Travel: Why the South of France is full of Christmas spirit

Cours Mirabeau in Provence.
Cours Mirabeau in Provence.
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It might not be the obvious location to count down to Christmas, but Lindsay Pantry finds Provence has festive charm in spades.

Think of the South of France and blue skies, soaring temperatures, azure seas and blistering sunshine immediately spring to mind.

It's the perfect time of year to explore Provence.

It's the perfect time of year to explore Provence.

But if you are looking to soak up some Christmas spirit with a European city break, look no further than Provence.

Thanks to a new Easyjet route from Manchester, Marseille-Provence is just over an hour and a half away, and steeped with festive traditions, culture, and good food, it makes for a break to remember.

With four days to spend exploring the area, I split my time between between Aix-en-Provence, a city steeped in history just a short drive north of the airport, and the bustling city port of Marseille.

The two cities are only around 20 miles apart, but make for quite different trips.

The town hall at Aix-en-Provence'.

The town hall at Aix-en-Provence'.

Aix, a compact university city founded by the Romans, was made famous as the home of the painter Paul Cezanne, and those familiar with his work will find his paintings come to life in front of their very eyes as the ochres, blues and greens of his palette jump out and paint the countryside.

A guided tour of the centre saw me follow in Cezanne’s footsteps, tracing the journey he made twice a day in his later years, from the city centre to his home on the hills on the outskirts, which has now been turned into a museum after it was gifted to the city by American John Rewald.

While very little of Cezanne’s work can be seen in the city, its image is everywhere, none less than in the mind’s eye when you look across to Mont Sainte-Victoire, painted by the artist more than 30 times and the final resting place of his admirer, Pablo Picasso.

His name too, is emblazoned on everything from a restaurant to a cinema, and my home for two nights, the four star Hotel Cezanne, a boutique hotel in the city centre. Very tastefully decorated, it proved to be a great base for exploring on foot.

I was lucky enough to discover the newly opened Restaurant Mickael Feval, where the art on the walls (which is for sale), is outdone by the beautiful creations on the plates. The feast was a good warm up for the following day’s activity, a crash course in Provencal cooking.

I met Gilles from Provence Gourmet early for a tour of Aix’s markets, where we picked up beautiful fresh ingredients for a traditional Provencal Christmas meal. We then drove to his home, a hilltop villa, to cook in a small group. It was without a doubt the stand-out experience of the trip, from preparing a delicate olive tapenade, cracking open the fresh oysters, picking herbs from the garden and sampling the traditional 13 desserts – a selection of nuts, sweets and fruits.

A relaxing massage at the Aquabella hotel and spa, in the historic centre of Aix, was just the tonic after all that indulgence before we set off to Marseille.

Driving into the port city I was immediately struck by how different it was to Aix, towering modern buildings sit side by side with industrial areas, flanked by huge cruise ships that can bring 9,000 tourists into Marseille on any given day. Many of the newer buildings, including the MuCEM museum, are a legacy of the city holding the title of European City of Culture in 2013.

But my hotel, the very glamorous C2, right in the city centre close to the Palace of Justice, did not feel busy for such a bustling city and was the perfect place to relax.

The next day saw a chance to flex the credit card. While the port had a traditional Christmas market and ferris wheel, there are also smaller Christmas markets including one purely selling the traditional Santons – handmade figurines used to decorate nativity scenes. All the big high-end brand stores can be found, as well as those founded in Provence, such as fashion brand Souleiado and L’Occitane de Provence. Nestled in the smaller streets are independent stores perfect for picking up stocking fillers, such as artisan chocolate maker La Chocolatiere de Marseille and olive oil soap specialist Place des Huiles. We took the Metro for lunch at La Boite a Sardine, on Boulevard de la Liberation. This charming fish restaurant was packed to the rafters on a mid-week lunchtime, and it was clear to see why. That evening the fish theme continued at Les Trois Forts restaurant, which gives an amazing view of Marseille from the top of the Sofitel hotel. There you can see the Notre de la Garde basilica, the highest point of Marseille. The view of the church was only beaten by the view from it the next morning, over the vast expanse of the city.

There was just enough time to visit the Calanques National Park and one last belt-busting lunch by the sea at the Grand Bar Des Goudes (try the garlic baked mussels) before a short transfer to the airport. I’m already salivating at the thought of my next visit.