Friday, December 31, 2010

Round-the-Clock Eats and Drinks in Aix en Provence

A long-established, much cherished local institution, Le Cintra, a simple, welcoming brasserie a few metres from La Rotonde is extraordinarily cheap by Aix standards, has a vast menu and remains open and serves hot food round the clock: 24/7, 365 days a year. And that includes New Year's Eve, when it lays on an incredibly cheap gastronomic set meal. Click here to read more.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Mazarin Quarter in Aix en Provence: a Goldmine Built on a Swamp

One winter's day in early 1646, Michel Mazarin, the Archbishop of Aix, received what amounted to a licence to print money: a letter from King Louis XIV authorising him to expand the city. The result was the Mazarin Quarter, Aix's answer to the Marais in Paris. Like it, this ultra-elegant residential district was built on marshland just outside what was then the city walls. And it swiftly became the most desirable address in town. Click here to read more.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Travelling by Train to Aix en Provence

The new TGV high-speed train station for Aix en Provence has been a roaring success, much more so than originally projected. This has all sorts of implications for people travelling to or from the city by rail. Click here to read more.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Cézanne with Bling: Aix en Provence's First Boutique Hotel

The Hotel Cézanne is one of the very many spots in Aix to trade on the name of the city's most famous son, though you do wonder what the sober and serious-minded Paul might have made of it.

The hotel website extols its "discreet luxury" but in fact the decor could better be described as brash and bling - in a knowing, post-modern way, of course. Faux zebra chairs sit in a lobby throbbing - like the breakfast room - in riotous shades of puce and deep crimson. Click here to read more.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

From Aix en Provence to Brooklyn, New York: An Extraordinary, Visionary 'Nightingale'

Robert Lepage's visionary interpretation of Igor Stravinsky's opera, The Nightingale, featuring a flooded orchestra pit and Asian shadow puppets, receives its US premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in March 2011. The eccentric French-Canadian director talked about the extraordinary concept behind his production when it played at the Aix en Provence arts festival in the summer of 2010. Click here to read more.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Legendary Brasserie of Aix en Provence

No visit to Aix is truly complete without a trip to Les Deux Garçons, the city's legendary brasserie known informally as the 2Gs which has been frequented by everyone from Paul Cézanne, Edith Piaf and Winston Churchill to Hugh Grant and George Clooney. You don't go there for its food or its service (though both are perfectly adequate) but to soak up its rich history, marvel at the ornate First Empire interior and bask on the terrace, a peerlessly pleasant spot simply to sit and watch the passing parade. Click here to read more.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Little Duck's House That's a Cosy Place for People Too

Owned by Steffi and Youssef, a German-Egyptian couple, La Maison du Petit Canard (yes, it does mean "The Little Duck's House") is tucked away at the end of a small pedestrian alley on the edge of Marseille's Panier (Old Town), a short walk from the Old Port. The four rooms, each occupying a floor in one of the Panier's traditional steep, rickety, narrow houses, are studio apartments named after characters in Marcel Pagnol's Marius-Fanny-César trilogy. Click here to read more.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Best Sweets and Treats of Provence

Provence, with its sun-soaked fruits and nuts, aromatic herbs and perfumed honeys and, not least, its exotic North African influences, is perfectly poised to produce intensely flavoured, wholly irresistible treats, and a tempting array of them can be sampled at the Market of 13 Desserts, which runs in Aix en Provence from 16 to 24 December.

The market is geared to the great provençal Christmas Eve supper, of which any or all of the sweetmeats mentioned here can form part - though of course they can be enjoyed all year round. These are some of the best regional specialities from all over Provence. Click here to read more.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Where to Sleep in a Modernist Masterpiece

The Hotel Le Corbusier in Marseille, designed by the controversial architect, and retaining many of its original features, is an essential and memorable experience for anyone interested in Le Corbu and his legacy. It's situated on the third floor of the Radiant City, the visionary apartment block (also known as The Madman's House by sceptical and irreverent locals) which the architect designed and built after the Second World War: Click here to read more.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Cours Mirabeau: Parisian chic in the Provençal Sun

