Rising between the Rhone and Durance rivers, the jagged hills known as Les Alpilles are a unique environment of olive groves and vineyards, pine forests and garrigue.
The region is dotted with picturesque Provencal hilltop villages of honey-coloured stone like Les Baux-en-Provence - one of the most beautiful villages in France.
Celebrated by artists in words and paint, Les Alpilles was created France’s most recent Regional Natural Park in 2007.
Small farms of the Baux valley are known for their olive oil and fine Cotes-du-Rhone wines and thousands of acres of forest are patterned with trails for hikers, bikers and horse riders.
Find peace, and typical Provencal views with the chance to spot some of Alpilles’s many birds, including the rare Bonelli’s eagle and Egyptian vulture. Check with local tourist offices in summer as some trails are closed due to fire risks in the garrigue scrubland if the Mistral wind is blowing. The Petit Train des Alpilles from Arles to Fontveille travels a leisurely 7km in 40 minutes. Tel (00 33) 4 90 18 81 31 or ask at local tourist offices for schedules and times.
Formed where the River Rhone meets the Mediterranean, the Camargue is a 930 sq km major wetland area of windy, reed-fringed marshes and salt ‘etangs’ (lagoons), a haven for wildfowl and seabirds including marsh harriers, bitterns and pink flamingos.
Nowhere is more than 4.5m above sea-level. In drier areas, sea lavender and tamarisk grow, and small native white horses and the famous black bulls graze, herded by ‘gardians’ or Camargue ‘cowboys’.
Gypsy traditions are strong and human influences are seen in rice paddies, drainage ditches and salt pans. About 820 km² of this unique environment is protected as the Regional Natural Park of the Camargue. Walking, cycling and horse riding are the best ways to get close to nature here especially as motoring is restricted in some areas. It’s advisable to contact the tourist office in Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer for accredited riding tour operators - tel: (00 33) 4 40 97 82 55.
The ‘De la Camargue a la Crau’ cycle trail from Aigues-Mortes passes through the park as does the GR653 walking trail from Montpellier to Arles. Don’t miss a chance to visit this unique landscape but be aware that strong winds can make winter visits uncomfortable, and pack some mosquito repellent if travelling between March and November.
The mighty Rhone, main river of south east France, begins life in a glacier in the Swiss Alps flowing 813km south and west through the Jura Mountains past Lyons to turn south carving a passage used by invading armies and medieval traders through the French Alps and Massif Central to Avignon.
From here it flows on to its massive delta (the largest in Europe) splitting into the Grand and Petit Rhone before Bouches-du-Rhone and the sea. Central to the department to which it gives its name, the delta region forms a major wetland area known as the Camargue, unique in lifestyle and habitat.
River tourism is a great way to see the area from the Petit Rhone and dams and locks also allow navigation to Marseille. Take the Bac de Barcaran ferry from Port-St-Louis outside the city across the Grand Rhone to the salt pans of Salin-de-Giraud. Cruise up river to picturesque Arles and see quays which feature in paintings by Van Gogh, or on to the wine-growing country around Avignon.
These limestone inlets along the Mediterranean coast between Marseilles and Cassis are flooded river valleys left by rising waters at the end of the Ice Age. Limestone quarrying was once important in the calanques. The plinth for the Statue of Liberty was made in the area and transported from Port-Miou.
Little calanques beaches are ideal for a sunbathe or to swim, and those near Cassis are most accessible. Others can only be reached by sea. See the coastline by motorboat excursion from Cassis passing places like Port-Pin, en Vau and Oule.
Rocky cliffs mean coastal access between the little settlements is difficult, allowing pines and maquis vegetation to dominate rather than development. But views from the cliffs make tough walking here worthwhile. Follow the red and white markers of the amazing GR 98-51 route which follows the coast along the fjords. The white underside of a rare Bonelli’s eagle can sometimes be seen wheeling above. Be aware of the country code banning smoking and walking in woodland between July and mid-September and in high winds due to fire hazards.