The Olive Trail

The olive tree has biblical associations: Noah's dove returned with an olive branch in its beak, symbolising hope and peace.

Cultivation of the olive tree was brought to Provence by the Greeks twenty-five centuries ago. Since then many visitors have been captivated by the sight of the olive-groves.

Visitors who take the Olive Trail will discover for themselves these shades of colour and contrasts that symbolise light and strength in Provence.

Between Arles, Tarascon, Saint-Rémy and Salon-de-Provence in the Alpilles and the Valley of Les Baux the olive-trees form a backdrop to any visit of the famous sights of the region.

From Arles to Les Baux-de-Provence visitors can see the Abbey of Montmajour and the aqueducts and a rare example of Roman mechanical engineering, the watermill at Barbegal near Fontvieille.

The Romanesque chapels of Saint-Gabriel at Tarascon, Saint-Jean-du-Grès at Fontvieille and Saint Sixtus at Eygalières are set against a background of olive-groves, as are the ruins of the 1st century BC Roman Triumphal Arch and Mausoleum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence and the Gallo-Roman town of Glanum with its ruined olive-press.

To learn more about this legendary tree and its cultivation in Provence, visitors are advised to see the exhibitions on the theme of the olive at the Museon Arlaten in Arles and the Arles Local History Museum where Roman ruins bear witness to the deeply-rooted presence of the olive in Provence.

An entire museum devoted to the olive is housed in the Romanesque Chapel of Saint-Blaise at Les Baux-de-Provence.

At Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the Présence Van Gogh Art Centre housed in the 18th Century Hôtel Estrine mansion pays homage to the olive with an exhibition of documents on the painter's work. The Saint-Rémy Tourist Office organises visits to sites painted by Van Gogh.

Talking about olive trees naturally leads to olive oil and this in turn leads on to the famous soap produced in Marseille. Olive oil is only used in the green soap where it constitutes most of the 72% fat content.

The Salon and La Crau Museum in Salon-de-Provence, has an exhibition on olive oil and soap manufacturing that traces the industrial history of the town from the end of the 19th Century.

Visitors can taste for themselves the olive oil produced in the 7 working olive-presses in Les Baux Valley. The oil is produced between the months of November and January using machinery unlike that used in any other industry.

Two presses at Mouriès also include historical exhibitions. There are olive-presses at Fontvieille, Aurielle, Maussane-les-Alpilles, Raphèle-les-Arles and Mouriès. Mouriès is the largest olive-oil producing community in France and therefore hosts traditional festivals associated with olives. The Green Olive Festival is held each September to celebrate the beginning of the harvest. The New Oil Festival takes place in December.

Visitors can follow the Olive Trail:

On foot starting from Mouriès; the trail leads walkers through beautiful countryside past ancient farmhouses (or "Mas" in the Provençal language) that once housed olive presses.

On horseback starting from the Bernerac riding centre in Tarascon, the trail goes to Saint-Rémy and Les Baux and includes commentary on the olive groves.

Fact or fiction

Once upon a time there was... Bouches-du-Rhône

This is a region where it is impossible to separate fact from fiction. The interaction is a subtle one; truth has inspired our fiction and our folk-takes are so probable they seem real and become accepted as such. This mixture of fact and fiction is a keynote of any visit to the Bouches-du-Rhône Département.

On the last weekend of June visitors can mix with the people of Tarascon as they celebrate the Fête de la Tarasque, which commemorates Saint Martha's victory over the dragon known as the Tarasque that had been terrorising people living along the banks of the River Rhône. Celebrations of the Saint's victory using only holy water and the cross as weapons began in 1474.

Visitors can stay in Tarascon and visit the House of Tartarin de Tarascon, whose adventures were recounted by Alphonse Daudet in 1872. This great talker and hunter of imaginary animals regularly astounded the members of the Hunters' Club of Tarascon with his tall tales. On Sundays everybody would come to Tartarin's house to view his exotic garden, in particular his potted baobab tree.

At the Abbey of Saint-Michel de Frigolet visitors can buy a bottle of Reverend Father Gaucher's elixir, made famous, once again, by Alphonse Daudet. The secret recipe for this mixture has been handed down from generation to generation and is known to include aromatic plants collected in the hills around the Abbey.

Visitors to Fontvieille can see the windmill where Alphonse Daudet (again!) lived and wrote his famous Letters from my Windmill. It was here that the writer met the typical Southern characters who inspired most of his letters.

On a tiny island in the Bay of Marseille stands the Château d'If,It was here that one of the strangest meetings of all literature took place: that between the Count of Monte-Cristo and Abbé Faria. Alexandre Dumas tells how the Count managed to escape from the island after digging a tunnel from his prison cell into that of his neighbour. Changing places with the body of his dead friend, Monte-Cristo was then thrown into the sea. The curators of the Château d'If are happy to tell visitors more about this story. It is said that the Man in the Iron Mask was also imprisoned here... but that is less certain.

Coming back to the Old Port from the islands, visitors will remark the Ferry Boat "Le César" made famous by the plays and films of Marcel Pagnol.

The sail-shop of Pagnol's Maître Panisse used to stand at the corner of the Place aux Huiles (Cours d'Estienne d'Orves) near the Bar de la Marine where so much of the action in Pagnol's stories takes place.

And visitors who spot a hat lying on the pavement should make very sure they are not the victims of practical jokers watching from the café terraces before bending down to pick it up.

PS: Reading the books of Daudet, Dumas and Marcel Pagnol is obviously an excellent way to prepare this visit.

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