The Cours Mirabeau is one of France's great boulevards. The first thing you're likely to see when you arrive in the city, it cuts a very classy dash of Parisian Left Bank chic and intellectual sophistication under the sun of Provence. Click here to read more.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Gallery: In Praise of Fanny

There is one in virtually every sports bar in the South of France: a beautiful bare-bottomed Fanny. Sometimes she is decorously hidden behind a curtain. But, if you emerge from a pétanque match at the wrong end of a 13:0 score, you have "done a Fanny" and the curtain will be pulled back to reveal those rosy cheeks awaiting your kiss. Click here to read more.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Gallery: The Fountains of Aix en Provence

Built, as its name hints, on a hot spring, Aix en Provence is often called the City of a Thousand Fountains - and they come in all shapes and sizes. Enjoy a leisurely stroll round this beautiful town as a foretaste of pleasures to come. Click here to read more.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Marseille: the Must-See Churches

In its millennia of history Marseille has accumulated very many churches, of which three are outstanding and not to be missed. Click here to read more

Sunday, November 28, 2010

La Bonne Mère: the Much-Loved Symbol of Marseille

Part lighthouse, part fortress, part sacred place of pilgrimage, La Bonne Mère, as she is universally and affectionately referred to, is the symbol of Marseille. Built on the city's highest point, it can constantly be glimpsed along streets and through archways from the moment you emerge out of Saint Charles Station. Illuminated by night, it dominates the bay like a beacon. The magnificent setting, the exotic, Byzantine interior and its firm place in the affections of the local community - not just Catholics - make it an unmissable destination for anyone who wants to understand something of the Marseille spirit. Click here to read more.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Seafood Feasts on the Blue Coast

There is almost nothing people in Provence like better than a thumping good street party - unless it's a street party with something delicious to eat. And who cares if it's the middle of winter? Throughout January and February, in villages on the beautiful Blue Coast (see below for dates), thousands gather on Sunday mornings to tuck into fresh seafood. Amazingly, the sun usually comes out to beam on the festivities. Click here to read more.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Petanque: Fun Facts

Petanque-playing monks, the Marcel Pagnol film where a game stops a tram in its tracks, boules as offensive weapons.... these, and more fun facts about the newly fashionable sport. Click here to read more.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A North African Ryad in the Heart of Marseille

Marseille's North African connection inspires this exotic boutique hotel, a run-down four-storey town house transformed into a gorgeously designed oriental ryad (a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden) with nine variously themed bedrooms, a restaurant.... Click here to read more.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Great Suppers, 13 Desserts and Other Christmas Treats

Forget roast turkey with all the trimmings and mince pies: Provence has its own distinctive, very different but equally delicious eating traditions at Christmas. Click here to read more.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Let the Train Take the Strain

Travelling by train to Marseille? There are plenty of rail connections on offer at Saint Charles, the city's main station which forms the southern terminus of the French high-speed TGV network and is served by five other conventional lines. Click here to read more.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Little Fishing Port That Inspired a Stream of Masterpieces

For over half a century, L'Estaque, an unassuming, even scruffy little fishing port outside Marseille, was a magnet for some of the greatest artists of the age, including Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Raoul Dufy and Georges Braque. Yet these painters, when they looked at L'Estaque, saw very different things. This gallery of 18 masterworks show just how different. Click here to read more.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Secrets of the Cicada: Fifteen Fun Facts about Provence's Symbolic Insect

Love them or loathe them, you just can't escape cicadas, or cigales as they're known locally, if you come to Provence in high summer. But there's much more to the cicada than just a raucous din. Click here to read more.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Fishing Village in the Heart of Marseille

Several small, pretty creeks just off the Corniche Kennedy have miraculously preserved their typical  character. Clusters of fishermen's cottages and brightly coloured traditional fishing boats huddle in a setting apparently unchanged for centuries yet a stone's throw from busy freeways, swish villas and high-rise housing blocks. The whole stretch of coast sums up Marseille's capacity to blend old and new, rich and poor. The most celebrated creek is the Vallon des Auffes - the name comes from Click here to read more.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Eating in The Belly of the Architect: a Great Restaurant in Le Corbusier's Radiant City

