AubagneAubagne 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 and porcelain ever since the Greeks landed in the region in 600 BC. Today there are around 30 active ceramics workshops in the town.

Many of the top ones are a little out of the centre. But the Cité de l’art santonnier Thérèse Neveu can be found right in the heart of the Old Town, behind the Saint Sauveur church, at 4 cour de Clastres, 13400 Aubagne. Website for the Cité de l’art santonnier Thérèse Neveu.

It's a museum of ceramics and santons (traditional Christmas crib figurines) and holds regular special exhibitions.

It will also shortly be the new home of the Little World of Marcel Pagnol, a charming (and free) installation of 200-odd clay santons acting out scenes from the life, books and movies of the Aubagne-born writer Marcel Pagnol. Click here for a review of The Little World of Marcel Pagnol, pictured.

A scene from The Little World of Marcel PagnolA short walk away is one of Aubagne's most prestigious potteries. Ravel has been owned by the same family for five generations and produces large, modern terracotta garden pots. It offers free factory visits on Thursday mornings. 8 avenue des Goums, 13400 Aubagne. Tel (+33) 4 42 82 42 00.

Other 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. Le Moulin à Huile is at 1280 RN26 quartier Napollon, 13400 Aubagne. Tel: (+33) 4 42 03 81 03.

Pottery cigaleSouvenir alert! Aubagne is the place to buy a giant pottery cigale, or cicada. This emblem of Provence was devised in 1895 by the Aubagne-based ceramicist Louis Sicard, and many locals hang one on the front of their houses. 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 two best times of year to see these are between November and December, when all the santons are set out in preparation for Christmas, and in July and August, when santonniers converge on the town for a santons fair.

Every second year in August (in odd-numbered years), Aubagne also hosts Argilla, the largest open-air ceramics fair in Europe, which attracts up to 100,000 visitors.

In 2017 it marked its 14th edition and ran from 5-6 August. Spain was the "guest of honour". Entrance to all events and exhibitions was free.

Marcel Pagnol, pictured below, lived only briefly in Aubagne. But he immortalised it, and the surrounding countryside, in such classic 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. A bust of the writer / film-maker sculpted by the santonnier Daniel Scaturro stands in front of the building.

marcel pagnolInside, 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 his first three years, 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.

Aubagne's old town has been the focus of a major and ongoing restoration programme and now makes for a very enjoyable walking tour 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.

The Garlaban mountain, AubagneYou 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.

They will offer you breathtaking views across its starkly beautiful landscapes peppered with olive trees and Mediterranean oak and perfumed with rosemary, thyme and other wild herbs.

Large-scale map of the Aubagne and La Ciotat regionYou 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.

They 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.

You'll have noticed by now that 1895 was a rather big year for Aubagne, which has launched a festival called La Belle Époque in honour of Pagnol, those famous cicadas, breakthroughs in aviation and other technology and general all-round nostalgia. Family fun guaranteed. It's held in mid-May.

The hand of Captain DanjouAlso 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 2000 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.

Entrance free (closed Mondays and Thursdays). Website for the Museum of the Foreign Legion.

Camerone Day at AubagneIn 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. Website for the Janot distillery.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

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.

Insider tip for AubagneYou 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 and 105 minutes.

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.100 from the place Castellane. The journey time is 30 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.

Aubagne tramwayRené and his friends figure prominently on the different designs for the various cars on the Aubagne tramway. Local children helped create them.

The system opened in 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.

 

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