Starting and ending in Aix, this route circles the mighty Sainte Victoire mountain that fascinated Paul Cézanne to the point of obsession. But you don't need to be an art buff to enjoy the rich and varied attractions on this ride.
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These include some of the very best Provence has to offer: vineyard visits and tastings, an impressive private garden, some classic Cézanne locations and the château that became Picasso's final resting place, French Foreign Legion romance and nostalgia, stunning landscapes and exhilarating hikes. Click here to read more about Paul Cézanne in Provence.
The large area around Sainte Victoire is officially designated as a "Grand Site" ("Major Site"): one of about three dozen areas of outstanding scenic and/or cultural interest in France.
The Grand Site Sainte Victoire covers 34,500 hectares / 85,000 acres and extends north as far as Saint Paul lès Durance, so this route will be taking in only part of it.
Nor does this page cover hiking up the mountain or within the Grand Site: we'll be reporting on this in due course. In the meantime, if you read French, you will find a wealth of useful information on this site, including a list of marked hiking trails, with photos and comments on the level of difficulty and what else to expect.
As a whole, the Grand Site Sainte Victoire covers the transition between Mediterranean and Alpine types of terrain. This route is at the Mediterranean end of the spectrum but even so it offers a wide variety of landscapes.
Our circular itinerary could be followed in either direction. We recommend you go clockwise, as the north face of Sainte Victoire can get dark and cool towards the end of the afternoon outside the middle of summer.
And the south side of the mountain is at its most dramatic at sunset, pictured, when the dazzling white limestone mellows into a soft, warm rose carved through with long blue and violet shadows.
The route is 65 km / 40 miles long and would take between 90 minutes and two hours by car without stopping. Alternatively, depending on the number of sights you want to visit, you could make a half-day, or even a full-day excursion of it.
You'll be going along minor roads and through small villages and rural areas. Note that there are no petrol / gas stations on this route and so it's advisable to set out with a full tank of fuel.
Parking spaces are in short supply in the middle of summer and most car-parks have signs warning that the areas are unguarded, an indication that, like all too many beauty spots in Provence, break-ins and thefts are endemic. So don't leave valuables in your vehicle.
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If you are cycling, you will find the circuit moderately demanding with a number of climbs. It will take between two and four hours, depending on how fast you want to go. Sainte Victoire also offers several fine, officially signposted VTT (vélo tout terrain, or off-road biking) routes.
You can also go along part of this route by public bus from Aix. Bus L140 runs north of Sainte Victoire from Aix to Vauvenargues. Bus L110 runs south of Sainte Victoire from Aix to Puyloubier. Click here for the Bouches du Rhône regional bus timetables (click on the links for the relevant routes).
If you are planning to hike, the best choice by far, though it's available in French only, is La Montagne Sainte-Victoire à pied, one in the series of definitive topoguides (illustrated guides) produced by the Fédération française de la randonnée pedestre, the national rambling federation. This one offers 28 hikes of varying lengths and levels of difficulty. The best map is the large-scale IGN Top 25 3244ET.
Because of the severe fire risk in summer, access is restricted by law between 1 June and 30 September. There are three risk levels: orange (access authorised), red (access authorised between 6am and 11am) and black (access banned).
The level varies according to weather conditions and is set daily at 6pm for the following day. It's available on the official helpline, tel (+33) 8 11 20 13 13, in English as well as French and published (in French only) on the website of Météo France.
Even on days when access is authorised, the heat - amplified by the sun and reflected by the white rocks - will make hiking disagreeable in the middle of the day. Plenty of water and protective headgear are essential, as well as the usual equipment.
Among the other sporting activities on offer in the area are horse-riding, rock-climbing and paragliding (there is a paragliding centre at Puyloubier).
Campers will find two campsites along this route: Le Cézanne in Puyloubier and Le Sainte Victoire in Beaurecueil, just off the route between Saint Antonin sur Bayon and Le Tholonet.
A great date for wine enthusiasts: each year in mid-October just after the wine harvest the Association des Vignerons de la Sainte Victoire (vintners around Aix en Provence) organises a motor rally cum treasure hunt, the Rallye Sainte Victoire.
Participants receive a roadbook containing clues that will lead them round different vineyards where they can meet wine-makers and other artisans such as beekeepers and cheese-makers and taste their produce.
A modest all-in fee includes breakfast, a substantial lunch, tastings, an evening apéritif with nibbles, a bottle of wine and, best of all, a fun day out. Unsurprisingly it's always a sell-out event and around a thousand people take part. You need to sign up in advance and early booking is advised.
ROADBOOK FOR THE ROUTE CÉZANNE AROUND SAINTE VICTOIRE
To start the itinerary around Sainte Victoire, get on to Aix's one-way ring road by following the "Toutes Directions" signs you'll see all over town. Once on the ring road, take the first right after the Lycées Vauvenargues on to the D10, signposted Vauvenargues, for our recommended, clockwise route. Click on the map to enlarge the image
The first major sight on the clockwise route is the majestic Bibémus Quarries, the huge, rugged red and amber sandstone rocks set in a pine forest which inspired Cézanne at the peak of his artistic powers.