An aura of modernist cool surrounds Le Ventre de L'Architecte, or The Belly of The Architect, situated in the bowels of The Radiant City, the pioneering "housing unit" created by Le Corbusier between 1945 and 1952. Click here to read more.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Saucers of Wheat, Lamb Processions, Comical Passion Plays: Celebrating Christmas in Provence

The Christmas season in Provence is uncommonly long - it runs almost two months - and embraces a host of vibrant and curious local traditions. Click here to read more.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

New Low-Cost Flights anounced to Marseille-Provence Airport

In spite of Ryanair's much-publicised recent decision to withdraw its hub from Marseille-Provence airport, a number of new routes opened up this week from Marignane: to Düsseldorf, Rome... Click here to read more.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Gourmet Teas and Coffees on Marseille's Canebière

With its wrought-iron Art Deco style canopy, the ornate crimson and gold frontage of Torréfaction Noailles is the portal to a cool, tiled interior, where a fragrant wave of coffee and exotic teas assaults your nostrils. One counter sells patisserie; another has chocolate and local speciality sweetmeats: calissons d'Aix (a glazed sweet made with powdered almonds and preserved melon) and Marseille navettes (boat-shaped biscuits perfumed with orange flower essence). Sit on a high stool at the counter to sample one of 12 types of coffee or 50 teas.... Click here to read more.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Big Blue: Where to Scuba Dive in Provence

Jacques Cousteau popularised deep sea diving in Provence and today it's one of the region's favourite sports. There are excellent places to scuba dive - and to learn to dive - all along the Mediterranean and many centres offer baptêmes de plongée (trial dives) for absolute beginners. The locations particularly recommended by divers Click here to read more.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Where Chopin Slept with George Sand.....

The Grand Hotel Beauvau is one of the oldest in Marseille and superlatively located. The view over the Old Port could barely be bettered, the tourist office is next door, there are dozens of restaurants and shops close by and the Metro is a stone's throw away. This elegant old establishment has charm, class and history in spades. Chopin stayed here with George Sand; so did many writers including.... Click here to read more.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The OM Café: Football Heaven on Marseille's Old Port

If you can't make it to the Stade Vélodrome, the OM Café, situated in a prime location at the bottom of La Canebière opposite the Old Port, is the place to watch an Olympique de Marseille match live on the 13 plasma screens (arrive very early to secure a table). This is not your common or garden scruffy sports bar. Taken over in 2006 by René Faurie, a local restaurateur of renown..... Click here to read more.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Château d'If: Marseille's Answer to Alcatraz

The Château d'If was Marseille's answer to Alcatraz: a brooding island-fortress-prison which has played host to some extraordinary guests: victims of religious persecution, degenerate young roués, anti-royalists and revolutionaries and, most famously (and fictionally), Alexandre Dumas père's great romantic hero, the Count of Monte-Cristo. Click here to read more.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fruity, Full-Bodied, Great to Lay Down: the Wines of Northern Provence

The wines of northern Provence are very different customers from their cousins on the coast. Mainly rosés, the southern provençal wines are crisp, dry, light and fruity. The northerners, by contrast, tend to be rich, spicy, full-bodied, dark reds that can be very high in alcohol - as high as 15% - from those long, arid summers baking in the fierce sun. Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Côtes du Rhône Villages, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise: even the names are irresistibly evocative. This is a guide to the luscious, spicy wines of Northern Provence. Click here to read more.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Is This the Restaurant with the Best View of Marseille?

The main reason to visit Le Chalet, an informal open-air restaurant in the grounds of the Jardin du Pharo in Marseille, is its incredible 180 degree panorama across the Old Port. It's perched high on a mound at the neck of the port, so you can keep tabs on all the maritime traffic, and the terrace is small enough for nobody to end up very far from the view. Arrive at midday or at 2pm, when the best tables become available again for the second sitting. A stone's throw away is the Sofitel, with its posh, Michelin-starred Les Trois Forts but at Le Chalet you can enjoy the same vista for a fraction of the cost. Click here to read more.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Provence: The Ten Best Movies

 The fabulous landscapes and remarkable characters of Provence have inspired some great movies - and so if you can't make it there this winter, what better than to snuggle down and dream of the South with a classic DVD? Here are the ten films that have best captured all the very varied essences of Provence.

