In the Département Bouches du Rhône you need to carefully choose your vacation area. This is the most densely populated region in the South of France with heavy industrial activity west of the port city of Marseille (in English: Marseilles). Now, you evidently are not going to spend your holidays there. You also don't want to sit in a suburb like environment. Nothing against suburbs - many of us live or have lived there. A vacation in the Provence should be a change in scenery, style and pace of life. Bouches du Rhône has many areas, which meet our hideaway standards, you just have to choose the right location.
Bouches du Rhône, literally "Mouths of the Rhône River", has a population of roughly 2 million. About 40% of the population of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Region live here on what amounts to 16% of the region's territory. Marseille with a population of 1.5 million in its metropolitan area is the 3rd largest in France after Paris (11.1 million) and Lyon (1.6 million).
But here is the good news from a hideaways perspective: If 1.5 million of Bouches du Rhône's population live in the Marseille metropolitan area and another 150.000 in and around Aix en Provence, the remaining 350.000 are spread over roughly 80% of the department. In other words there are a number of very pleasant vacation areas in the Bouches du Rhône.
St.Rémy de Provence and les Alpilles
Between Avignon and Arles are Les Alpilles, the "little Alpes". Small country roads meandering through vineyards and olive groves, jagged limestone cliffs, the trees and rosemary shrubs. The beauty of the Mediterranean countryside and the quality of light has inspired many artists, the most famous being Vincent van Gogh. St.Rémy de Provence, situated on the Northern slopes of the Alpilles, is one of the "must-sees" in the Provence. The main reason is without a doubt Vincent Van Gogh, who produced more than 150 paintings of the countryside surrounding St. Rémy.
Arles and the Camargue
We love Arles, since 1981 listed as a World Heritage site, with its wonderful Roman monuments, the ramparts, Place de la Republique with Cathédral Saint-Trophime, its cloister and the impressive town hall. It is also the gateway to the Camargue, France's cowboy country.
Aix en Provence and Pays d'Aix
The little Paris of Southern France! Aix Provence is sophisticated town with elegant streets and squares, magnificent buildings with hidden gardens and student quarters in tiny alleys. It offers a wide array of cultural activities, excellent shopping and a great restaurant scene. It is surrounded by a marvelous countryside, the Pays d'Aix, dominated by the white cliffs of Mt. Sainte Victoire of Cézanne fame. While the area between Aix and Marseille is densely populated further north, east and west are some very pleasant villages and lovely countryside to spend a hideaways vacation.
Marseille is different from the rest of the Provence. A busy port and since Greek settlers came ashore more than 2500 years ago, a city of immigrants. Waves of immigrants have landed here, the Italians in the 19th and early 20th century, people from Vietnam, the Carribbean, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and many Africans from further south since the 1950s. A wonderful and vibrant mix. The city center around the Vieux Port (Old Port) and many burgeoise residential areas have received a new lease of life in recent years. Marseille is on its way to become one of the most attractive sea ports of the Mediterranean, just 3 1/2 hours away from Paris by TGV (the high speed train). It will take a while - the urban regeneration project will be finished around 2012. The port area will become a hip waterfront with office and residential buildings, museums, theater, cruise ship terminal and a wide esplanade on the waterfront. The current elevated 4-lane highway will be redirected under a 1.5km long tunnel. What will not disappear are the extensive banlieus (poor suburbs), where unemployment and crime rates are high. Further away are villages which used to have charm and character, but are now dormitory communities with endless lotissements, the French version of single family home developments, steadily encroaching on Aix en Provence. Nevertheless Marseille is an interesting city to visit; the picturesque old port with its fishing boats, yachts and the restaurants serving the local fish stew, the Bouillabaisse.
East of Marseille you find a spectacular coastal area, craggy limestone cliffs, which contrast with the intense blue waters. The Calanques are worth a hike, boat trip or both. The village of Cassis is pleasant outside the summer season and outside the shoulder seasons' weekends, when the Marseillais come here in throngs and create traffic gridlock.
The area stretching west of Marseille until you practically reach Arles and the Camargue is home to Europe's largest petrochemical complex. There are some nice areas on the Côte Bleue (Blue Coast), but you will be faced on many days with the odor and pollution created by the companies around the Étang de Berre further inland. It is actually well designed and not bad as compared to similar zones in other countries (New Jersey comes to mind). So no need to vacation on the Côte Bleue. Fos sur Mer, Istres, Port St.Louis, Martigues, Miramas, Sausset les Pins and Vitrolles are not the ideal place to relax and enjoy the Provence. Don't get tempted by statements on the Provence's official travel website about Martigues: "Due to the charm of its canals, islands and bridges, Martigues is also known as the Venise Provençale... " - we heartily disagree.