The Grande Randonnée GR2013 is a new long-distance footpath through the varied rural and urban landscapes of Southern Provence.
Click here to book a hotel in Provence
France already has a very extensive network of footpaths, administered by the Fédération française de la randonnée pédestre (FFRP), the national rambling federation. These cover the whole of the country: over 58,000 km / 36,000 miles of long distance footpaths, or Grandes Randonnées, and 120,000 km / 74,500 miles of local ones.
So why create another one? The GR2013 was born in 2013 as part of the MP2013 European Capital of Culture programme. And, mapped out by a collective of artists who are also keen ramblers, it's a footpath with a difference.
It doesn't just pass through some of the magnificent countryside and familiar tourist attractions for which Provence is justly celebrated. Shopping malls, industrial areas and a disused railway line are on the agenda too.
The idea is to take hikers to unusual places and enable them to discover the region's striking urban and commercial landmarks. Nearly half the route follows made-up or tarmacked roads.
In fact, the GR2013 is described by its creators as "the first metropolitan and artistic hiking trail. Often the Grandes Randonnées go through remote rural areas," they continue. "This one goes to places that you pass through every day without necessarily looking at them."
Their aim is to go beyond the clichés of Provence and unveil its sharply contrasting vistas: city and country, land and sea, past, present and future.
Inaugurated in March 2013, the GR2013 runs 365 km / 227 miles, should take 15 days to walk and is shaped as a large figure of eight (the artists who designed it like to compare the route to the sign for infinity or to a Moebius strip).
A 200-page topoguide (a definitive illustrated guide) has been been published by the Fédération française de la randonnée pédestre. On the left page is a map and on the right page a description of the track, with information about the services in the villages that the route passes through.
Unlike conventional topoguides, there are also commentaries, photographs and drawings by the artists who collectively created the route.
Buy the GR2013 topoguide on French Amazon for substantial savings: it's less than a third of the listed price on Amazon UK. Find the Topoguide GR2013 on Amazon France.
The map below also gives an overview. Click on it to enlarge the image.
Few tourists are aware of the fact, but Southern Provence is highly industrialised, and this trail skirts the oil refineries and trading estates in the vicinity of Fos sur Mer, the suburbs of Marseille and Marseille-Provence airport at Marignane. It intends to open our eyes to the starkly contemporary beauties of areas where we might not think of walking.
The other loop of the GR2013 goes round the spectacular Etoile mountain range inland to the east of the city.
More traditional hiking territory, it passes through the landscapes of Aubagne made famous in the books of Marcel Pagnol and skirts both the calanques and Paul Cézanne's beloved Mont Saint Victoire. Pictured: Mont Julien at the eastern edge of the Etoile range.
Surprisingly, it's the first time that a Grande Randonnée has been set up through L'Etoile. And this stretch also contains some unexpected discoveries, such as the abandoned train line between Aubagne and Bouilladisse which is currently being refurbished and reinvented as a tram service.
The two circuits cross each other at Aix TGV station, one of Provence's key transport hubs and a centre of its economy.
The creative force behind the Grande Randonnée 2013 includes the writer and "urban ecologist" Baptiste Lanaspèze (who originated the project), the performer Mathias Poisson, the architect Nicolas Mémain and the experimental artist Liliane Lijn.
For a year and a half, these enthusiasts met regularly to test out portions of the route which is marked out with the FFRP's red and yellow Grande Randonnée signage.
Throughout 2013, the artists organised special activities such as son et lumière shows, musical "soundwalks", random artworks and gourmet picnics at intervals all along the way. But it's not all over now for the GR2013. It's designed as a long-term project that can be walked in the conventional manner, either independently or in an organised group.