Aubagne sums up the very essence of Provence. In a stunning hillside setting, this historic town is the centre of ceramicists and santon-makers, Marcel Pagnol's birthplace and the Foreign Legion HQ. It even has a pastis distillery.
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Famed for the quality of its local clay, Aubagne has traditionally been a focus for pottery, porcelain and santons. ever since the Greeks landed in the region in 600BC. Today there are around thirty active ceramics workshops in the town.
Should you really want one, Aubagne is also the place to buy a giant pottery cigale, or cicada, the emblem of Provence devised in 1895 by the Aubagne-based ceramicist Louis Sicard, to hang on the front of your house, as many locals do. Small ones start from 10€; count about 35€ for a full-size cigale.
At certain times of the year, the esplanade Charles de Gaulle and the main square, the cours Foch, are lined with cabins selling santons and ceramics.
The period to see these is between November and December, when all the santons (provençal crib figures) are set out in preparation for Christmas, and in July and August, when santonniers converge on the town for a santons fair.
Year-round shops include Di Landro (which also has a small museum), 582 Avenue des Paluds, Z.I des Paluds, 13400 Aubagne. Tel: (+33) 4 42 70 95 65.
The Cité de l’art santonnier Thérèse Neveu, a museum of ceramics and santons in the Old Town behind the Saint Sauveur church, holds regular special exhibitions. 4 Cour de Clastres, 13400 Aubagne. Website for the Cité de l’art santonnier Thérèse Neveu.
On the outskirts of Aubagne is Le Moulin à Huile, 1280 RN26 Quartier Napollon, 13400 Aubagne. Tel: (+33) 4 42 03 81 03. Also on the edge of town, Ravel is a pottery, owned by the same family for five generations, that produces large, modern terracotta garden pots and offers free factory visits on Thursday mornings. 8 avenue des Goums, 13400 Aubagne. Tel (+33) 4 42 82 42 00.
Every second year in August, Aubagne hosts Argilla, the largest open-air ceramics fair in Europe. In 2015 Italy was the "guest of honour", with five shows running not just during the Argilla weekend, but throughout the summer and - in some cases - into the autumn. Entrance to these exhibitions is free.
Argilla, which recently marked its thirteenth edition, has become amazingly popular: more than a hundred thousand people attended the last two events.
In 2015 over two hundred craft workers from thirteen countries presented their creations, from stoneware to fine porcelain (exhibitors participate by invitation only).
Other attractions included the English artist Terry Davies demonstrating his experimental kiln and the Italian band Rabala giving concerts - on ceramic instruments. More details of Argilla 2015.
Pagnol lived only briefly in Aubagne but immortalised it, and the surrounding countryside, in such work as Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.
He was born on 28 February 1895 in a tall 19th century town house at 16 cours Barthélemy, a couple of doors down from the tourist office.
In 2015, to mark the 120th anniversary of this event, a bust of the writer / film-maker sculpted by the santonnier Daniel Scaturro was inauguated in front of the building.
Inside, the ground floor of this house has been turned into a modest museum. To the left as you go in is a display of old family photos, film stills and illustrations from the stories; you can also view a short film (in French only) about Pagnol's life.
The rooms on the right of the main entrance are set out as the Pagnol family apartment, where Marcel spent the first three years of his life, including a bedroom with his cradle, a dresser and, at the back, the family kitchen. The museum doesn't really warrant a detour but is worth dropping by to see if you have a spare half hour.
Pagnol is also celebrated in The Little World of Marcel Pagnol, a charming (and free) installation of 200-odd clay santons acting out scenes from Pagnol's life, books and movies. It's also in the centre of town. Click here for a review of The Little World of Marcel Pagnol (a scene from which is pictured above).
Aubagne's old town makes for an enjoyable excursion in its own right. Some buildings, such as the Saint Sauveur church, date back to the 12th century; others, like the old market place (anciennes halles) have Art Nouveau decor. You will also find an 18th century communal bread oven shaped from volcanic lava in the rue Torte. The Aubagne Tourist Office offers leaflets, maps and guided tours.
Surrounded by the Sainte Baume and Garlaban mountains (pictured), Aubagne is the starting point for many lovely walks, hikes and rambles offering breathtaking views across its starkly beautiful landscapes peppered with olive trees and Mediterranean oak and perfumed with rosemary, thyme and other wild herbs.