Given the difficulty of access and the time it will take, we advise you to do this excursion on a separate trip. But, if you are keen to see the quarries, turn right on to the chemin de Bibémus about 2 km / 1.2 miles out of Aix: they are around 4 km / 2.5 miles further up this road.
You can only go there by car outside the peak tourist season, as parking is very limited at the entrance to the quarries.
At other times, you must leave your vehicle at the Trois Bon Dieux car-park a little further along the D10 and catch a shuttle bus up the hill.
To enter the quarries themselves, pictured, you need - for safety reasons - to take a guided tour, which lasts about a hour. Read our full guide to the Bibémus Quarries.
A little further along the D10 after the Trois Bon Dieux car-park, a road signposted Plan de Lorgue leads off to the left. Around 1,800 metres / just over a mile along this road, the Jardin des 5 Sens is a garden designed to appeal to the five senses with aromatic plants, wind chimes, cicadas and birdsong, colourful flowers and shrubs and a mix of permanent sculptures and guest installations by visiting artists.
These gardens are about 3 hectares / 7.5 acres in size and are open between June and September. Le Jardin des 5 sens, 220 chemin de Repentance à la forêt, 13100 Saint Marc Jaumegarde.
Back on the D10, you pass, on your right, the pleasant unexceptional village of Saint Marc itself, which need not detain you. But the imposing Barrage de Bimont is well worth a detour.
It is found up a road between Saint Marc and Vauvenargues leading off to the right through more red rocks and pine woods (note: this sharp turn-off is easy to miss if you are driving the route in the opposite, anti-clockwise direction).
At the top, a plaque shows the surrounding landmarks, and you can walk on to the top of the dam itself for superb views of the Mont Sainte Victoire. A little further downstream is the much smaller Zola dam, built between 1850 and 1854 by François Zola, the father of the novelist Emile Zola, who was Cézanne's boyhood friend before the two artists had a major falling out.
Taking the clockwise route round the mountain has the great advantage of bringing you to La Maison du Grand Site Sainte Victoire in the pretty village of Vauvenargues, near the start of your trip.
Based in a little vine-covered village house, it's a mine of information about hiking trails and local flora, fauna and landscapes, includes a small exhibition about the region and sells local produce (wine, olive oil, honey) and a wide range of maps and books. It's vastly more informative than the similarly named Maison Sainte Victoire at Saint Antonin sur Bayon later on the route round the mountain.
Facing the village, on your right, the Château de Vauvenargues, pictured, was bought in 1958 by Picasso, lured by the idea of living in the shadow of the mountain which had inspired his idol, Cézanne.
Picasso never made so bold as to paint Sainte Victoire himself). He lived and worked in Vauvenargues in the company of his second wife Jacqueline Roque for just two years. Then the couple moved to the Côte d'Azur, where Picasso died in 1973. His remains were transferred back to Vauvenargues, where he is buried, alongside Jacqueline. However the Château is not currently open to the public.
If you want to stop for a meal or drink in Vauvenargues, try Le Couscoussier de Provence, which serves couscous (obviously!) as well as Southern French specialities such as daube (beef stew) and alouettes sans têtes.
It's open in the afternoon and has a terrace with lovely views across to Sainte Victoire and Picasso's chateau, compensating for the fact that service can be slow at busy times.
If you have time for a detour, the nice local guides at La Maison du Grand Site Sainte Victoire recommend two good value restaurants in Joucques, 17 km / 10 miles north of Vauvenargues on the D11: Les Souvenirs de l'Avenir, tel (+33) 4 42 63 70 26 and Rouge Guinguette, tel (+33) 4 42 63 76 05.
Along the stretch of the D10 between Vauvenargues and Pourrieres (which is not marked on road signs: follow the arrows to Rians), the route passes between two mountain ridges and scrubby woodland; it's narrow, with some steep drops and hairpin bends.
At the first major junction (11.5 km / 7 miles) turn right on to the D23 towards Pourrières (Rians is to your left), briefly leaving the Bouches du Rhône departement for the neighbouring Var.
As you reach the southern slopes of the Mont Sainte Victoire, the face of the mountain itself becomes steeper and rockier, while the vegetation in the foothills is much lusher than on the northern side, with a rich carpet of vines, olive trees and pine groves.
Pourrières is a sleepy village clustered around the inevitable boules court and catchily named the Bar du Var. Along with Puyloubier and Le Tholonet, it's one of the villages in the region producing fine wine - red, white and rosé - under the Côtes de Provence - Sainte Victoire appellation.
The main tasting centre, the Vinothèque , can arrange vineyard visits, It's in Trets, about 9 km / 5.5 miles off the route south-west of Pourrières. Back on our route, the next village of Puyloubier also has the Cave des Vignerons du Mont Sainte Victoire, which offers tastings and sales.
About 700 metres / 760 yards before you reach Puyloubier, on the chemin Pallière, a side road on your sharp right, is the Institution des Invalides de la Légion Etrangère, a home for about 100 veteran and disabled soldiers from the French Foreign Legion.
