Bouches-du-Rhône

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

Living France - - Contents -

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.

COS­MOPOLI­TAN CHARISMA

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

PAS­TEL PORT

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.

PROVENÇAL SO­PHIS­TI­CA­TION

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.”

WILD NA­TURE

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

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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

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