Aubagne is a refreshingly un-touristy town a few kilometres from Marseille. But even if it doesn’t show up in many guides there are lots of little things to love about this place.
First up is the author and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol who was born in Aubagne. The town and the raw landscapes of the Massif du Garlaban behind echo with scenes from Paignol’s books and movies.
Then there’s Aubagne’s pottery tradition, and the prized “santons” figurines that have been hand-crafted in the town since the Revolution. Aubagne is a place to slow down and take walks beside olive groves, vineyards and garrigue scrub. But all the time, Marseille and the stupendous Calanques National Park will be at your doorstep.
Lets explore the best things to do in Aubagne:
1. Maison Natale de Marcel Pagnol
The 20th-century author, playwright and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol was born at this 19th-century Bourgeois house on Cours Barthélemy.
Pagnol’s novels and plays are still on the curriculum at French schools and he remains part of the national consciousness.
In 2003 his parents’ apartment was restored to its late-19th-century appearance, with period furniture and ornaments belonging to the family.
There’s a projection room showing clips from his movies, and a gallery of portraits, photographs and letters for a touching glimpse of Pagnol’s early years.
2. Musée de la Légion Etrangère
Aubagne has had a garrison for the First Foreign Regiment of the French Foreign Legion since 1962. And you can enter the Viénot Barracks to visit the museum about this legendary branch of the French Army.
You’ll inspect weapons, uniforms and medals going back to the foundation of the legion in 1831. In the Salle des Campagnes there are 30 showcases portraying the various campaigns in which the legion has fought, from Mexico to the Crimea.
Meanwhile the Salle d’Honneur has exhibits about King Louis Philippe, who founded the legion, and Général Rollet, who shaped it into the force we know today.
Aubagne has been a pottery town for hundreds of years, and is known specifically for two items: The santons are terracotta figurines sculpted for nativity scenes after the Revolution and poking gentle fun at the clergy.
The cast of characters in these nativity scenes is massive, numbering 55 in an authentic Provençal arrangement.
And then there’s the iconic ceramic cicada, which you won’t help but notice around Aubagne.
This was designed by the ceramicist Louis Sicard in 1895 when he was commissioned to design a typical Provençal gift for a tile manufacturer to give to his clients.
It started out as a paperweight for desks, but now adorns colourful kitchenware, broaches and much more.
These make excellent souvenirs and there’s no shortage of shops in Aubagne where you buy them.
4. Ateliers Thérèse Neveu
If reading about Aubagne’s pottery tradition has piqued your interest you can come to these studios and exhibition centre to find out more.
The attraction is named for Thérèse Neveu, an early-20th-century santon-maker, whose work was praised by the contemporary celebrities like Frédéric Mistral.
The galleries put on lovingly-curated temporary exhibitions showing off the know-how of Aubagne’s ceramicists.
Up to March 2017 there was a show dedicated to musician santons, that is nativity characters depicted playing musical instruments, with pieces dating as far back as the 1700s.
5. Petit Monde de Marcel Pagnol
Marcel Pagnol and Aubagne’s ceramics industry join forces at this museum.
It will put a smile on the face anyone who knows Pagnol’s works, rendering characters from his books, plays and movies into figurines.
There are more than 200 pieces and the various scenes recreated are accompanied by audio snippets from films like La Gloire de mon Père, La Fille de Puisatier, Marius and Fanny.
Even if you’re new to Marcel Pagnol you may recognise the actors who played these characters, like Emmanuelle Béart and Gérard Depardieu.
6. Santons Maryse di Landro
By now you may have caught the santons bug.
So if you’re excited to see more you can stop by this atelier and museum.
The workshop is on the first floor, and you can take a tour to see this 200-year-old craft that has been passed down from parent to child.
Upstairs is the museum, with 400 santons arranged in a variety of vignettes: There’s a nativity scene, an image from the life of Jesus, a romantic recreation of Aubagne as it used to be, a game of pétanque, Toulon’s Prison ships and a classic Provençal wedding.
7. Massif du Garlaban
Pagnol was inspired by these dusty hills outside Aubagne, which are laid with aromatic garrigue scrub.
If you know La Gloire de mon Père and Le Château de ma Mère you may be motivated to visit the Grotte de Grosibou and the Grotte des Romans, which are at the Pic du Taoumé.
There’s also the enormous bulk of the Rocher du Garlaban, which rises to 714 metres over both the town and the Huveaune Valley.