Click here to read more.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Marseille: The Radiant City, A Madman's Vision?

It's known poetically as the Radiant City, prosaically as the Housing Unit and irreverently by locals as La Maison du Fada (The Madman's House). Whatever you like to call it, Le Corbusier's pioneering, modernist construction is more than just another block of flats. It's a vertical township in its own right.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris was born in Switzerland in 1887, but his heart was, as he says, profoundly Mediterranean (he died at his cabanon, or beach house, on the Côte d'Azur in 1965). He took the pseudonym Le Corbusier - adapted from his grandfather's name, Lecorbésier, and meaning, roughly "the crow-like one" - in 1920 and, over the years, turned his hand to many things: painting, sculpting, furniture designing and, above all, urban planning. Published in 1935, La Cité Radieuse (The Radiant City) articulated his radical ideas on this subject. Click here to read more.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Marcel Pagnol's Favourite Watering Hole on Marseille's Old Port

The iconic bar of Marseille, the Bar de la Marine was the setting for Marcel Pagnol's famous trilogy of plays and, subsequently, films titled Marius, Fanny and César. These bittersweet, romantic dramas tell of the love affair between Fanny, a shellfish seller on the Old Port, and Marius, the bar-owner's son, who impregnates her, then runs off to sea.

Noisy card games are played (view the classic scene from Marius here), much pastis is drunk, the sun blazes while the sea casts its irresistible spell and the vibrant, warm maritime community helps Fanny overcome her problems. Pagnol was born in nearby Aubagne and made his name when Marius was first performed at the Théâtre de Paris in 1929. No wonder that the stories are suffused in nostalgia for his Southern homeland. Click here to read more.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Weird and Wonderful Provençal Santons

Santons are not just about the Holy Family and picturesque peasants (click here to read an article about traditional santons). Some santon-makers are keen to give them a cheeky contemporary spin. Here are some of the strange, surprising and amusing creations you may encounter on your travels in Provence. Click here to read more.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Marseille: The Palais Longchamp, A Monument Built On Water

Despite the name, this is not a palace but an extravagant, extraordinary monument to the glory of water and its  indispensible importance to Marseille ever since the city was founded by the Greeks as a trading port in 600 BC. With an average of only two days of rain a month in the midsummer, drought has been a perennial problem for the city (it is, of course, the central theme of Marcel Pagnol's famous stories, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources). Click here to read more.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Light, Pink, Crisp: The Wines of Southern Provence

Provence got its priorities right good and early. Wine has been made here for at least 2,600 years, making it the oldest wine-producing region of France. And, as with so much else about the local culture, its distinctive nature has been shaped by the successive waves of invaders and immigrants who have come to the region, including Greeks, Romans, Gauls, Catalans and Savoyards, all of whom introduced a very large variety of tastes, techniques and grape types.  Click here to read more.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Santons and Christmas Cribs of Provence

The Santons Fair on the Canebière in Marseille is one of the city's most popular visitor attractions in the early winter - and there are many more such events around Southern France. But these santons are not simply tourist trinkets; they are an authentic and venerated folk tradition, and many provençal homes to this day maintain elaborate cribs. Click here to read more.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Marseille: Trams, Trains, Buses, Bikes and Boats

It's really only on foot that you best absorb the atmosphere of Marseille. But when energy flags, or your destination is too far, or the climb up the hill to the top of the Old Town in the midday sun is just too much of an ordeal, there's always the city's excellent public transport system and a wide range of further options aimed at tourists.  Click here to read more.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Football Gods of Olympique de Marseille

The French are football-mad and none more so than the Marseillais: the Olympique de Marseille (OM for short) occupies a central place in the city's cultural landscape. Founded in 1899, it remains the most decorated club in French football history and the only one to win the UEFA Champions League, in 1992-3. And before long the team will have a brand-new stadium to play in. Click here to read more.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

La Samaritaine: A Marseille Institution

One of the last of the old-style brasseries on the Old Port, La Samaritaine, which celebrates its centenary this year, is positively steeped in history. The premises, built in 1860, started life as a department store (no relation to the celebrated store of the same name in Paris) and were relaunched as a brasserie after the shop closed down in 1910. Click here to read more.

