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trets festivalCertain spots in Provence are magnets for tourists. The guides on this website to such legendary destinations as Cassis, Saint Rémy, Lourmarin and L'Isle sur la Sorgue are among the most visited pages on Marvellous Provence - and so are those towns and villages themselves.

Yet Provence is jam-packed with lovely secret places that most international visitors have never heard of and never go near. And so they are mercifully free of souvenir shops and tour groups, you can park there relatively easily and lunch won't cost a king’s ransom.

Now the region has decided to single out one of these hidden gems each year to be the "capitale provençale de la culture": perfect for anyone in Provence this summer who would like to try something a little bit different, away from the crowds.

The chosen "capital" for 2017 is Trets, a small, pretty, mediaeval town in the beautiful foothills of Mont Sainte Victoire, pictured, a short drive south-east of Aix en Provence.

The programme runs from June to December and is a mix of traditional festivals, street theatre, art shows and concerts open-air feasts and other food and drink events and ambitious spectacles, such as a Brazilian-style mini-carnival to kick-start it all.

sainte victoire late afternoonSome of the region's bigger shindigs, such as the Aix music festival, the piano festival of La Roque d’Anthéron or the Five Continents jazz festival of Marseille will be staging guest events in Trets too.

The inspiration behind the project is Marseille-Provence's dazzlingly successful year in the spotlight as the European City of Culture in 2013. The new initiative has nothing like that budget, of course, and is on a much smaller scale.

It's also confined to the Bouches du Rhône region around Marseille, Aix and Arles. But this could be a fantastic way for you to discover the authentic, undiscovered Provence. Click here for the full programme.

 

 

camargue horses saintes mariesHere's a terrific, relatively new festival in Provence in early June: the Festival de la Camargue. Now in its ninth year, it offers a huge range of activities celebrating this mysterious, wild and very beautiful corner of Provence.

Its home base is the coastal town of Port Saint Louis du Rhône, where the pop-up "Village des Oiseaux" ("Bird Village") has gipsy music performances, a Camargue oyster bar, blindfold tastings of gourmet regional produce, photographic exhibitions, an Eolian garden with musical instruments played by the wind and tons of ideas for children.

But the real draw is the hundreds of fascinating excursions on offer. You can spend a day on a nego chin (flat-bottomed fishing boat), including a meal at a traditional cowboy's cabin, go bird-watching on horseback or in a horse-drawn carriage or tour a manade (bull ranch) on a tractor trailer.

Avid hikers can sign up for a five hour walk through marshes of the Bois des Rièges, normally closed to the public. The Tour de Valat ecological research centre, also usually closed to the public, hosts several events too.

The Festival de la Camargue spills over to Arles, Saintes Maries de la Mer and points west and runs from 2-6 June. Click here for the full programme.

universal prayer ndary lo avignonAvignon is turning African this year. The continent is the focus of the Theatre Festival in July, which features no fewer than seven productions from Africa.

But even before then, from mid May onwards, African art is popping up at venues all over the city under the umbrella title Les Éclaireurs (The Pathfinders)

It is all on loan from the Fondation Blachère, a foundation based in the nearby town of Apt which specialises in contemporary African art.

The Foundation owns some 1800 works, and 76 sculptures from its collection are on show in Avignon from 19 May.

The featured artists, either from Africa or of African origin, include Mali's Abdoulaye Konate, Senegal's Ousmane Sow, the French-Senegalese sculptress Diagne Chanel, South Africa's Andries Botha, Ghana's El Anatsui and the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.

Some of the works can be seen in public spaces, such as the eight metre / 26 foot high La Prière universelle (The Universal Prayer) by Senegal’s Ndary Lo, pictured, which soars proudly in front of the Palais des Papes.

Others are inside the Palais and at key museums around Avignon. You can buy a ticket for 11 €uros which gives you access to all the venues from the Avignon Tourist Office.

These rare and magnificent pieces are in town until 14 January 2018. But, if you can't make it to the Papal city in time to catch them there, never fear: you can always head off to Apt to view the permanent collection at the Fondation Blachère, which is open to the public.

salon cote sud 2015 smallA super diary date if you're in the Aix en Provence area and love design: the Vivre Côté Sud salon from 2-5 June. Organised by the chic and glossy Côté Sud lifestyle magazine, this very popular event is now in its 19th year.

In Aix's leafy Parc Jourdan (a delightful destination in its own right), over two hundred companies will be showcasing antiques, food and wine, furniture, garden accessories, fabrics, lighting and more - in short, everything you could possibly need for the House Beautiful.

It's not just about provençal produce either: "côté sud" ("south side") also encompasses desirable design from Italy, Spain and other countries from all around the Mediterranean. Some of the region's top chefs will be giving culinary demonstrations and the famous Provence gourmet food trucks will be selling high-class snacks.

House and garden designers will be offering personalised coaching sessions (for a fee) and a "festive atmosphere" is promised for the late-night opening until 11pm on the Friday. Entrance: 10 €uros for adults (concessionaries: 7 €uros). Click here to find out more details and the full programme.

quirin mayer paintingThe Printemps de l'Art Contemporain (PAC) is a wide-ranging festival devoted to contemporary art in Marseille and the surrounding area throughout the late spring. In 2017 it runs from 25 May-11 June.

Now in its ninth year, PAC has been steadily growing in range and ambition. In 2016 over 24,000 visitors attended. In 2017 it once again offers a raft of activities and exhibitions, especially over the opening few days.

Expect musical performances, guided tours, conferences and shows at dozens of galleries all across town, from the Cours Julien to the Canebière, the Panier and even as far as the northern suburbs. There will also be events in the surrounding region: Istres, Aix en Provence and Châteauneuf le Rouge. Click here for the full programme.

