Santon playing petanqueHere's the sort of miniature world that kids love, with a unique provençal twist: a display of 200-odd clay figurines acting out quirky scenes from Marcel Pagnol's life, books and movies.

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It neatly combines two of the things for which Aubagne is famous: the local clay and Pagnol, the author of Jean de Florette and the Marius-Fanny-César trilogy, who was born there in 1895.

 

 

Le Petit Monde de Marcel Pagnol was created by Aubagne craftsmen to honour the writer-director shortly after his death in 1974 and is housed in a small circular building, formerly a bandstand, in the town centre.

It's not a huge installation and not worth a major detour but utterly charming if you are in the area. (It may have changed since we visited it, as the display was revamped and renovated in 2015 to mark the 120th anniversary of Pagnol's birth.) Entrance is free and photography is permitted.

The centrepiece is a large semi-circular diorama of dozens of figures engaged in typical provençal scenes.

You can see goatherds, bartenders, priests, lavender sellers and salty Mediterranean chaps swigging pastis while arguing over a game of cards or pétanque.

These figures belong to the ancient and popular provençal ritual of the santons: Christmas crib figures made out of clay which depict not only the usual Biblical characters but ordinary peasants on their way to pay tribute to the Baby Jesus. Most families maintain elaborate cribs, buying new santons each year. Click here to read more about the santons of Provence.

A scene from The Little World of Marcel PagnolThere's no crib here, though, and if you look more closely at these particular characters, you'll notice that some of them bear a marked resemblance to actors from familiar films.

There's the famous card game from Marius (pictured) and a hunchbacked Gérard Depardieu as Jean de Florette.

You might spot two Manons des Sources, Pagnol's wife Jacqueline from the 1952 film version and Emmanuelle Béart from the 1986 remake.

Daniel Auteuil is there as Ugolin, the shifty peasant in that same story and the local comedian Fernandel grins toothily as just about every older male character. At the centre of it all Pagnol himself smiles benignly in a red checked shirt.

The whole installation is set in an elaborate landscape dominated by Pagnol's beloved Garlaban mountain (you can see the real Garlaban, pictured, rearing up over Aubagne through a window behind the installation).

The Garlaban mountain, AubagneThese lively, comical scenes are fun for small kids. And they're a good introduction for older children to the work of the famous novelist and film-maker. The museum will, on request, play a CD (available in French only, alas) explaining all the scenes and characters.

More santons can be seen in the case behind the main diorama: look out for another Pagnol at the third-floor window of his boyhood house watching a game of boules.

There are also displays of film stills, old photographs of Pagnol's family, first editions of his books and a matchstick model of the Château de la Buzine, his childhood home immortalised in My Mother's Castle.

Film poster for Marius Pagnol's Fanny by Alfred DuboutA small selection of souvenirs is on sale including reproductions of Alfred Dubout's delightful vintage posters for Pagnol's best-known films (pictured is his design for Fanny).

In winter The Little World of Marcel Pagnol is put into temporary hibernation and the space given over to a Christmas crib. The long calendale, or Christmas season in Provence lasts from the 4 December, Saint Barbara's Day, until Candlemas on 2 February.

The crib, it goes without saying, is well worth visiting too. The museum is closed for a short period while the two exhibitions are changed over.

Where: Le Petit Monde de Marcel Pagnol, esplanade Charles de Gaulle 13400 Aubagne. Tel: (+33) 4 42 03 49 98. Website for Le Petit Monde de Marcel Pagnol

Aubagne is 20 km/ 12 miles from Marseille. By car, it's about 20 minutes.

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By train, it's a 20-minute ride, followed by a walk of about another ten minutes. Click here for the train timetable Marseille-Aubagne. Select timetable no.1 (Marseille-Toulon) from the drop-down menu.

The Aubagne Tourist Office is just a couple of blocks from The Little World of Marcel Pagnol. 8 cours Barthélemy, 13400 Aubagne. Tel (+33) 4 42 03 49 98.

If you want to see santons in Marseille, the master-santonnier Marcel Carbonel has a workshop and museum with santons of historic interest from around the world and demonstrations of the various specialised techniques used to make them.

Where: Marcel Carbonel Santons, 47-49, rue Neuve Sainte Catherine, 13007 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 13 61 36.

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