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Get under the skin of Provence

By Dave Hanson

So you’ve been to Provence. You saw lavender fields, you took trips to the Pont du Gard and some of the major wine estates, you soaked sun aplenty at the main Côte d’Azur beaches and even made time to scoot round the three A’s: Arles, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence.

So what now? What else does Provence have to offer?

We begin with Marseille, which doesn’t always get a great press. However, if you want to get under the skin of Provençal life you should not shy away from the rough, tumble and vibrancy of France’s second-largest city.

This is a great year to visit Marseille as it is one of two European Capitals of Culture (along with Košice in Slovakia) for 2013. And what a melting pot of cultures you will find in the city.

Based on its long history as one of the Mediterranean’s primary ports, coupled with France’s previous imperial exploits, Marseille became the entry point for people seeking a better life in France.

The population is made up of Greeks and Italians who made their way to French shores from the end of the 19th century, Russians, Armenians and Corsicans in the early part of the 20th century, and North Africans (Arab and Berber) in later years.

There are cultural and gastronomic delights that originate from all these cultures. Throw in the other significant communities that have settled in the area – Turkish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Maghrebis – and the diversity has become one of this fine city’s major strengths.

This cultural heritage is brought to life in Marseille’s Vieux Port, the natural harbour where the Greeks first landed back in 600 BC. It is fronted by colourful market stalls, North African-style souks and a fish market that has been in existence for centuries. Find your way to Le Panier, a labyrinthine mesh of streets housing various artisan shops and workshops.

To sample a piece of modern life, take the short trip to the beachside Marseille Skatepark where you will see skaters ollie and kick flip their way around this great bowl of a park. You can hire a board or skates and give it a go, if you dare.

If you fancy something a little less adrenaline-fuelled, check out the Opera House, which this year has an even more varied programme than usual including ballet and contemporary dance. For something alternative, make your way to Espace Julien for opérock, Afrobeat, reggae and hip-hop.

With a host of bars, bistros and nightclubs, your evening can go off with as much of a bang as you like. For a jazz, check out the upstairs hideaway of La Caravelle, with its great portside terrace. Or mingle with bohemian types at L’Intermédiare where there are regular music sessions from Blues musicians or new bands. There are also plenty of techno, house and hip-hop bars and clubs in which you can dance your way into the next morning.

If wine is your thing, one of the finest lists anywhere is available at the too-cool-for-school wine bar / restaurant, La Part des Anges. Or if you are a fan of pastis, venture to La Maison du Pastis, where you will find almost 100 varieties of the stuff.

After a day trudging the streets, a visit to a hammam is the perfect way to unwind. La Bastide des Bains would be my recommendation: with its authentic-looking stone and mosaic interior, scent of eucalyptus and ambient candlelit rooms, it’s basically impossible not to relax.

Once you have had your fill of Marseille, it is a fair bet the countryside will beckon. And while there are many well-trodden paths through rural Provence, if you really want to get away from the tourist trails, you should get on a bike.

There are numerous options for cycling holidays in the Provence region, either in organised groups or travelling independently. Virtually any starting point will allow for varied routes that take in a fine mix of manmade and rustic delights. The countryside is varied and engaging and there are numerous hamlets and villages to cycle to and through, many of which date back to Roman times.

Commencing in the Var Department of Provence, cycling from near the impressive Cistercian abbey, L’abbaye du Thoronet – one of three such abbeys in Provence known collectively as the ‘Three Sisters of Provence’ – can lead to a rewarding cycling trip.

The natural beauty of lakes, forests and gorges complements the many ruined mediaeval castles, Gothic churches and Renaissance chateaux in the area. There are many options for excursions if you fancy a day or two out of the saddle, such as kayaking through the Gorges du Verdon which is like being in the midst of a Lord of the Rings film set.

Lakeside villages, such as Bauduen, make perfect stopping off points to refuel and relax. Cycle on beside fields of lavender (of course), poppies and a plethora of crops which make you feel as if you’re gliding through a giant patchwork quilt.

Stock up on Pompe à l’Huile (sweet olive bread), Banon (goat’s cheese ripened in chestnut leaves) and vins Côtes de Provence (local tipples of choice) and set off on two wheels to pick the perfect spot for a picnic.

* Written by Dave Hanson on behalf of Headwater.com, recommended by 101 Holidays for cycling and walking holidays across France, Europe and further afield.

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