It sounds unappealing. But this idyllically serene and secluded complex consisting of a 19th century chateau surrounded by outbuildings and a large vineyard, tended by the legionnaires, pictured, is open to the public and well worth a visit.
The Institution, also known as the Domaine Capitain Danjou, is named after a hero of the Legion who lost his life in a Mexican battle in 1863 (the battle is commemorated each year on 30 April, Camerone Day). Its entrance is marked by a stone engraved with the Legion's motto Legio Patria Nostra (The Legion is our Fatherland).
Staffed by gruff, kindly veterans, the compound includes ceramics and book-binding workshops which you can visit during the week; La Popote, a canteen with an outdoor terrace where you can join the legionnaires for a drink or a simple set lunch (reserve 48 hours in advance); and a small, four-room museum of uniforms from 1831 to1962 sported by rather eerie mannequins standing guard in glass cases. Admission free.
You'll also find a shop with an eclectic range of merchandise including songbooks, sabres, branded wine produced from grapes grown on the estate (Esprit de Corps is the premium label), ceramic ware made in the adjacent workshop and, yes, white legionnaires' caps.
Perched on a rocky spur right below Sainte Victoire, Puyloubier itself merits a stop too. In spite of its fierce name, which comes from the Latin Podium Luperium (Hill of the Wolves), it's a sleepy, typically provençal village with charming little back-alleys and cobbled streets.
Its Café Sainte Victoire has a shady terrace on the village square, pictured, perfect for a coffee or lunch break, while tucked away up a steep narrow side-street called, appropriately, the rue qui Monte, the slightly pricey Les Sarments restaurant has a citation in the Michelin Guide Rouge.
Among several historical churches and chapels, the 12th-14th century Chapelle Saint Roche stands out for its rare seventh century Merovingian altar while there are several rambling trails around the 11th century Saint Ser chapel. Website for the Puyloubier Tourist Office
Just outside Puyloubier, up a small hill on your right, the Relais de Saint Ser is a tourist-oriented hotel-restaurant with nine bedroom, open and glassed-in terraces overlooking the valley and a large indoor seating area.
On the left just before you reach the next village of Saint Antonin sur Bayou, La Maison Sainte Victoire hosts a small bookshop and temporary exhibitions, some more interesting (and relevant to its environment) than others. The signage is in French only. A number of hiking trails depart from this point.
If you wanted a more ambitious meal at this point in your trip, you might consider a small detour to the Domaine Terre du Mistral, pictured, just south of Rousset, which offers inventive cuisine based on its own farm produce and excellent wines produced on the estate. Turn left along the D56C just before Saint Antonin; it's about 8.5 km / 5 miles.
A little closer is La Table de Beaurecueil, set in a beautifully restored 19th century farmhouse looking across to the Mont Sainte Victoire and just 1.2 km / three quarters of a mile off the main route.
You're treated to a series of stunning views all along this last stretch of our route as you continue on to Le Tholonet, where the Cézanne connection is stronger than ever. Pictured: Mont Sainte Victoire, painted by Cézanne in 1897.
As you enter the village, you pass, on your right, a small raised plaque commemorating Cézanne and an old windmill without sails which is now used as a venue for painting and sculpture exhibitions.
If you have a moment to stop here, there's a superb view of Sainte Victoire from the raised terrace at the bottom of the mill.
Continuing into Le Tholonet, you pass, on your right, an old church and, on your left, two nice restaurants, both with outdoor terraces: Chez Thome and the Relais Cézanne, which the artist used to visit regularly (it was then called the Restaurant Berne) for one of his favourite meals, duck with olives.
For deeper pockets, the recently opened Le Saint Estève earned a Michelin star in 2014. It's part of Les Lodges Sainte Victoire, a luxury hotel complex outside the village on the way back to Aix.
Leaving the village, you will see, on your right, the elegant 17th century Château du Tholonet, pictured, which was also painted by Cézanne. It's currently owned by the Société du Canal de Provence (SCP), which has offices in a small, vine-covered building at the entrance to the estate, and is only open to the public on special occasions.
The first turn-off on the right, the chemin de la Paroisse, leads to a hiking trail that, if you take it, will eventually bring you into a gorge spanned by the remains of a 15 km / 9 mile long Roman aqueduct, one of four which supplied Aix with water during the Roman period.
Just before arriving back in Aix, the last point of interest on our route, about 850 metres / 900 yards further on your left, is a very steep, narrow downhill road, the Chemin les Artauds à Château Noir, leading to the Château Noir, or Black Château.
Cézanne rented two rooms there to store his equipment and also painted it many times: 19 oils and 20 watercolours between 1887 and 1905. He even tried to buy it after the sale of the family estate, the Jas de Bouffan.
However, as his images of it suggest, the Château Noir is densely surrounded by pine trees and undergrowth and barely visible from the road. Don't be surprised that it isn't actually black: the pigment has long since washed off and the stone has reverted to its natural golden colour.