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arles10On the first Sunday of July – 1 July in 2018 – the city of Arles is transfigured by a remarkable tradition when hundreds of women, young and old, bring out their most beautiful traditional dresses and finery for the annual Fête du Costume.

The Arles costume is distinguished by its elegance, sophistication and richness. It’s very different from the much simpler, more peasant-like dress that dominates in eastern Provence.

The first Fête du Costume was in 1903 and since then it has gone from strength to strength. Today Arlésiennes of all ages take part in the procession and the culminating ceremony at the Théâtre Antique. The day ends with a show in the dramatic setting of the Roman amphitheatre,

Not to be left out, the menfolk get dressed up too, in a motley range of costumes from top hats and tails to straw boaters or Camargue gardian (cowboy) guise.

The procession begins at 9.30am on the place de la République, and festivities continue throughout the day. As a curtain raiser, there's another beautiful event on Friday 29 June at 8pm: a pegoulado, or torchlight procession, also in costume.

Click here to read more about the Queen of Arles and our own very personal experience of the Fête du Costume.

le castellet circuit paul ricardThe excitement is mounting! This month the Formula One Grand Prix returns to France for the first time in ten years. And it's in Provence, at the Circuit Paul Ricard, pictured, in the pretty hilltop village of Le Castellet, near Toulon.

The event takes place over the weekend of 22-24 June, with the main race on 24 June and you can buy tickets for it here.

Le Castellet staged the Formula One throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but it moved to Magny Cours, in Central France, in 1990.

The Circuit Paul Ricard has been undergoing a huge programme of renovation to prepare for the big event.

Since 2015 the legendary Bol d'Or 24 hour motorcycle race has also returned to the Circuit Paul Ricard. This fun family event is held in mid-September and over 75000 people attended last year.

Finally, if you’re in Marseille on the weekend of 22-24 June, you can experience the thrills of the F1 vicariously. It starts on the Friday at 7pm with a special 90 minute roadshow, with cars racing at high speed around the Old Port.

Expect major traffic disruptions in the city centre on that evening. The British racing star David Coulthard will be among those participating, behind the wheel of a Red Bull RB7.

During the whole weekend the party continues on the J4 esplanade by the MuCEM where there will be free concerts and the race itself broadcast live on 24 June on a giant screen.

mucem ai weiweiWho would have thought that the leading Chinese artist Ai Weiwei had a direct personal connection to Marseille?

But he has, and it's a surprising and revealing one which is explored in a major new exhibition at the MuCEM. It runs until 12 November. Click here to read our full review of this must-see show.

And there's more good news at the MuCEM. Normally closed on Tuesdays, it is open for seven days a week throughout August.

abbaye de snanqueIt's that time of year again! One of Provence's main tourist attractions, the glorious lavender fields, are beginning to burst into bloom, and the summer round of fairs and festivals begins.

The exact timing varies from year to year, and also on altitude. But as a rule of thumb, the lowland areas start turning purple around mid-June, while the higher ones will be in bloom from early July until early August.

Some people will simply want to admire the fields (and snap the odd selfie). But if you want to take part in the festivities, you’ll find something going on somewhere every week from the beginning of July until late August.

The programme varies depending on the town or village. Some such as Ferrassières, near Mont Ventoux, focus on walks, hikes, bike rides and outdoor activities.

Others are giant markets such as the Foire de la Lavande in Digne les Bains. Around 160 artisans and producers converge on this little town for one of the most important fairs in the region.

Most local lavender festivals will feature music, fun activities for children and demonstrations of how to harvest lavender by hand, use a still to extract essential oils or weave a pretty, decorative lavender spindle.

There may be tastings of lavender-flavour food and you're bound to find plenty of lavender and artefacts on sale too.

Digne also hosts another major shindig, the Corso de Lavande in early August, which marks the lavender harvest with a lively carnival procession.

Below is our list of the main lavender festivals and fairs. Click here for our guide to lavender in Provence.