 

Niolon2This summer galleries and museums across Provence are clubbing together for a collective, event under the umbrella title L'Appel du Large (The Call of the Sea), celebrating the romance of the deep blue yonder.

First up is Martigues, the "Venice of Provence", whose Musée Ziem has a show of seascapes painted in this pretty little town and highlighting its exotic qualities. 17 May-17 September.

Arles' excellent Musée départementale Arles antique journeys back in time to explore navigation in the Rhône delta during the Roman era. 1 July-30 September.

It's not just about the Mediterranean: some shows are setting sail for more distant shores. Over the summer and autumn a number of museums in Marseille have marine-themed exhibitions, the most intriguing of which at the Vieille Charité charts the writer Jack London's adventures in the southern seas, from Hawaii to Samoa. 7 September-7 January 2018.

And in Aubagne, home of the French Foreign Legion, the focus is equally exotic: the escapades of the intrepid legionnaires in the Indian Ocean. 21 September-15 January 2018.

There can be few more delicious ways to spend a summer day or night than on one of Marseille's open-air toits terrasses (roof terraces) contemplating the Mediterranean.

rooftop terrace marseilleAnd there's something for everyone in this most eclectic of cities, whether your thing is sipping a sophisticated cocktail, lingering over lunch or dinner, grooving to the sounds of some of the world's leading DJs, catching an avant-garde art exhibition or even watching a movie.

An improbable major venue is the Terrasses du Port, the shiny new shopping mall in the city's Joliette district near the ferry and cruise ship terminals.

Pictured, its enormous roof terrace on two levels with breathtaking panoramic sea views has been an instant hit: last summer an average of 1,500 people a night flocked there.

Inspired by the commercial port which it overlooks, ship's containers have been crane-lifted in and repurposed as bars, gourmet fast food kiosks and DJ cabins.

And it has a packed schedule every night except Mondays from now until mid-September. The rooftop terrace stays open late - until 2am on some evenings.

Each evening has a different theme from rock 'n roll and disco to deep house and funk. If you don't feel like dancing, there's always babyfoot (table football) and arcade games.

Among the international guest DJs and artists expected over the summer of 2017 are Carl Craig, Breakbot and Feder. Details and a link to the ticket office here.

Across town on the south side of the Old Port the five-star Sofitel hotel has a mini-terrace, an extension of its lobby bar.

It offers all-day food, artisan ice-cream (courtesy of Le Glacier du Roi), cocktails and, on some evenings, live music (jazz, pop, rock or soul) - plus one of the best views in town over the Old Port and the MuCEM.

The Sofitel has now created an even larger terrace on its roof where the scene is even more fabulous. Called the Dantès Sky Lounge (after Edmond Dantès, the hero of Alexandre Dumas's legendary, Marseille-set novel The Count of Monte Cristo), it has a DJ in attendance on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings.

Expect to stump up 16 €uros plus for a cocktail (with minor nibbles such as peanuts and olives): you're paying for the stunning view.

Also on this side of the Old Port with similar views, the Rowing Club has a roof terrace that's open all year round. It's open to the public and especially reputed for its (rather pricey) buffet brunches.

The MuCEM, with its own rooftop restaurant, pictured, Mediterranean garden, open-air performance space, chill-out area with chaises-longues and panoramic walkways has also quickly become a firm favourite with both Marseillais and tourists.

mucem restaurantBorderline organises legendary parties in some of the most beautiful locations in Marseille and is particularly famed for its boat discos.

And let's not forget La Friche La Belle de Mai, the cutting-edge arts complex near Saint Charles station which pioneered these rooftop events.

Its truly vast roof terrace launches the 2017 summer season on 26 May and promises a fabulous line-up, from live music from all over the world and film screenings (deckchairs provided) to sundown apéritifs and discos late into the night.

Bring a picnic, or buy a classy takeaway. There are children's games too - and a pétanque court. Best of all, entrance is entirely free!

Finally, those into modern art and architecture should head straight over to Le Corbusier's pioneering modernist apartment block, the Radiant City, where a series of events is planned on its own stunning roof terrace throughout the summer. This year's exhibition is devoted to the French artist Jean-Pierre Reyaud.

 

 

For some years in spring and autumn, a theatrical troupe called Dans la Cours des Grands has staged weekly performances of Pagnol's stories.

But these aren't just conventional sit-down plays. Instead, you're taken on a day-long walk deep into the countryside of Aubagne, stopping every now and then to discover actors playing out Pagnol's scenes - in the very landscapes where the stories were set.

manon4You could describe it as the ultimate promenade performance and it's a very special experience.

The first, enormously popular shows, pictured, were based on Manon des Sources and every couple of years there's a new one: the 2017 season is inspired by La Fille du Puisatier (The Well-Digger's Daughter).

You can read more about it here, where we also review the earlier Manon des Sources production which gives you a good idea what to expect. They run at weekends from 1 May to 18 June and again for a short season in the autumn.

And, if you can't make these specific dates, click here to read about self-guided hiking in Pagnol country, actor Daniel Auteuil's Pagnol films and our full guide to the town of Aubagne itself.

If your next travel plans are for a trip to the US rather than to Provence, this E-Visa FAQ will help you navigate the complicated ESTA Visa Waiver Program. Our thanks to them for this sponsored link.

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Chateau Borely small 4 June is the first Sunday of the month - and that traditionally means free admission to museums and galleries in Provence (and, in fact, all across the country).

Arrive punctually at opening time to beat the crowds - or wait until around 12noon-1pm, when the locals all head off for the sacred tradition of Sunday lunch. And do check whether the museum you're eyeing up is part of the scheme: it doesn't apply to all private foundations.

Click here for our full guides to the museums and galleries of Aix en Provence, Arles, Avignon and Marseille.

 

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