The Beautiful Blue Coast Train Line

The dramatic topography of the terrain west and north of Marseille - rugged hills with villages snuggled in deep limestone valleys - forces the road to loop sharply inland. The railway line, on the other hand, hugs the coast closely, often with a precipitous drop down to the sea, as it passes through 23 tunnels and 18 spectacular viaducts representing a stupendous feat of engineering.  Click here to read more.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Tarot de Marseille

The Magician, the Hermit, the Hanged Man, the Wheel of Fortune and the controversial Papesse: these are some of the mysterious and metaphorical cards in the word-famous Tarot de Marseille. Click here to read more.

The Market at Noailles, Marseille: a Multi-Cultural Feast

Duck down a narrow side-street off Marseille's Canebière, and you're instantly in another world. Swathes of multi-coloured African fabrics, mangos, loose spices, cheap sets of boules and couscousières, bootleg cigarettes: all these, and much more, can be found in this crowded, chaotic, cheerful and thoroughly cosmopolitan market. Click here to read more.

A Brief History of Petanque

You don't have to be an old, pastis-swigging provençal guy in a flat cap to play pétanque. The sport can be enjoyed by people of all ages and levels of expertise: a reported 17 million French people do it just for fun, but it has caught on worldwide with spectacular success. Bankers play it in New York, it's an official sport of the Thai army and, founded in 1958, the Fédération Internationale de Pétanque et Jeu Provençal claims to have 600,000 members and national chapters from 86 countries. Click here to read more.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Marseille - The Panier Old Town

Surging up from the north quay of the Old Port, its tall, narrow houses draped with washing lines and criss-crossed by steep steps with gutters running down the middle, Marseille's Old Town, or Panier, is suffused in history. This was the site first settled by the Greeks who founded the city of Massalia, as it was known then, in 600 BC and has welcomed successive waves of immigration ever since, initially from Italy and Corsica, more recently from everywhere from South America and North Africa to Vietnam and the Comoro Islands, near Madagascar.  Click here to read more.

Monday, October 11, 2010

White Water Rafting Down The Ubaye River

With over 50 km of rapids, the wild Ubaye river in the north of Provence is regarded as one of the best and most beautiful in France for white water rafting. The scenery mixes Mediterranean luxuriance with Alpine cragginess and racing along the river in an inflatable boat allows an intimate view of it that you'll never see from the road. Will you be able to enjoy it? Well, some images of white water rafting make the sport look truly terrifying, but - while this will never be a sedate and relaxing ride - the Ubaye runs present different levels of difficulty, starting with level 2 which is comfortably within the abilities of beginners and young children (rafters are required to confirm that they're able to swim, however).  Click here to read more.

Marseille - The Best Restaurants

Over the last decade, a wave of bright young chefs, mostly in their thirties, has invaded Marseille and transformed its culinary scene (pictured: Alexandre Mazzia at Le Ventre de L'Architecte). The city has a restaurant with three Michelin stars (Le Petit Nice) and another three (L'Epuisette, Péron and Une Table, au Sud) with one star. But, in truth, you can eat extremely well at even a modest restaurant.  The distinctive local style of cooking focusses on simple, fresh, healthy Mediterranean ingredients: low on the meat, animal fats and heavy sauces of traditional French cuisine, high on vegetables and fish. And it's all spiced up with influences from the city's successive waves of immigrants, in particular Italian, North African, Caribbean and Chinese. Today, then, it goes without saying that Marseille is not just about bouillabaisse.  Click here to read more.