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smart aix smallIn spring, contemporary art fairs and markets spring up like irises all over the South of France and one of the biggest, in Aix en Provence, is the Sm'art

Now in its twelfth year, this huge open-air event runs from 11-15 May and has become the second largest art market in France.

These are tough times for artists. The economic downturn has reduced buyers' spending power, the French presidential elections make the future uncertain and the country's long wave of terrorism have all hit morale hard in the creative community.

Last year Christiane Michel, Sm'art's founder and curator, admitted that applications from artists to attend plummeted after the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015. And of course there have been more since then.

But all the spaces at Sm'art (it stands for Salon Méditerranéen d'art contemporain) have been rented once again this year. Around 200 visual artists, painters, sculptors, photographers, designers and gallery owners will come from far and wide to Aix's Parc Jourdan to display and, they hope, sell their work.

The guests of honour are Jacques Salles, who describes himself as a "creator of structures", whatever that means, and a street artist who goes by the name of DIRE (OK, it sounds a bit unfortunate in English! But in French it means "telling" or "speaking".)

smart aixLast year the Sm'art attracted nearly 24000 visitors and clocked up over 2000 sales. The range and quality vary hugely, but it's mostly impressive.

The show is especially strong on sculpture: Michel points out that - in contrast to similar events in Paris - many well-heeled buyers in Provence have space in their houses or gardens for larger works.

But it's not all wildly expensive. The artists are selling directly, without paying a commission to a gallery or, indeed, to Sm'art itself (though they have to stump up over 1000 €uros for a pitch there).

We went along last year and saw some very nice small pieces - lithographs and even original artwork - for under 100 €uros. And, even if you're not intending to buy, it still makes for a very pleasant day out.

chateau mereStep back in time to 1895 for an unusual festival celebrating this landmark year in the town of Aubagne, just outside Marseille.

Aubagne has a very special reason for marking the date. In 1895, Marcel Pagnol, the iconic writer of Southern Provence, was born here.

Even if you haven't read any of his warm, wise and witty plays and novels, you may well have seen one of the many hit films based on them, such as Jean de Florette, My Mother's Castle (pictured) or Marius, Fanny, César.

Aubagne originally launched this 1895 festival to mark Pagnol's birthday. It was a great success - despite the fact that the writer was inconsiderate enough to come into the world on 28 February.

This year the event focuses on the general period rather than on Pagnol. It's called La Belle Époque and now takes place on 20 May, when the sun is more likely to smile on the party.

1895 was a big year altogether in Provence. It also saw the invention in Aubagne of the pottery cicada, pictured, which still appears on house fronts everywhere in the region - and, just up the road in La Ciotat, of the art of cinema, by the pioneering Lumière Brothers.

pottery cigaleThe 1895 festival programme has been greatly expanded from previous years and includes a provençal market 19th century style and a display of period cars, including a replica of one invented by Pagnol himself.

There'll also be pétanque and other games, music and street theatre, a hot air balloon, goat herding, an exhibition of ceramics, a piano that mixes cocktails while playing tunes (really!), French can-can dancers, a treasure hunt you can play via a phone app and more.

Hundreds of locals will be dressed up for the occasion (though you don't need to come in costume to take part), as will the shops and restaurants. It promises to be a fun and original event for all the family. Click here to read our full guide to Aubagne and here for the programme of activities for 20 May.

 

 

hyeres fashion photography festivalThe très glitzy Festival of Fashion and Photography has been described as Hyères' answer to the Cannes Film Festival just along the coast.

It's held each year in late April at the Villa Noailles, a sleek Art Deco mansion designed in the 1920s by Robert Mallet-Stevens.

Once the home of Marie-Laure and Charles de Noailles, wealthy patrons of the arts, the villa hosted glamorous parties for the likes of Jean Cocteau and Salvador Dali.

Today, perched in lush subtropical gardens high on a hill overlooking the town and the Mediterranean, it welcomes some of the biggest names and hottest newcomers.The festival organises two competitions, one for fashion and one for photography.

Now in its 32nd edition, Hyères' fashion and photography festival is able to attract powerful sponsorship and has become a major player on the art and design scene.

It's a serious networking opportunity for international fashionistas, art world poseurs and all-round beautiful people, of course, but the public can get in on the act too and entrance to many events and exhibitions is free.

This year's Festival de mode et de photographie runs from 27 April-1 May. Click here for more details. Photo above © Hyères Tourisme.

designer outlet village miramasThe first designer outlet village in the south of France opened on 13 April just outside the town of Miramas, near Marseille.

Operated by the British company McArthurGlen, this huge 120 million €uro complex offers discontinued items from luxury brands at hefty year-round discounts.

A new provençal "village square" houses some 120 shops and eight restaurants. Pictured: an architect's impression.

Brands represented there so far include Calvin Klein, Hugo Boss, Michael Kors, Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Maje, The Kooples, Sandro, Zadig & Voltaire, American Vintage, Marc O'Polo, Karl Lagerfeld, Pinko and Illy. Enough to keep even the most avid shopper happy.

The village, complete with fountain, vaulted arcades and a vegetable wall, is designed by Marseille Architecture Partenaires (MAP), who did a splendid job recently with the restoration of the sleek 1940s Musée Regards de Provence in Marseille.

