Miramas le Vieux is a rare and rather dramatic example of a mediaeval village perché (hill village) on the edge of the Camargue and the Crau, two of the otherwise flattest regions of western Provence.
Click here to book a hotel in Provence
Its nickname is even Le Quillé, a provençal word which means "high and steep". You have been warned!
Wear comfortable non-slip shoes when you visit and be prepared to climb quite a few slopes and steps. Pictured: the oh-so-aptly named Escalier des soupires (Steps of Sighs).
The climb is well worth it. Miramas le Vieux commands impressive 360 degree views across the countryside, the Berre lake, the Blue Coast and, in the far distance, the Mediterranean.
A THUMBNAIL HISTORY
Miramas le Vieux dates back to the year 964. The land initially belonged to Saint Victor Abbey in Marseille, then to Montmajour Abbey near Arles.
A legacy of huge irrigation works undertaken by the monks, the countryside around the village is unusually green and lush for this part of Provence, with olive groves, vineyards, orchards and grain fields.
The most curious feature of Miramas le Vieux is that, unlike most ancient villages in Provence, the modern town of Miramas did not grow up around it.
In the mid 19th century a railway was built down in the plain and Miramas station became a major transport hub, with train connections to Arles, Avignon and Marseille.
In glorious isolation 3.5 km / 2 miles from the station, Miramas le Vieux became gradually depopulated (it now has several hundred inhabitants). But it's well preserved and retains much of its mediaeval charms.
WHAT TO SEE
Compared to some of the better known villages of the Luberon, especially those on the "Most Beautiful Villages of France" list, Miramas le Vieux is remarkably unspoiled.
You'll find a good sprinkling of bars and restaurants (see below for our recommendations) and one or two artists' galleries.
Watch out for little art-works and sculptures dotted around the village. But the place is not blighted by dozens of souvenir shops.
A short stroll will take in many of the picturesque features of a typical hill village: a Romanesque chapel, a 15th century church whose bell tower you can climb when it's open, a lavoir (public washing trough) and brightly painted houses lining cobbled alleys or clustered around pretty little squares.
Some features reveal the fertility of the land here, such as an ancient olive mill (with three enormous grindstones) and a grain silo carved into the rock.
At the top of the village is a ruined 12th century château and its keep while just along the street, next to the Mairie (Town Hall) is a look-out point with an orientation table.
And, if you dive down the little side alleys, you'll see spectacular views all around the village. Watch out, in particular, for Porte Notre Dame, pictured, an arch in the rock that was once the main entrance into the village.
ALSO OF INTEREST
At the bottom of the hill leading up to Miramas le Vieux is the Parc de la Poudrerie. Formerly the site of the royal gunpowder factory of King Louis XIV, these vast, 118 hectare / 291 acre grounds have been transformed into a nature park, with plenty of opportunities for hiking, picnicking and observing a variety of birds and plants.
Opening hours are very restricted, however, so do check these first on the park's own website before you plan a visit.
This new Grande Randonnée (long-distance footpath) was created to mark the event. The GR2013 passes along the bottom of the hill by Miramas le Vieux and along the Berre lake.
A mediaeval festival is held in Miramas le Vieux for three days at the end of August, with shows, games, events, music, demonstrations of archery and chivalric traditions and so on.
In the modern Miramas, around the station, the town's importance as a railway hub is celebrated during one weekend at the beginning of October with a Fête du Train.
This is a really nice family day out, with dozens of free activities, from games, shows and circus demonstrations to train rides, a peek inside a signal box or the cab of a steam engine and the chance to meet railway workers.
Each year the festival has a different theme, from Star Wars to Harry Potter. Free trains there are laid on, too, from Marseille and Arles. They even provide breakfast and on-board entertainment!
The main Tourist Office for Miramas is right opposite the train station, on avenue Falabrègues, 13140 Miramas. Tel: (+33) 4 90 58 08 24. Website for the Miramas Tourist Office
In July and August a small tourist information point is open in Miramas le Vieux itself.
Note that Miramas le Vieux has no bank or cash dispenser (ATM).
How to get to and from Miramas le Vieux: The modern centre of Miramas is served by two train routes from Marseille.
It is the final stop on the beautiful Blue Coast line and on the faster but much less picturesque inland line via Vitrolles and Rognac. There are also regular rail connections to Arles and Avignon.
However the old village is 3.5 km / 2 miles from the train station and, as much of this route is along a busy road, we don't recommend walking it. So you'll need to take either a taxi from the station or bus no.11 (followed by a ten minute uphill walk to the village). The bus takes about 10 minutes. Click here for the timetable
By car, Miramas Le Vieux is 55 km / 34 miles north-west of Marseille, 45 km / 28 miles west of Aix en Provence and 42 km / 26 miles south-east of Arles.
There are two free car-parks: one at the foot of the village (866 chemin des Pins) and a larger one further down the hill by the Parc de la Poudrerie (1203 chemin des Pins).
Beyond these two parking areas, a barrier seals the central village off from car traffic during the day. Exact timings vary depending on the season.
If you are planning to rent a car, please consider our comparison search engine for all grades of hire car from Smarts to 4x4s and limousines.
Powered by our affiliate partner, it will instantly compare the current rates on offer from all the major suppliers at your chosen location to ensure you get the best deal.
Where to eat and drink: The best restaurant in Miramas le Vieux is La Toupine on the rue Mireille.
It's open all year round with a shady terrace, pictured, overlooking the lake and olive groves for summer and a cosy indoor area with an open fireplace for chilly winter days. Click here to read our full review.
For ice-creams, Le Quillé, right at the top of the village on the place du Château, has quite a reputation in the region. (It has another branch in La Roque d'Anthéron.)
Photo credits: all images © SJ for Marvellous Provence.