With its luminous open views across the water and great expanses of lakeside frontage, Martigues likes to call itself the Venice of Provence.
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Yes, there is a touch of local braggadocio to the nickname. But this charming, unusually located little town is also easily picturesque enough to give the more famous villages of the Luberon a run for their money.
The setting is certainly as lovely as for the traditional provençal hilltop village, even if it's very different.
Martigues sits on the large Etang de Berre (Berre Lake) at the mouth of a long channel, the Chenal de Caronte, connecting the lake with the Mediterranean.
Spick and span, with brightly painted houses and flowers and shrubs everywhere, its heart is a central island bisected by the colourful Canal Saint Sébastien (pictured right and top left).
Martigues hasn't established a strong presence on the main tourist trail of Provence. A concerted effort has been made to boost its profile and it has a very lively cultural scene, but you won't be bumping into coach parties everywhere.
The town retains a sense of intimacy and the centre has managed to escape the industrial blight of nearby ports such as Fos sur Mer.
Martigues has some historic buildings and a number of minor new attractions have opened recently; indeed, an appealing feature is the way the town gracefully incorporates modern sculptures and architecture into its old areas.
But the main draw is clearly Martigues itself. The best way to visit is simply to stroll along the canal and the quays and through the pretty (and, in many cases, pedestrianised) cobbled streets and squares. The whole place is stuffed with succulent vistas. Don't forget your camera!
What To See
First settled by Gallo-Romans in the fifth century BC, Martigues took shape in the Middle Ages.
A cluster of three fortified villages, Ferrières in the north, L'Isle in the middle and Jonquières in the south, had sprung up in this highly strategic location, which controlled access to L'Etang de Berre from the Mediterranean. Click on the map of Martigues to enlarge the image.
Anxious to dissolve the rivalry between these villages and to preserve the strength of the site against the Spanish, King Henri III ordered their unification and a treaty was signed on 21 April 1581. So, if Martigues seems at first sight a little dispersed and fragmented, this is the reason, and each of the three original villages still preserves something of its distinctive flavour.
L'ILE (the central island) is the district of the greatest interest to tourists. Once inhabited by merchants and burghers, it was, and remains, the most populous and the most prosperous of the villages: you can find some of their beautiful old houses and a grand 17th century fountain on the place Mirabeau (pictured).
The adjacent Canal San Sébastien is lined with former fishermen's houses in every shade of bright colour imaginable (the owners would use paint left over after painting their boats). Some have vines growing up them; in others, the inhabitants aren't too precious to hang their washing out of the windows to dry. Also known as the Miroir aux Oiseaux (the Bird Mirror), the canal has long fascinated artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Félix Ziem and Raoul Dufy.
This, really, is about as far as the Venice connection goes, though you will see it all over town on the names of shops and bus companies. And the town stages a handful of colourful Venice-themed events during the year.
Each July there is a Soirée Vénitienne, or Venetian Evening, with street music and theatre all over the town, climaxing in a spectacular free son et lumière show over the Berre Lake.
And for one weekend each year in September some 200 masked and costumed visitors from all over Europe converge on Martigues for the Flâneries au Miroir, which recreate something of the spirit of the Venetian carnival. You can view here some images from the 2012 Flâneries au Miroir in Martigues.
The Flâneries au Miroir for 2014 ran from 13-14 September, and featured over 200 musicians as well as the costumed guests who could be admired and photographed elegantly posing in the area all around the canal.
The Italian connection continues with Mosaïk Art, a biennial festival of contemporary mosaics: the last event was in September-October 2013. On a non-Venetian theme, the Festival of Martigues is held in late July and features a number of concerts, mainly of world music.
It's a short walk from the Canal San Sébastian to the main church, l'Eglise de Sainte Madeleine (1670), with its richly carved baroque facade (pictured below) and luxuriantly decorated interior.
Nearby on the place Maritima, a Gallo-Roman house dating back to the fifth century BC has been reconstructed behind a plate glass window on its original foundations.
Also of note: the mediaeval Palais Comtal (Counts' Palace), the Colla de Pradines, an imposing 17th century hôtel particulier, and the 18th century Maison du Chapeau de Gendarme (Policeman's Hat House) named after its curiously shaped gable.
Pointe San Christ, a thin spur of land sprayed with water jets, has been built at the end of L'Ile and is a popular place for children of all ages to cool off on a hot summer's day.
It's also a good spot to contemplate one of Martigues' defining landmarks, the monumental Viaduc de Caronte, a vast 943 metre (1000 yard) long railway bridge across the Chenal de Caronte, built in 1914 for the Blue Coast train line.
JONQUIERES is the best district for shops and also has a large clothes and food produce market every Thursday and Sunday morning.
The main church in this area, the 17th century Eglise Saint Geniès, is in poor repair, but try to see inside the adjacent, exuberantly decorated Chapelle de l'Annoniade des Pénitents Blancs.