1 July Ferrassières, Drôme Provençale.

8 July Apt, Vaucluse.

15 July Valensole

22 July Banon, Barrême, Alpes de Haite Provence.

29 July Sainte Agnès, Alpes Maritimes

3-6 August Valréas, Vaucluse.

3-7 August Digne les Bains, Alpes de Haute Provence (Corso de Lavande).

15 August Sault, Vaucluse

22-26 August Digne les Bains, Alpes de Haute Provence (Foire de la Lavande).

pelamideSo you still thought Marseille fish cuisine was just about bouillabaisse and sardine barbecues? Wrong! You can enjoy a fantastic variety of fish and shellfish here, and this week we went to a gourmet tasting at the MuCEM to prove it.

The star of the show was pélamide, pictured, a juicy Mediterranean fish sometimes translated as bonito in English. It belongs to the family of "poissons bleus" (blue fish), which also includes herring, mackeral and anchovies.

The French term poissons bleus is a more elegant way of describing what we Anglo Saxons call "oily fish": high in Omega 3, super healthy - and delicious.

Pélamide is one of the bigger blue fish. It's not rare or even particularly expensive, but it doesn't appear all that often at markets or on restaurant menus.

That's partly because the season for it is relatively short: March to June or July only. So grab it now while stocks last.

The tasting at the MuCEM was organised by Gourméditerranée, a very active association of 60-odd chefs set up to promote gastronomic excellence in the region.

It's not just a club for smart restaurants: members also include speciality outlets and even a couple of roving street-food trucks.

Five top chefs organised the pélamide tasting at the MuCEM, led by Alexandre Mazzia, the brilliant, experimental chef at the Michelin-starred AM, our favourite restaurant in Marseille. He used all parts of the fish, a range of cooking methods and condiments from wasabi to raspberry.

pelamide criste marineSébastien Dudast and fellow Michelin star, Gérard Passédat, of Le Môle (the MuCEM's house restaurant) brought in an exquisite concoction, pictured.

Their dish featured two ingredients you're unlikely to find outside Southern Provence: pousse pieds, a little shellfish, and criste marine, a plant a bit like sea asparagus or samphire that grows wild here on rocks along the coast. We go out each spring to gather it near our house: it's superb with fish and meat.

Passédat is one of Marseille's superchefs: his main restaurant, Le petit Nice, is among the very few restaurants in Provence to hold three Michelin stars.

Yet another Michelin laureat, Ludovic Turac of Une Table, au Sud, arrived with a spectacular interpretation of a classic dish, aïoli, perched colourfully on a mirrored tray and looking almost (but not quite!) too good to eat.

Christophe Negrel of Le Lauracée brought his own showpiece dish called "pélamide retour de bassin", which resembled a miniature ship sailing into port and featured wild fennel and poutargue, a fish roe speciality from Martigues.

And Sébastian Richard of the restaurant Le Panier de Sébastien demonstrated a nifty solar cooker, which cooks fish very gently in the heat of the sun. Just the job for a picnic!

five marseille chefsPictured (left to right): Ludovic Turac, Sébastian Richard, Clément Lessoud, Alexandre Mazzia, Sébastian Dugast and Christophe Negrel.

The chefs told us they hadn't conferred beforehand about what to prepare, and each one seemed surprised and deighted to discover what his colleagues had dreamed up.It certainly showed how versatile this humble blue fish can be.

They're all offering either these dishes or daily variants of them at their restaurants over the next few months.

And you may find pélamide at one or two other places in town too, if you're lucky - we've also eaten it a couple of times at On Dine, near the Old Port.

nimes musee romaniteNewly opened in Nîmes, the Musée de la Romanité is one of France's most prestigious new national projects. And one of the most expensive: it costs a cool 38 million €uros.

Designed by the Franco-Brazilian architect Elizabeth de Portzamparc, the spectacular, ultra-modern building, with its rippling glass façade, pictured, sits in the heart of Nîmes, right opposite the ancient arena.

