Whether you're a keen hiker or a fan of Pagnol, here's a unique experience. An all-day walk / theatrical performance takes you into the wild, craggy hills of Aubagne and the dark, comic heart of the writer's world, which actors bring to thrilling life.
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Since 1998, over 40,000 people have gone on these hikes, inspired by Manon des Sources and, more recently, La Femme du Boulanger (The Baker's Wife). As from 2014 there is a new spectacle: a ten km / six mile walk through the hills near Allauch based around another Pagnol work, Le Schpountz.
This bittersweet but affectionate comedy is the story of a naïve dreamer obsessed with becoming a movie star. He meets a film crew who encourage him in this fantasy - with the secret intention of playing a cruel joke.
Pagnol made the film in 1938 with the much-loved Marseille actor Fernandel as the schpountz (fool). Sometimes known in English as Heartbeat, it has been seen as a veiled attack by the writer-director on the movie business which spurned him. Buy Le Schpountz on Amazon
Walks take place in the spring and autumn, though not in the summer due to the extreme heat and the fire risk in the countryside (there is a series of city-based Pagnol walks between June and August). The next programme of Schpountz walks will take place in the autumn.
Follow the link below to book tickets for these next Pagnol walks and click here to read a general article about more conventional hiking in Pagnol country. Meanwhile this review of the Manon des Sources hike gives a flavour of what to expect.
Set in the early 20th century in this region where the writer spent his childhood and which he knew intimately, Manon and its prequel, Jean de Florette, tell the tragic tale of Jean, a hunchback, played in the film by Gérard Depardieu, who moves from the city to rural Aubagne and is cheated out of his farm by ruthless peasants.
Pagnol himself made a movie of the story in 1952 starring his wife, Jacqueline, but it was the 1986 screen versions of Manon and Jean de Florette that were massive arthouse hits, defining a certain mythic Provence for international audiences and sparking a huge increase in tourism to southern France.
In them the crafty peasants were played by Yves Montand and Daniel Auteuil, Gérard Depardieu was Jean de Florette and Emmanuelle Béart became an overnight star in the role of Jean's gorgeous nymph-like daughter who takes a terrible vengeance on the men who wronged her family.
On these walks, her story is recreated in the very locations that originally inspired it, by 17 actors. Plus 300 extras - the hikers. It is the ultimate in audience participation. And the all-day march through the hills gives a whole new meaning to the term "promenade performance".
It's a highly impressive feat of organisation - of creating an atmosphere and shepherding the unruly mob of hikers - getting them, for instance, to sit in silence, or separating the men from the women for a church scene.
It starts at 8.00am in a field on the edge of Camoins les Bains, a rich spa suburb a short metro and bus ride east of Marseille. The crowd, some 320-strong, is likely to be a mixed bunch: hikers with rucksacks, sticks, solid shoes and enormous cameras, chunky elderly couples, a troop of small children, a posse of over-excited dogs - and a handful of people sporting flat caps, waistcoats and bushy moustaches, at least the men. The women among them wear shawls and long flowery skirts.
At first the group strolls sedately past huge modern villas with high walls and electronic security gates until we arrive in the village of La Treille. Here, on a pretty square, a couple of the men with moustaches pause to gossip about "young Marcel" who grew up here and launched himself into "cinematography" and a stranger, "Jean", who came from the big city to start a farm but came to a very sad end.
Then it's on to a café terrace with a breathtaking view over Pagnol country. Here the actors sit down round a bottle of pastis and, amid a great deal of banter and bandinage, fill in a bit more of the story (this bar, Le Cigalon, was the inspiration for Pagnol's eponymous 1935 film).
After half a kilometre the posh villas thin out bit by bit until, in a leafy clearing, César, the man who tricked Jean de Florette out of his inheritance, is found arguing with his dim-witted son, Ugolin.
That's the surprising thing about this whole performance. You'll be walking along the street or through the woods, minding your own business, when you suddenly discover the actors in the middle of a scene - or perhaps just reading or looking at the view - and yourself acting alongside them. You could easily do the same walk twice and catch all sorts of peripheral action you missed first time round.
The path soon begins to climb steeply through the rocky landscape, perfumed with thyme and rosemary, which locals call the garrigue. Nothing like the lush lavender fields invariably pictured on postcards of Provence, it's dry, harsh, empty, unforgiving - and very, very beautiful.
The wealthy suburb has long since disappeared from view. In fact it's amazing how quickly you leave civilisation behind to find yourself deep in the wilds of nature, a place where the twentieth century seems to have had no impact.
The pace quickens, and all the five-year-olds, overweight matrons and other non-sporty types race up the hill like gazelles.
Though the walk is brisk, it's well within the ability of most reasonably fit people - the oldest participant to have done it was aged 84. At the top, a well-earned apéritif awaits: a glass of pastis for everyone.
Over a quick picnic lunch, Frédéric Achard, who plays Ugolin, pictured top right, slips briefly out of character to talk about La Compagnie Scènes d'Esprit, the band of actors which he co-founded in 1998 and which organises these performances (the company has since renamed itself Dans le Cours des Grands).
Several actors speak English and build it into their performances: the characters of the village schoolteacher and Manon's mother, a former opera singer, for example. The company is also preparing English-language notes.
Still, if your French is limited to "garçon, une bière," or if you never got round to learning it at all, it would certainly be a good idea to read the books first. (60 per cent of audience come from the local area.)
Even fluent French speakers need to watch out, because Pagnol's peasants speak with a spicy Southern accent and a generous helping of provencal slang ("fada", meaning "mad", is an especially handy word to add to the vocabulary). But the performances are expressive and, if you feel at moments that you've lost the plot, you can always enjoy the walk and the amazing views.
After lunch the mood darkens as the story gathers force. Manon has blocked the stream on which the village depends for its water, and the locals are desperate. Ugolin is faced with the loss of his own harvest.
On one recent walk, as this scene unfolded, it actually began to rain but, undeterred, the actors simply built it into their dialogue. "This light drizzle won't be enough to save the crop," they ad libbed.
Another former actor in the company, Xavier Adrien Laurent, believes that our popular image of Pagnol (pictured below) is just a parody of what his work is really about.
The writer is generally seen as portraying "big comic characters who never work because it's too hot," he says. "Instead they play boules, drink pastis, wave their arms around and shout at each other while talking a load of rubbish."
Part of that is true, Laurent has to admit. But that exuberance is, he says, essentially a façade for people to hide their true natures behind. "Manon is a tragedy about characters of enormous complexity. Pagnol seems simplistic - a minority considers him responsible for all the cliches of Marseille.
"But in fact he is a great dramatic author. Some people here think they're just going on a nice walk. They don't always navigate the change from comedy to tragedy."
Indeed there is eventually a death in store as well as dark revelations and César discovers a terrible truth about his own past. But the final mood is upbeat and, on arrival back in Camoins at around 6pm, footsore but elated, there is another ice-cold glass of pastis or two waiting.
"At the start people don't know what to expect," Achard says, with justification. "But at the end they feel like they have gone on an adventure."
How to get there: Metro line 1 to La Timone, then bus 12 (full details of the meeting place are supplied when you make your booking). Bring a picnic lunch, water and sunblock, and wear walking shoes.
More details: www.danslacoursdesgrands.fr (in French only). Advance reservations through that website or at the Marseille Tourist Office, 11 la Canebière, 13001 Marseille.
Find further reading and viewing on Amazon:
Manon des Sources - Pagnol's original 1952 film
Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources - Claude Berri's two hugely popular 1986 films starring Gérard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Béart