When you cross the imaginary border into Provence for the first time, you may experience a niggling sense of déjà vu. The sun-drenched angular red rooftops, the dagger-narrow cypresses, the picture-perfect port towns, and the brooding massifs fire the imagination in a deep, soul-stirring way. And it's no wonder: some of the world's greatest artists were inspired by the unforgettable landscapes found here.
Cézanne colored his canvases in daubs of russet and black-green, the rough-cut structure of bluff and twisted pine inspiring a building-block approach to painting that for others jelled into Cubism. Marcel Pagnol painted pictures with words: the smells of thyme and rosemary crunching underfoot, the sounds of thunder rumbling behind rain-starved hills, the quiet joy of opening shutters at dawn to a chorus of blackbirds in the olive grove. Both Cézanne and Pagnol were native sons of this region east of the Rhône who were inspired to eloquence by the primordial landscape and its echoes of antiquity. And yet, like most who visit the region, they were equally fascinated with the modern Provençal world and its complex melding of the ancient with the new.
A visit to this region encompasses the best of urban culture, seaside, and arid backcountry. Aix is a small, manageable city with a leisurely pace, studded with stunning architecture and a lively concentration of arts, due in part to its active university life. Marseille offers the yang to Aix's yin. Its brash style, bold monuments, and spectacular sun-washed waterfront center are reminiscent of those of Naples or modern Athens; it is much maligned for its crime rate and big-city energy, and often unfairly neglected by visitors. Up in the dry inland hills, Pagnol's hometown of Aubagne gives a glimpse of local life, with a big farmers' market in the plane tree–lined town center and makers of santons (terra-cotta figurines) at every turn. Both the lovely port-village of Cassis and the busy beach town of Bandol allow time to watch the tides come and go, though for the ultimate retreat, take the boat that leaves for the almost tropical Îles d'Hyères. Like most of this region, these islands are a true idyll, but even more so since they are car-free.
That certainly doesn't go for Aix, which lies at a major crossroads of autoroutes: one coming in from Bordeaux and Toulouse, then leading up into the Alps toward Grenoble; the other a direct line from Lyons and Paris. Indeed, Aix is extremely well placed for trips to the Luberon, Avignon, and Arles, and it's a quick half hour from Marseille. When mapping out your itinerary, remember that all the coastal towns hereabouts line up for easy access between Marseille and Toulon, so you can wind up cruising along A50, which follows the coastline, and take in all the sights. Although Marseille is one of the biggest cities in France, it's only a matter of minutes before you're lost in deep backcountry on winding, picturesque roads that lead to Cassis or Aubagne and beyond.
To make the most of your time in this region, plan to divide your days between big-city culture, backcountry tours, and waterfront leisure. You can "do" Marseille in an impressive day or weekend trip, but its backstreets and tiny ports reward a more leisurely approach. Aix is as much a way of life as a city charged with tourist must-sees; allow time to hang out in a Cours Mirabeau café and shop the side streets. Aubagne must be seen on a market day (Tuesday, Saturday, or Sunday) to make the most of its charms. Cassis merits a whole day if you want to explore the Calanques and enjoy a seaside lunch; Bandol is less appealing unless you're committed to beach time. The complete seaside experience, with rocky shoreline, isolated beaches, a picturesque port, and luxurious near-tropical greenery, can be found on the island of Porquerolles, one of the Îles d'Hyères; if your budget and schedule allow, spend a night or two in one of its few hotels and have much of the island to yourself.