The existing mas (country house), pigeon loft and century-old plane trees on the site are preserved too.

It sits at the crossroads of three motorways, the A7, the A8 and the A54 and there are 1,500 free parking spaces for drivers.

But the designer outlet village, or village de marques in French, is also easily accessible by train. Miramas is the terminus of the beautiful Blue Coast line, as well as several other major rail axes from Arles, Avignon and Marseille. Two public buses run from the station.

Where: McArthurGlen Designer Outlet Provence, Mas de la Péronne, Miramas. Website for the Miramas designer outlet village

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.

bd festival2017The BD (bande dessinée, or graphic novel) is a much revered artform in France. And, now in its 14th year, the Festival de Bande Dessinée in Aix en Provence is the largest in the region.

After the long grey winter, this is always a welcome arrival, with colourful, witty images popping up on posters and in shop windows all over town to lift the spirits and announce that spring is finally on its way.

The long, ambitious programme sprawls over several months from April to May, with exhibitions, conferences, signings and, importantly, informal drinks and networking parties at museums and other venues. Entrance to most of them is free.

Up to 15,000 visitors are expected in Aix for this and five times that number over the festival's entire two months.

But there is always one keynote weekend when the stars of the graphic novel world converge on Aix for a big beanfeast. This year it's on 7-9 April and over 50 artists have been invited, as well as publishers, specialist bookstore owners, fans and more.

When we went along to this weekend for the first time, we were astonished and impressed by the scale of it. The Cité du Livre - a huge, sprawling, maze-like complex of cinemas, libraries, meetings rooms and outdoor spaces right behind the Pavillon Noir - was fully taken over by the event.

aix BD festival 2017There was something going on in every corner of the place: book signings, conferences and interviews, artists' demonstrations, live music and children's workshops - all of it free.

We'd always assumed that the festival was mainly for fanboys and geeks, but that was clearly far from the case and people of all generations, from tots to pensioners, were there.

In fact it's highly family friendly (a section devoted to films and comics with adult, erotic and/or violent content was discretely screened off in a separate area).

This year's poster, detail pictured above, is by Simon Roussin. In a "treasure hunt" aimed at families, you can collect a set of 53 exclusive cards designed by him telling an adventure story from shops all over Aix.

This is a truly international festival which sprawls over into multiple venues. Other guest artists include Canada's Dave Cooper, whose creepy Eddie Table stories follow in the great David Cronenberg tradition, Germany's Jakob Hinrichs and Bolivia's Marco Tóxico.

Watch out too for the Manège Magique (Magic Roundabout), a fantastical carousel at the top of the Cours Mirabeau during April.

Click here to visit the festival website for the full programme. And click here to read about Aix's Graphic Novel Festival in 2015 and in 2016.

Color RunFeel healthy and have a fantastic time: what more could anyone ask of an event? Fun runs with various gimmicks have become a real growth industry all across Europe - and that certainly includes Provence.

The first event of the season, on 8 April, is also the most challenging. In the area around Peyrolles lake north-east of Aix en Provence, The Mud Day is a 13 km / 8 mile obstacle course that takes you through brambles, up walls and, of course, through plenty of mud.

It sounds ideal for kids - and in fact children can take part in their own junior edition. And, possibly realising that splashing through the mud on a cold early spring day might be a bit too daunting for most, this year the organisers are offering a shorter, 7 km / 4 mile alternative.

As the days lengthen, several rather less demanding runs are scheduled in the region. Unlike the classic Marseille-Cassis half-marathon race, the point here is just to enjoy yourself along the way.

The routes are short enough for most people to complete, even if you're not super-fit, and no-one is checking on you with a chronometer.

One of the most popular events is the colour run, pictured above. As the inventors describe it, the idea is simple: "wear white at the starting line and finish plastered in colour!" It's inspired by Holi, a Hindi festival with a religious and spiritual significance.

On the way, runners are bathed in successive clouds of brightly coloured powder: orange for optimism, blue for vitality, green for harmony, yellow for joy and red for love.

The powder is harmless (cooking pigments mixed with flour) and doesn't stain the clothes, though a running outfit is provided to participants anyway, as are protective glasses. Children can, and indeed should, take part too. Afterwards, a DJ and dancing await.

Held with success in cities from Rio to London to Sydney, these runs are now regular fixtures in France. The next one in the south takes place in Grasse on 21 May. Click here for details.

A new-ish addition to the scene is the Sardine Run. a 4 km / 2.5 mile course at the Campagne Pastré - a large park to the south of Marseille - involving sections with water slides.

It's all part of the Sardine Day, a sardine themed weekend that also includes art, a water chute, disco evenings and the odd sardine or two to eat. 1-2 July (the run itself is on 2 July).

The "concept" (or pretext) this time is the annual sardine run (migration) off the coast of Africa. The weekend is supposed to raise consciousness about pollution of the environment.

Also in Marseille is another new concept called the Défi Run ("défi" means "challenge" in French). It's billed as a sort of friendly obstacle race over either 5 or 10 km / 3 or 6 miles, followed by a party and DJ set, and is held on 10 September.

 

Chateau Borely small 7 May 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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