Inside, you can explore the history of one of France's major Roman cities. The Musée de la Romanité has some 25000-odd priceless artefacts in its collection, of which around 5000 are on display. Interactive multi-media installations help bring them alive.

The museum also features an enormous roof terrace garden with panoramic views, landscaped Mediterranean grounds, a 180 seat auditorium, a bookshop, a café and restaurant overseen by the Michelin starred chef Franck Putelat and a temporary show about gladiators (until 24 September).

In short, this is a massive new tourist attraction. And, with it, Nîmes is hoping finally to be recognised as a UNESCO World Hetitage Site (the Pont du Gard and Arles, both just down the road, already boast the coveted label). Website for the Musée de la Romanité

Parades free promenade concert in Aix en ProvenceThe world-famous Aix Music Festival begins in July - but if you are in town a few weeks earlier, don't worry about missing out.

Since 2013 the city has held a curtain-raising event, Aix en Juin, which offers a packed programme of concerts and masterclasses throughout June.

You can also get a sneak free preview of Ariadne auf Naxos, The Magic Flute, Dido and Aeneas and the other big operas in the main festival at public rehearsals. These are extremely popular, so be sure to pre-book a ticket early. In 2018 Aix en Juin runs from 9-30 June.

This mini-festival is aimed at locals. But it is open to everyone. And, best of all, many of the performances are free, if you get Le PASS, available from the Festival box-office.

Le PASS is free for anyone under the age of 30. and costs a mere 20 €uros for everyone else.

They're held both in the city centre and at atmospheric locations all over the surrounding region, including the beautiful Abbaye de Silvacane.

Aix en Juin reaches its climax with Parade[s], a very popular - and, again, free - open-air promenade concert, pictured top left, on the Cours Mirabeau, just before the start of the Festival d'Aix proper.

This year it's on 24 June, features extracts from this year's production of Orfeo and Majnun, starts in the mid-afternoon and continues into the evening. This new multinational commission is an ambitious collaborative project, a tragic love story in English, French and Arabic.

Click here for the programme for Aix en Juin and here to read our full guide to the Festival d'Aix.

rooftop terrace marseilleThere can be few more delicious ways to spend a summer day or night than on one of Marseille's open-air toits terrasses (roof terraces) contemplating the Mediterranean.

There's something for everyone in this most eclectic of cities, whether your thing is sipping a sophisticated cocktail, lingering over lunch or dinner, grooving to the sounds of some of the world's leading DJs, catching an avant-garde art exhibition or even watching a movie.

An improbable major venue is the Terrasses du Port, also known as the R2, the shiny new(-ish) shopping mall in the city's Joliette district near the ferry and cruise ship terminals.

Pictured, this enormous roof terrace on two levels with breathtaking panoramic sea views has been an instant hit: last summer up to 1500 people a night flocked there.

Decorated by leading graffiti artists, it has a packed schedule every night except Mondays until mid-September. The rooftop terrace stays open late - until 2am on some evenings.

Each evening has a different theme from golden oldies and disco to electro and house. If you don't feel like dancing, there's always babyfoot (table football) and arcade games. Details and a link to the ticket office here.

Across town on the south side of the Old Port the five-star Sofitel hotel has one of the most fabulous views in town over the Old Port and the MuCEM.

Its large roof terrace is called the Dantès Sky Lounge (after Edmond Dantès, the hero of Alexandre Dumas's legendary, Marseille-set novel The Count of Monte Cristo). It's open nightly until 2am and has live music on Thursdays and a DJ in attendance on Friday and Saturday evenings.

mucem restaurantDress code: smart and sophisticated. Expect a hefty price tag on the cocktails (with minor nibbles such as peanuts and olives): you're paying here for the stunning view.

Also on this side of the Old Port with similar views, the Rowing Club has a roof terrace that's open all year round. It's open to the public and especially reputed for its (rather pricey) buffet brunches. In the evenings it's open until midnight.

The MuCEM, with its own rooftop restaurant, pictured, Mediterranean garden, open-air performance space, chill-out area with chaises-longues and panoramic walkways has also quickly become a firm favourite with both Marseillais and tourists.

