Actors playing a scene from Manon des SourcesWhether 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 50,000 people have gone on these hikes, inspired by Manon des Sources and, more recently, La Femme du Boulanger (The Baker's Wife) and Le Schpountz.

In 2017 there is a brand-new show, La Fille du Puisatier (The Well-Digger's Daughter). Recently made into a film by the actor Daniel Auteuil, it tells the story of an outspoken and opinionated well-digger with six daughters.

The eldest and loveliest of them falls for a caddish local charmer. The young man is called up for service as an aviator in the Second World War, though not without first making her pregnant.

These walks cover ten km / six miles and take place in the late spring and autumn, though not in the summer due to the extreme heat and the fire risk in the countryside (instead, there is a series of city-based Pagnol walks in July and August). 

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 what we saw on the Manon des Sources hike gives you a flavour of what to expect.

A scene from Manon des Sources, by Scenes d'EspritManon and its prequel, Jean de Florette, are set in the early 20th century in this region where Pagnol spent his childhood and which he knew intimately.

They tell the tragic tale of Jean, a hunchback, 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. They defined a certain mythic Provence for international audiences, 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, we're suddenly sent decades back in time.

Actors playing a scene from Manon des SourcesA couple of the men with moustaches are gossiping about "young Marcel" who grew up here and launched himself into "cinematography" and about 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).

Soon the posh villas start thinning out 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.

A scene from Manon des Sources, by Scenes d'EspritThe 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 the audience members 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 provençal slang ("fada", meaning "crazy", 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.

Actors playing a scene from Manon des SourcesAt one performance, 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 this 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 clichés 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 in this story, as well as dark revelations, and César discovers a terrible truth about his own past. But the final mood is upbeat and, as we arrive back in Camoins at around 6pm, footsore but elated, there is another ice-cold glass of pastis or two waiting.

The young Marcel Pagnol"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:

The Well-Digger's Daughter (DVD) - Daniel Auteuil's recent film version

Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources - Pagnol's two tales of betrayal and revenge

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

 

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