FERRIERES is where you will find the tourist office in the Town Hall (l'Hôtel de Ville), a ten minute walk from the centre. It's a mine of information.
In the same complex of buildings is the Galerie de l'Histoire de Martigues, a large display of photographs, maquettes and other material exploring the town's history.
Installed in a former customs officers' house, the Musée Ziem (Ziem Museum) is dedicated, as the name suggests, to the painter Félix Ziem, who spent part of his life in Martigues.
The permanent collection also includes pieces by Fauve painters (Raoul Dufy, André Derain and others) who worked in the local area. Pictured: A Farm near Martigues, by Ziem.
There is also ex voto art from the chapel of Notre Dame de Miséricorde and a section dedicated to the archeology of Martigues from pre-history to the 18th century AD. Other rooms house temporary exhibitions of work on loan.
There is not enough space to display all the museum's holdings, and these are shown in rotation (and may be displaced by temporary exhibitions from time to time). You may, or may not, see works by Auguste Rodin, Paul Signac and Camille Claudel. Laminated explanatory guides in French and in English are available to borrow. Admission free.
On the nearby chemin de Paradis, La Maison de Charles Maurras is a beautiful 17th century bastide (large house) which is open to visitors by arrangement with the Ziem Museum.
In Ferrières' moderately attractive old town, the main church is l'Eglise Saint Louis d'Anjou (1650). It's rather spartan but does have a little display about the unification of the three villages in 1581 (in French only).
In the adjoining chapel is Espace Cinéma Prosper Gnidzaz. Launched in May 2011, it's crammed with historic projectors, cameras and film prints all from the private collection of Monsieur Gnidzaz, a local pâtissier who also happens to be a passionate movie buff.
The focus is on films inspired by and shot in Martigues, from Jean Renoir's Toni, through Fernandel in La Cuisine au Beurre to Robert Guédiguian's A la Vie, à la Mort! and Jean Reno in 22 Bullets. Espace Cinéma Prosper Gnidzaz, rue Colonel Denfert. Tel: (+33) 4 42 49 44 67.
One of Martigues' more recent new features (erected in 2010) is a bronze fisherman and his wife (pictured below). Stationed by a bench on the quai des Girondins next to a group of traditional pointus (fishing boats) converted into flower planters, it offers a nice photo opportunity. On the rue de Verdun there's a spacious, shady park overlooking L'Etang de Berre.
A little out of town to the north, the 17th century chapel of Notre Dame de Miséricorde, also known as Notre-Dame des Marins, is closed to the public. But, perched on a hill, it affords superb panoramic views of the town, the Chenal de Caronte, the Mediterranean and l'Etang de Berre.
Finally, the Parc de Figuerolles is a 130 hectare / 321 acre park located 4 km / 2.5 miles north of Martigues. It's an excellent destination for a family day out, much used also by locals.
How to get to Martigues:
By car from Aix en Provence, take the A51 motorway, then the A55 (45 km / 27 miles). From Marseille, take the A55 (40 km / 24 miles). From Arles, take the N113 to exit 9 (Fos sur Mer), then the N568 to Port de Bouc and finally the A55 (53 km / 32 miles). If driving from Marseille-Provence airport at Marignane, take the A7, then the A55 (21 km / 15 miles).
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A number of bus routes serve Martigues and this is the best way to get there by public transport. More information (in French only): www.lepilote.com
Don't go by rail if you can avoid it. The Blue Coast train line is lovely, but Martigues station (actually in Lavéra) is an uninspiring 40 minute trudge along the main road into town.
There is no taxi rank (though you will find a list of taxi numbers in the station) and no shuttle bus, only an infrequent and irregular service which may leave you with a long wait for your connection.
Where to eat and where to stay:
A handful of restaurants has signed up to the "Terroir et Patrimonie" programme which involves offering a menu of regional specialities. Of these restaurants, locals recommend Chez Antoine, 2 quai Maurice Tessé, 13500 Martigues, tel: (+33) 4 42 06 53 46 and Hostellerie Pascal, 3 quai Lucien Toulmond, 13500 Martigues tel: (+33) 4 42 42 16 89.
Not in this programme, but cited in the Michelin guide is Le Bouchon à la Mer, 19 quai Lucien Toulmond, 13500 Martigues, tel: (+33) 4 42 49 41 41. Also popular is Le Garage, 20 avenue Frédéric-Mistral, 13500 Martigues, tel: (+33) 4 42 44 09 51.
A personal recommendation is the oddly named Le Station Bar at 4 quai des Girondin, 13500 Martigues, tel (+33) 4 42 49 32 47. This informal and untouristy brasserie is located by an area formerly used as the bus station (hence the name), and offers much better value than the pricey and rather starchy establishments on the Canal San Sébastien.
The speciality of Martigues (pictured) is poutargue, or boutargue, also known as caviar martégal (Martigues caviar). It's dried and salted mullet roe, which is presented in the form of a sausage coated in wax to preserve it and can be eaten either thinly sliced or grated on pasta.
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