You don't need to have read a single book by Pagnol or have seen any of his films to savour them - though a detailed large-scale IGN hiking map of the Aubagne area could come in useful.
The Aubagne Tourist Office sells a small, inexpensive guidebook/ map with suggestions for self-guided rambles of various lengths from nine km (5.5 miles) to 20 km (12.5 miles). Click here to read our full guide to walking in the footsteps of Marcel Pagnol.
And, each year in early May, the Tourist Office organises a Festival des Randonnées, a (very) long weekend featuring some 30 guided walks, pitched at every level of ability, through this lovely countryside.
The walks appeal to a wide range of interests, including rambles on horseback, night hikes, walks suitable for families and tours with a gastronomic theme.
In high summer, when there are restrictions on hiking due to the risk of forest fires, a coach tour can bring you to these locations.
Also of interest: Just outside Aubagne (about a 20 minute walk), the Musée de la Légion étrangère (the Museum of the Foreign Legion) is a must for military historians. It includes memorabilia, a room documenting the Legion's military campaigns and an extensive library and archive.
Pride of place goes to Captain Danjou's hand (la main du Capitaine Danjou, pictured), a wooden prosthetic which the officer had made for him after losing his own when his gun backfired.
A venerated object for the Legion, this hand is ceremoniously paraded every year on 30 April, Camerone Day (pictured below).
This is the anniversary of the 1863 Mexican battle where just 63 legionnaires held out heroically against two thousand attackers and where Captain Danjou finally lost his life.
The Foreign Legion's headquarters are also in Aubagne, where the primarily administrative First Foreign Regiment is stationed.
The Musée de la Légion étrangère and the Centre de documentation historique (the Centre of Historic Documentation) are on the chemin de la Thuilière, 13400 Aubagne. Tel: (+33) 4 42 18 12 41.
During a major renovation programme, the Musée de la Légion étrangère received a facelift and a brand-new extension. Closed for a year during these works, it re-opened to the public on Camerone Day 2013.
Entrance free (closed Mondays and Thursdays). Website for the Museum of the Foreign Legion.
In Puyloubier, 40 km / 24 miles north of the museum, an outpost, the Musée de l'Uniforme, houses a collection of over 120 legionnaires' uniforms at the Institution des Invalides de la Légion Etrangère, a home for about 100 veteran and disabled soldiers.
Also a little outside the centre, the Janot pastis distillery may be visited by appointment at ZI Les Paluds, 304 rue du Dirigeable, 13400 Aubagne. Tel (+33) 4 42 82 29 57. Website for the Janot distillery.
Where to eat: The locals' favourite spot for dining out is in the Old Town, on the picturesque place Joseph Rau which offers a cluster of restaurants. The cours Foch teems with open-air cafés and restaurants and looks by day onto stalls selling crafts and local produce.
You can eat a three-course lunch at a bargain price twice a month at Aubagne's Restaurant Pédagogique (Restaurant School), which also offers regular cocktail and gastronomic dinner evenings.
You will need to make a reservation in advance on the restaurant school's website or by telephone. The school is based in the lovely Château des Creissauds, just outside the centre of Aubagne. Website for Aubagne's Restaurant Pédagogique.
How to get to Aubagne: Click here for the train timetable Marseille-Aubagne. Select timetable no.1 (Marseille-Toulon) from the drop-down menu at the top of the page. From Aix by train, you will need to change at Marseille Saint Charles and the journey will take between 75 mins and 105 mins.
By car, the journey takes 20 minutes from Marseille, 30 minutes from Aix and 40 minutes from Toulon. By bus from Marseille, take bus no. 69 from the place Castellane. The journey time is 15-20 minutes.
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Local buses are free within the Aubagne municipality. Click here to view the website for the Aubagne local bus network.
Aubagne now has a new tram line designed by the cult artist Hervé Di Rosa. One of Di Rosa's passions is the bande dessinée, or graphic novel, for which he invented the jolly, colourful, one-eyed character of René.
René and his friends figure prominently on the different designs (which local children helped create) for the various cars on the Aubagne tramway.
The system opened in late summer 2014, though plans to extend it have been shelved due to political and budgetary changes: it currently runs just 2.5 km / 1.5 miles, making it the shortest tram line in Europe. For the time being travel on it is also entirely free.