding cowboys and high-speed Mistral winds. For property hunters hankering for the out of the ordinary, this department promises surprises at every turn.
The area’s major metropolis is Marseille, a swirling hotbed of vibrant multiculturalism that boasts a uniquely cosmopolitan charisma shaped by a long and colourful maritime past. Since Phoenicians founded the port city as Massalia around 600BC, waves of foreigners have chosen to settle here, including communities of Persians, Romans, Armenians, Spanish and North Africans. Walking the city’s exotic Noailles quarter offers an insight into this ethnic mishmash, abuzz with souk-like market stalls, spice sellers and Moroccan teashops.
With many UK flight carriers serving the city, and now a direct Eurostar service straight from London, it’s even easier for Brits to jump into the melting pot.
There couldn’t be a better time. After years of being overlooked, Marseille’s 2013 stint as European Capital of Culture has ushered in an exciting era of regeneration. Two ultra-modern museums, including the fascinating MuCEM (Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations), have revamped its harbour, while the pedestrianised Old Port shimmers under a sleek Norman Foster design structure. In the ancient Panier district, oncederelict passageways now hum with the creative energy of artisan workshops and quirky boutiques. Plenty of new eateries are popping up too; try Le Grand Guste for its trendy take on traditional French home cooking or join urbane diners at Restaurant Saisons for a sumptuous multi-course feast. Not yet overrun by mass tourism, the city retains a local vibe making it a joyful place for just hanging out, sipping pastis and watching the world go by.
These pages: Cassis harbour is a hive of activity
Curved into the coastline 25 kilometres east of Marseille, the quaint fishing resort of Cassis offers a seaside setting on a smaller scale. Fronted by the pebbly Plage du Bestouan and with a hilltop château looming overhead, the town’s picturesque marina bustles with pleasure boats and local fishermen offloading fresh catch from their double-ended pointus boats. Pastel-painted restaurants line the water’s edge, making it a scenic spot to tuck into cauldrons of steaming bouillabaisse between sips of crisp rosé. Wine enthusiasts can walk 10 minutes uphill to where the grape trestles of Clos Sainte Magdeleine ( clossaintemagdeleine. fr) thread scenically across the clifftops, and its tours and tastings explain more about the local AOC appellation.
The town’s charm has captured the heart of British expat, Frazer Price who, after retirement, spent three years travelling the world before reaching Cassis and deciding to make it his home. “There’s just something so unique about it,” he explains. “The clarity of light and the intensity of colour are extraordinary. Aix and Marseille are both close by and national parks on the doorstep.” A love of the French language has helped Frazer build a rapport with the locals too. “I joined the local bridge club to help me become fluent. It’s both stimulating and scary,” he admits. “The locals are a nice bunch. They are complimentary and say my French is improving. It means a lot.”
Cassis’s proximity to unique natural splendours is certainly a major draw. From the harbour, boat trips cast off to meander around the Calanques, a startling assortment of rugged inlets carved from the rugged limestone cliffs. With many unreachable by car, these mini-fjords remain an unspoilt refuge for locals to soak up their 300 days of yearly sunshine. The savviest pack a picnic and set out on foot, following trails over imposing headlands to reach the isolated patch of beach at Port-Pin in a leisurely 35 minutes. Further on lies the spectacular Calanques d’En-Vau where sheer rock soars 400 feet above a secluded cove lapped by crystalline waters that seem too turquoise to be true.
Further inland, the Roman spa town of Aixen-Provence is the pinnacle of Provençal sophistication with its gurgling fountains, aristocratic town houses and handsome thoroughfare, Cours Mirabeau. Both a hub of high culture and flourishing university city, Aix is famously the birthplace of Paul Cézanne who painted its rarefied light prolifically and once professed: “If you’re born in Aix, nowhere else will do.” Follow his artistic legacy along the Circuit de Cézanne before popping a cork at Les Deux Garçons ( lesdeuxgarcons.fr) that’s been a haunt for artists and literati since it opened in 1792. Add to this a myriad of wonderful galleries, a jam-packed festival schedule and scores of redolent street markets and it’s easy to understand why Aix’s residents feel like they have it all.
VAN GOGH LANDSCAPES
Slung across the north-west of the department is a long, serrated mountain chain known as Les Alpilles, recognisable as the backdrop to countless Van Gogh landscapes. Even without an easel, it’s easy to feel inspired amid the protected parkland’s swirl of poplar trees, otherworldly rock forms and aromatic scrubland known as garrigue.
