L'Estaque town signL'Estaque, a scruffy fishing port north-west of Marseille, has an extraordinary claim to fame: for over half a century, it was a magnet for a series of world-renowned artists.

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They were drawn there, certainly, by the quality of light. The range of shapes and colours - the white hills, red roofs and factory chimneys, green pines and blue sea - are matchless.

A walk marked by enamelled plaques dotted around the town helps the visitor see L'Estaque through these painters' eyes.

But the sun, after all, beams down everywhere in Provence. L'Estaque had, and still has, all sorts of other things to offer.

It's both a humble fishing port and a working-class industrial town. And the location is splendid: it's perched in between the sea and the Chaine de L'Estaque, the craggy and dramatic range of limestone hills that runs all along the Blue Coast.

L'Estaque viewed from the sea Just west of L'Estaque is a very large landscaped area of urban beaches hugely popular with day-trippers: the Plages de Corbière.

Today L'Estaque has been absorbed into Marseille - it's the city's 16th arrondissement - and is easily accessible by bus or train from the centre of the city (see below for details): you can glimpse the dramatic railway viaduct in this image.

But, while offering panoramic views of Marseille across the bay, L'Estaque retains an entirely separate atmosphere and identity.

 

 

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

L'Estaque - in provençal "Estaco" - means the mooring ring that attaches boats to the wharf. So the town started life as a fishing port, and Marseille's big wholesale fish market is still just down the road.

However these origins were dramatically transformed in 1848 when the railway arrived, connecting L'Estaque with Marseille at one end of the line and Miramas at the other.

Tile and brick factories were set up in the 1860s; this manufacturing continued until as late as 1960.

More factories producing sodium salts and sulphuric acid opened in the 1880s and the population soared.

At the beginning of the 20th century, people from central Marseille would come to L'Estaque to eat seafood in the restaurants along the port.

And the town started to move upmarket. Grand villas began to spring up next to the traditional small houses belonging to fishermen or the workers from the nearby tile and cement factories.

View of L'Estaque"La Palestine" at 126 plage de l'Estaque was a prime example. Situated on the coastal road going out of L'Estaque towards Le Rove, and decorated in an extravagant Moorish style, it was built in 1905 by a rich tailor from Northern France who was fascinated by the Orient.

The other villa of note is the Château Fallet at 87 chemin de la Nerthe. Various artists visited it, including Braque and Duffy.

Some of them, such as Alfred Maquet, painted the spacious, shady terrace. The Château Fallet is a private residence today, but can be seen from the outside on the chemin du Littoral.

 

THE ARTISTS OF L'ESTAQUE

Félix Ziem was one of the first artists to discover L'Estaque in the early 19th century, followed by Adolphe Monticelli, a Marseille-born painter who was an influence on the young Paul Cézanne and was greatly admired by Vincent van Gogh.

Later, key works of post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism were painted here by the likes of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque. Our gallery of great paintings of L'Estaque presents some of them.

Perhaps the most famous of the bunch was Cézanne, who first discovered L'Estaque in 1864.

He returned soon afterwards to avoid being conscripted to fight in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and subsequently went back again and again, always staying at a house next to the church on the place Malterre. Today it's marked with a plaque.

The Sea at L'Estaque by Paul CezanneWriting to his fellow artist, Camille Pissarro, in 1876, he enthused: "[L'Estaque] is like a playing card. Red roofs over the blue sea... The sun here is so terrific that objects appear silhouetted not only in white or black, but in blue, red, brown, violet."

Pictured: Cézanne's The Sea at L'Estaque 1878-1879.

While continuing to work in Aix en Provence, at the Jas de Bouffan, the Bibémus Quarries and his Lauves studio, Cézanne painted some 60 celebrated canvases of L'Estaque over the next decade.

A dozen or so of them face across the Gulf of Marseille and focus on the sea. They also prominently feature the factory chimneys that fuelled the town's economy, although Cézanne abhorred them and eventually abandoned L'Estaque, lamenting its industrialisation.

In January 1882 Cézanne had a visit from Renoir, who was on his way back from Italy. The two men set up their easels side by side to paint the exact same scene, the rocks near L'Estaque.

It's intriguing to compare the differences between their visions: the two works are featured in our L'Estaque gallery.

You wouldn't know that it was the middle of winter from Renoir's luminous landscape. "What a beautiful place this is!" he wrote to a friend. "It must surely be the most beautiful place in the world." Renoir painted four (known) pictures in L'Estaque, focussing, unusually, on the hinterland rather than the sea.

Many more artists would be inspired by L'Estaque in the 20th century. The German Expressionist August Macke spent time there and André Derain, a contemporary and colleague of Matisse, painted a study of fishing boats in 1905.

In the winter of 1906-1907, a couple of months after Cézanne died, Braque went to L'Estaque, and his studies are strongly inspired by his predecessor.

In the summer of 1908, he shared a studio there with Dufy. Along with Othon Friesz, who also visited the town, they helped launched the Fauvist movement.

Artists working in other media have links to L'Estaque too. In 1877, the writer Émile Zola went there to escape the furore caused by L'Assommoir, his novel about alcoholism and the working-classes. The short book he wrote, Naïs Micoulin, is a love story set in L'Estaque and was made into a film by Marcel Pagnol in 1945.

The composer Camille Saint-Saëns passed through L'Estaque, and the Marseille-born director Robert Guédiguian has shot several films there, including Marius and Jeannette.

 

 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

How to get there: A (fairly) fast train service runs from Marseille Saint Charles to L'Estaque. The station is on a hill about ten minutes' walk from the town centre. Click here to read about the Blue Coast Train which runs along this beautiful line.

Alternatively, take either the metro (line 2) or the tram (line 2) to Joliette. Then bus 35 to L'Estaque.

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Where to eat: for snacks, the must-try delicacy is chichi frégi, an aromatic doughnut flavoured with orange flower water on sale at three little kiosks on the marketplace (including Magali, pictured).

Magali kiosk selling chichi fregi in L'EstaqueFor a full meal, an array of budget restaurants faces the harbour. Unsurprisingly, most of them specialise in seafood.

Try Le petit Naples, near the post office, for traditional, delicious Italian cuisine. It's small, as the name suggests, so ring first to reserve. 14 plage de l'Estaque, 13016 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 46 05 11.

Almost opposite it, right on the habour itself, is one of a handful of more upscale eateries, the Bistrot du C.A.M. 1 plage de l'Estaque, 13016 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 9 83 75 48 66.

The local Tourist Office is at the Villa Mistral, 122 plage de l'Estaque 13016 Marseille. It's open in July and August only. Website for the L'Estaque tourist office

At other times, information is available from the main Marseille Tourist Office in the city centre: 11 la Canebière, 13001 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 826 500 500.

The weekly street market on Saturdays has stalls offering some provençal crafts, though it's mainly aimed at local residents.

L'Estaque's annual festival is very late in the summer compared to other French towns: it takes place on the first weekend in September. A highlight is the water jousting tournament.

Find further reading and viewing on Amazon:

Cézanne - Braque: L'Estaqueimage! by Dominique Pons.

Naïs Micoulinimage! by Emile Zola.

Marius et Jeannette by Robert Guédiguian.

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