Borderline organises legendary parties in some of the most beautiful locations in Marseille and is particularly famed for its boat discos.

And let's not forget La Friche La Belle de Mai, the cutting-edge arts complex near Saint Charles station which pioneered these rooftop events.

Its truly vast roof terrace launches the 2018 summer season on 1 June and promises a fabulous line-up, from live music from all over the world and film screenings (deckchairs provided) to sundown apéritifs and discos late into the night.

Bring a picnic, or buy a classy takeaway. There are children's games too - and a pétanque court. Best of all, entrance is entirely free!

Finally, those into modern art and architecture should head straight over to Le Corbusier's pioneering modernist apartment block, the Radiant City, where a series of events and exhibitions is planned on its own stunning roof terrace throughout the summer.

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.

Provence has always been a magnet for painters, and its galleries and museums pull out all the stops to celebrate it. A number of huge shows are about to open here, and their variety testifies to the vibrant art scene in the region. Here's our survey of the best events this summer.

With its two prestigious new centres, the LUMA and Vincent van Gogh Foundations, Arles has become an essential destination for art-lovers. Each summer the Fondation Vincent van Gogh stages a major exhibition centred on the master's work.

This year it's called Soleil chaud, soleil tardif (Hot Sun, Late Sun) and explores the relationship of his work to that of other artists, in particular Picasso, who were influenced by the Mediterranean light. It features seven works by each of these men, plus pieces by Alexander Calder, Giorgio De Chirico, Sigmar Polke and many more.

Running concurrently is an exhibition of the 20th century British surrealist painter and war artist Paul Nash. 21 April-28 October.

van gogh skullIn addition to this, one painting by van Gogh, loaned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, remains on display in Arles all year around, changing each spring.

This year it is Crâne (Skull), pictured, painted by Vincent in spring 1887 while studying in Paris. His skull is very different from conventional academic studies and, far from being a traditional memento mori, shimmers with life.

Over at the LUMA is a huge career retrospective devoted to the provocative British artists Gilbert and George. Over 80 works spanning 50 years will be on display.

Also at the LUMA: A Story with Vincent, a series of behind-the-scenes photographs taken on the Arles shoot of an upcoming American film about Vincent van Gogh. Both shows open on 2 July.

And the summer excitement in Arles continues with the International Photography Festival. Click here to read about it and the 2018 programme.

nicolas de stael marseilleAix en Provence is no slouch when it comes to art either. The fabulous Caumont Centre d'Art (a relative newcomer but already one of the city's top tourist attractions) has a show dedicated to the Franco-Russian painter Nicolas de Staël, known for his gorgeous, intensely coloured abstract paintings and use of impasto (very thick paint).

It includes nearly 100 pieces created during his year in Provence in 1953-1954. Pictured: Marseille as seen by de Staël, private collection, © Adagp, Paris. 27 April-23 September.

Meanwhile the Musée Granet, also in Aix, contributes to the current Picasso celebrations all across the South of France with an exhibitions comparing him to the French cubist Francis Picabia. 9 June-23 September.

Speaking of Picasso, the ongoing show at Marseille's Vieille Charité is called Picasso Voyages Imaginaires. It displays exotic pieces by the great Spanish master next to artefacts from Africa, Oceania and South America taken from the gallery's own collections and showing how his art was inspired by work from all over the world.

The exhibitions here are always brilliantly curated and this one has been proving a real blockbuster, so arrive early if you want to catch it. Until 24 June.

In fact there are quite a few interesting shows in Marseille this summer: click here for a more extensive list of what's on and here to read our reviews of Ai Weiwei at the MuCEM and 19th century French masterpieces at the Musée Cantini.

Finally, to see art in an exciting, unconventional venue, check out the Quarries of Lights, near Les Baux de Provence, where Picasso stars yet again in a son et lumière spectacular tracing his relationship to his fellow Spanish masters: Goya, Rusiñol, Zuloaga and Sorolla. Until 6 January 2019.

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