Crowning one of the rocky plateaux, the fortified village of Les Baux-deProvence is a popular summertime stop for day trippers for its majestic 11thcentury citadel and sublime panoramas over woodlands and olive groves. Outof-season visits reveal the village’s true character, when it’s a delight to delve into the medieval streets and shop for handicrafts without the crowds.
A good base to explore the Alpilles is the market town of St-Rémy-de-Provence. Each Wednesday, it’s enlivened by morning vendors hawking hand-woven baskets, jars of briny olives and sun-blushed fruit and vegetables. The sandstone-paved streets cram with a strikingly high concentration of interior decor boutiques that supply households with essential Provençalstyle pieces, from richly printed linens to ornate lamps. Don’t leave town without sampling the unexpected flavours of Joël Durand’s chocolate emporium ( joeldurandchocolatier.fr). His handmade treats are infused with everything from oriental spices to local lavender.
Ancient glories are stashed south of the centre at Glanum, an impressive maze of Greek and Roman stone fortifications dating to the 6th century BC.
Despite the area’s obvious cachet, unearthing hidden property gems is still entirely achievable. Proof lies up a bumpy country lane at La Taulière ( above), a stunning 18th-century olive mill converted into a family home and chambres d’hôtes by English photographer Hugh Arnold and his Argentine wife Celina. “We were told houses like this didn’t exist anymore,” Hugh recalls. “When we walked through the study doors, we just knew. The agent didn’t even show us its 20 acres.” Since buying in 2015, the couple have set about renovating their new home with artistic finesse, complementing the thick vaulted walls and large open fireplaces with bohemian objets d’art and rustic furniture collected from local brocantes.
Beautifully decorated guest rooms dot about the mill’s airy interiors but there’s also an Indian tent erected in the garden, where summer guests can sleep in a king-size bed handcrafted from storm wood to the sound of cicadas and the smell of wild herbs. “The pace of life here is wonderful,” Celina assures. “We are wearing sun hats and having barbeques in February. It’s a little piece of paradise.” With two children enrolled at the nearby Domaine du Possible, a school based on holistic pedagogy, and another attending the international school in Aix, the couple have time to soak up their surroundings. “Yesterday we went to the Calanques. Often we’ll visit a museum or the theatre. The culture is so rich here,” Celina explains. “We enjoy being close to the land and being more self-sufficient. We feel very lucky.”
Venturing southward the rocky mountainscape soon yields to vast swathes of flatland, marshes and paddy fields constituting the Camargue. This is Europe’s largest delta, a sun-blasted and wind-whipped wilderness bound by branches of the Rhône river as they surge towards the sea. Its northern gateway is the UNESCO-listed city of Arles, where terracotta-tiled houses cluster around a 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheatre, once the scene of tumultuous chariot races and nowadays dust-kicked by the impassioned course camarguaise – a local genre of bloodless bullfighting. Life in these parts pulsates to a feverish rhythm of its own, bolstered by strong legend and spirited traditions that feel worlds apart from the usual portrait of Provence.
For nature lovers, it’s the Camargue’s open plains that prove irresistible – a realm of black bulls and white horses tended by Gallic cowboys known as gardians. The protected marshland lures hundreds of migratory bird species, but the easiest way to spot a flock is to visit the Parc Ornithologique ( parcornithologique.com), a private reserve comprising vast étangs (shallow saline lakes) and reedy freshwater ponds teeming with ergots, storks, herons and the area’s iconic pink-plumed flamingos. “In the right season, we watch thousands fly right overhead. It’s quite exceptional,” describes Hendrik Steunenberg, a Dutch expat who runs the local Auberge Cavalière. “What’s special about the Camargue is how it remains authentic and has a story to tell,” he explains.
The lakeside accommodation of the auberge takes the form of rustic cabins built in the style of traditional gardian huts, all thatched roofs and thick whitewashed walls. At the on-site stables, guests can saddle up to discover the landscape on horseback. A short trot away lies the coastal town of Stes-Mariesde-la-Mer, famed for its gypsy fair and manouche music scene, but it’s the miles of dune-backed beach that beckon at sunset. When the melting sun drips across the horizon, blushing this mystical land’s empty sands in a golden glow, there’s nowhere else in the world better to be.
The protected marshland lures hundreds of migratory bird species
Marseille’s harbour have revamped Modern museums
Above, from left to right: A vintage clothing shop in Marseille’s Cours Julien; Savon de Marseille is the city’s famous export; medieval streets of Les Baux-deProvence; a colourful café front in St-Rémy
Hugh Arnold and his wife Celina bought La Taulière in 2015
The hidden bays of the Calanques – an unspoilt area of rugged inlets
The Camargue’s iconic pink flamingos