The Phocaeans used this rock as a seamark on the way to Marseille 2,600 years ago.
8. Domaine de la Font de Mai
Also on the Pagnol itinerary in the Garlaban is this lovely old estate.
It’s the trailhead for most of the local walks, with 100 hectares sprawling with gardens, woodland and rugged garrigue countryside.
The farmhouse and outbuildings are a superb snapshot of traditional farming in Provence, and humble rural life in the region at the start of the 20th century.
There’s an interpretation trail running through the estate with boards teaching kids and adults about the apiary, vineyards, irrigation, olives and vines.
Between April and December there are also special activities like nature walks and stargazing in the evenings.
9. Distillerie Janot
The anise-flavoured liqueur, pastis is still a pillar of Provençal identity.
And in Aubagne you can get a perspective on how it’s made at the Distillerie Janot.
You might be surprised to learn that most pastis isn’t distilled, but is instead made with base alcohol infused with star anise essence.
You’ll also find out how pastis differs from that other mythic French drink, absinthe.
The tour is brief, lasting 30 minutes and you’ll need to consult Janot well in advance.
But you can visit the factory shop at any time to pick up a bottle or two.
10. Other Outdoor Activities
That romantic Provence countryside around Aubagne is also coursed by bridleways and cycle tracks.
The local tourist board has devised a 28.5-kilometre loop that takes in the towns and sleepy local villages of Auriol, La Bouilladisse , Belcodène , Peypin and La Destrousse.
So you’ll coast through vineyards and olive groves, and can stop off for coffee or lunch at a restaurant terrace.
You could also see the Pays d’Aubagne on four legs, and there are eight stables and equestrian centres in the vicinity providing guided treks, carriage rides and even renting out ponies or donkeys by the hour.
11. Calanques National Park
Aubagne is just off the northern cusp of this astonishing coastal landscape.
The calanques are essentially a precipitous mountain range, the Massif des Calanques, colliding with the Mediterranean.
This gives rise to white limestone creeks, hundreds of metres high and plummeting to the sea.
At water level a few of these have little coves completely shielded from the elements and a dream for swimming and snorkelling.
You take on the landscape by road on the serpentine D141 or on foot.
But the best perspective is probably from the water via a cruise from La Ciotat, Cassis or Marseille.
12. Cap Canaille
Literally the climax of the Route des Crêtes on the D141 is Cap Canaille, the highest sea cliff in France, 363 metres above the Mediterranean.
It also ranks as the second highest in Europe, just behind the Slieve League in Ireland.
There’s a car park on the D141 with a short track to the lookout where you’ll be able to take photos and drink in one of the most heart-lifting scenes in the South of France.
Cap Canaille is also a wonder to be seen from the water, as the typical white stone of the Calanques is crowned with a high band of bright red detrital limestone.
This cute holiday resort is tucked in a gap in the Calanques, 15 minutes south of Aubagne.
There are two main beaches, Plage du Corton and Plage de la Grand Mer, both of which are gorgeous and have views of the epic seascapes along the coast.
You can also use Cassis as a stepping stone for adventures into the Calanques, booking kayak tours or hiring a paddleboard to marvellous coves like the Calanque d’En-Vau and the Calanque de Port Pin.
But you’ll also want to spend time in the resort, especially around the old port, which is set off by the rugged peaks behind and has a tempting line of seafood restaurants on its quays.
You’ll only need 20 minutes to reach the waterfront at France’s second city.
Marseille is also the oldest city in the country, going back 2,600 years, and for all its time it’s been a crossroads for cultures from around the Mediterranean and the wider world.
This is the feeling you’ll get at the Vieux Port, a massive rectangular harbour that was the hub of trade for millennia.
And then you have to cut into Le Panier, an enchanting neighbourhood of ochre-walled houses with blue-painted shutters on steep, bending streets.
And the best way to encounter 21st-century Marseille is the street market in Noailles where local produce and spices and street food from around the world are in one place.
15. Local Food
One of the delights of being in a rural place like this is the amount of authentic local producers you can visit either for tours or to buy wares straight from the farm.
There are apiaries making and selling Provençal honey, and olive mills pressing Provence’s AOC olive oil.
You could also visit the Cabro d’Oro dairy, which makes Chèvre du Rove goats’ cheese.
At Aubagne’s restaurants and brasseries the menus will feature Provence classics like bouillabaisse, salade niçoise, ratatouille, all with modern updates at more contemporary eateries.