Windmill at AllauchThis pretty, peaceful little hill town with panoramic views across the countryside is just 12 km / 7.5 miles from Marseille. Rich in provençal tradition, Allauch hosts colourful festivals throughout the year.

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If you're staying in Marseille, but would like to sample some classic folklore of the region, Allauch's lively year-round programme makes it the perfect destination for a day trip.

The Fête de la Saint Jean originated as a pagan celebration of the summer solstice but now marks the feast of Saint John the Baptist in mid-June. Expect ten days of folk dancing, drinks parties, a ceremonial bonfire, the blessing of animals by the village priest, a craft fair, a provençal mass, a communal aïoli and/or a sardinade (sardine feast).

Celebrations start up all over again in August, when it's time to honour Saint Laurent. Torchlight processions, street markets, illuminated fountains, drumming contests and local food specialities are on the agenda.

Provence as a whole tends to be quieter during the winter months, but if you are here at Christmas, Allauch is one of the places to go. A centre for santonniers (makers of santons, or crib figures), Allauch exhibits a superb crib in an old reservoir converted into an art gallery during the long provençal Christmas season.

The Shepherds' Procession, AllauchOther yuletide events include a donkey fair in early December (where you can buy one of these beasts if you so desire), a Christmas market, a Gros Souper (the Great Supper, or provençal Christmas Eve meal) and on Christmas Eve itself a famous shepherds' procession (descente des bergers), pictured.

This torchlight event, featuring fifes, drums and some 150 sheep accompanied by their shepherds, starts at 10.15pm.

It is so popular that the ensuing Mass is projected on a giant screen outside the church, which is far too small to accommodate all the pilgrims and participants. If arriving by car, you will need to park well outside Allauch as the village is closed to traffic that evening.

 

The party's not over in January either. The Fête de la Saint Clair in the early part of the month stars spit-roasted pigs, a food market, folk music and dancing and more, while the Mauret Pastorale, a centuries-old nativity play in provençal, is performed throughout the month. Click here to read more about how Christmas is celebrated in Provence.

Allauch coat of armsA rather romantic legend is attached to the town's unusual coat of arms (pictured). In the tenth century, Allauch (pronounced "Allo") was besieged by Moorish invaders and the population was on the point of starvation. Desperate, with nothing to lose, they shot their last few bread rolls over the ramparts.

The gamble paid off. The enemy concluded that the town must have ample food provisions and, discouraged, withdrew. The coat of arms depicts the sky that night (a waning moon and three stars), surmounted by two arrow quills (though no flying bread rolls!)

At the helpful Allauch Tourist Office, you'll find a treasure trove of information and literature about the town and for the whole of Provence, as well as a plan for a short self-guided walk through Allauch and a detailed map with itineraries for ten longer hikes in the heaths and hills immortalised in the work of Marcel Pagnol. Allauch Tourist Office, esplanade Frédéric Mistral, 13718 Allauch. Tel: (+33) 4 91 10 49 20.

Note that, due to the ever-present risk of forest fires, the walks around Allauch are always "zone rouge" in summer: i.e. you can only do them in the morning. Sometimes they are closed altogether.

You should always check weather conditions on the evening before you plan to walk. These are posted on the official helpline, tel (+33) 8 11 20 13 13, in English as well as French, and published (in French only) on the Bouches du Rhône regional website. Click here to read our full guide to walking in this area in the footsteps of Marcel Pagnol.

Though it can get very busy in summer, Allauch itself is a relaxing spot for a stroll, fuelled by a drink in one of its charming squares with fountains.

San Sebastian church, AllauchOn one of these sits the 17th century church of San Sebastian (pictured right) with its altar by Pierre Puget (the Marseille-born architect who also designed the Vieille Charité in Marseille) and paintings by Adolphe Monticelli and Michel Serre.

The stained glass windows all illustrate contemporary subjects: unusually, one of those on your right as you enter the church depicts a Russian cosmonaut.

Allauch has a museum, the Musée d'Allauch, housed in the former town hall. Its permanent collection is something of a rag-bag of religious artefacts (mainly Catholic, despite the museum's claim to be about comparative religions), fragments of pots and a few paintings by the Marseille artist Raymond Fragi, who painted scenes of Allauch.

However the museum also hosts some extremely good temporary exhibitions with spiritual themes. Past shows have celebrated aboriginal painting and Mexican ex voto art. It also has a semi-permanent exhibition, Marcel Pagnol: Enfant de nos Collines, devoted to the writer. Musée d'Allauch, place Pierre Bellot, 13718 Allauch. Tel: (+33) 4 91 10 49 00.

Five 17th century windmills stand guard on the esplanade des Moulins, some of which are ruins, though the one nearest the tourist office has been fully restored. You'll also find an orientation table here to help you get your bearings.

For even better views, walk to Notre Dame du Château, a 12th century chapel at the top of quite a steep hill. The footpath, through terraces of barbary figs, is paved but not suitable if you're wearing heels. The panorama across to Marseille is spectacular. The chapel said to contain ancient and curious painted votive offerings, but it is only open on Sunday afternoons and feast days.

L'Hostellerie and square, AllauchLast but not least, anyone with a sweet tooth should not miss the Moulin Bleu, a tea-room and confiserie that's an Aladdin's cave of home-made nougat, lavender glucose sweets, casse-dents and other typical provençal goodies.

Click here to read more about these, and the other best sweets and treats of Provence. Au Moulin Bleu, 7 cours du 11 novembre, 13190 Allauch.

practicaL INFORMATION

Where to eat: L'Auberge des Moulins has splendid views across the countryside towards Marseille. L'Auberge des Moulins, 8 rue des Moulins, 13190 Allauch. Tel: (+33) 4 91 68 74 99.

In the old town, in a lovely square opposite San Sebastian church, L'Hostellerie (pictured) offers simple traditional fare. L'Hostellerie, 12 rue Pierre Queirel, 13190 Allauch. Tel: (+33) 4 91 68 79 97.

How to get to Allauch: Metro line 1 to La Rose (the last stop), then bus number 144 to Allauch village (the last stop).

By car, take the A50 motorway (direction Aubagne) out of Marseille, then the D2C and the D4A.

From Aix en Provence, take the A7 motorway, exit at la Rose and then continue on the D4.

If visiting in summer or during the Christmas celebrations, on no account go by car as Allauch's proximity to Marseille means that its steep, narrow streets are quickly congested by tourist traffic.

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