Ben Ross gets ready for the new direct railway journey that links St Pancras to Avignon, Provence and Marseille.
There is, famously, a bridge at Avignon. And there are a number of things you can do on this bridge. You can dance, sur le pont, as the nursery rhyme attests. You can take photos of the Rhône as it swooshes past Avignon's medieval ramparts. You can even, should you wish, listen to an audio guide in one of 11 languages that will share the bridge's history with you, once you've parted with the €5 ($7.60) admission fee.
But the one thing you cannot do on the Pont d'Avignon, or Pont Saint Bénézet, to give it its official title, is walk across it. Twenty-two 13th-century arches once spanned the river westwards to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, but they were regularly swept away by floods and in the 17th century the bridge was abandoned to the onrushing water. Just four arches remain, protected now by the World Heritage Site status bestowed upon them in 1995.
Thus far shall you come and no farther, then, in Avignon. And the same could be said of one of the best ways to visit the city from Britain. Since 2002 Eurostar has offered direct trains to Avignon Centre station, just outside the city walls. However, the service has been limited to just one a week, running each Saturday between late June and September, so at all other times you've had to change at Paris or Lille. What's more, whereas the Rhône makes short work of its 50‑mile dash to the Mediterranean from here – even forming branch lines of its own called the Grand Rhône and the Petit Rhône at Arles, before squelching into the sea around the étangs of the Camargue region – the Eurostar has hitherto remained obstinately stuck behind Avignon's buffers.
Despite the high-speed line running south to Marseille from the city's smarter, sleeker TGV station (a soaring, cocoon-shaped chamber that opened in the southern suburbs in 2001), it seemed that if rail travellers coming from Britain wanted a glimpse of the Med, they'd jolly well have to change trains somewhere along the way. The frustration was almost palpable.
Well, from May 1 next year, things will be different. Twenty-one years after it delivered its first passengers to France via the Channel Tunnel, Eurostar will finally come of age as it reaches the Mediterranean coast for the first time. A new service running up to five times a week will link St Pancras International with Marseille, via Lyon and Avignon, with a total journey time of around six-and-a-half hours (rather longer on the way home, as passengers will be required to decamp at Lille to go through immigration checks).
Tickets for the new service went on sale December 12, priced from £99 ($190) return. It would be a shame, though, to strike Avignon from your itinerary in a headlong dash to explore the limits of a new train link. After all, once you're done with dancing on the bridge, and been duly humbled by the sheer scale of the Palais des Papes (home to no fewer than seven popes between 1309 and 1377), you can venture, as I did, into the landscape beyond the city walls.
This is the somnolent, inward-looking France so vividly captured by Peter Mayle during his Year in Provence, a terrain striped with vineyards, stippled with lollipop trees and scattered with traditional blue-shuttered farmhouses built from warm, yellow sandstone.
La Bastide de Marie is one such farmhouse, 45 minutes' drive to the east of Avignon. It lies at the foot of the Luberon mountains, on the outskirts of Ménerbes, the very village that became a home for Mayle and his wife in the Eighties.
Owned by the Sibuet family, whose small but perfectly formed chain of boutique hotels runs from the ski slopes of Val Thorens to the beaches of St Tropez, La Bastide de Marie's 15 suites are scattered within a pleasingly muddled building of nooks and secret corners, hidden at the end of a vine-lined drive, off a quiet country road. It's all as Provençal as can be.
It's also splendidly indulgent. On one side of the property an old fishpond has been converted into a two-tiered swimming pool, another pool hugs the wall next to reception and there's a discreet little spa hidden in one of the outbuildings. The main sitting room is a grand, double-height affair arranged around a huge stone hearth.
In the unlikely event that you should need further distraction, you can wander up to Villa Grenache, a self-contained property in the middle of the vineyard, or head to the winery buildings, where huge steel vats hide Domaine de Marie's latest vintages. Here I met up with a cluster of Americans (shepherded by the traditional French-speaking Canadian) on a tasting tour, and for a while we all dutifully absorbed wine lore from winemaker Arnaud Bressy while knocking back fine grenache.
"I drink rosé when the crickets start singing and I stop when they stop singing," he told us. Moi aussi, Arnaud, or at least that's my rule from now on.
Drinks are taken out back, a yard or two from the vineyard, parts of which – crickets notwithstanding – will no doubt already have been squeezed into your glass. Dinner comes on the terrace or in the glass-roofed conservatory and consists of table-groaning, hold-me-back fare, served with elegant aplomb. You know the sort of thing: pork terrine with onion compote; Bavière beef fillet with pepper sauce; a cocotte of lamb shank with potato.
It's a get-away-from-it-all sort of place. You could spend most of your time strolling around that vineyard, or applying various bespoke unguents as you relax in your claw-foot bath. Or you may prefer a nap: the bedrooms are a hotch-potch of wood beams and four‑poster bedsteads.
However, the foothills of the mountains beckoned me a little farther afield. At nearby Bonnieux, I mounted an electric bicycle (vital for those Luberon gradients) for a tour of the local hill towns. First stop: Lacoste, with a chateau perched at the summit. Once owned by the Marquis de Sade, it's now Pierre Cardin's, and a couple of impressively ugly sculptures have been plonked next to the (locked) front door, as if to ram home the point. To the north of Lacoste, a mirror image, is Goult. The two villages rise like massive worm casts, coiling upwards from the grey-green landscape.
I could have spent hours exploring the medieval streets of my last stop, Oppède-le-Vieux, a delightful little hamlet reached at the top of a steep incline that would have put proper cyclists to a stern test. Sadly, I had to content myself with eating a packed lunch on the quiet main square and admiring the view from the terrace. I had a train to catch, you see.
And then the next thing I knew, I was in Marseille. And everyone was alert and feisty and metropolitan and cool and it was as if I'd been woken from my Provençal slumbers by a huge alarm clock made of steel and concrete and bouillabaisse.
Centuries of maritime history have been packed into these streets; myriad cultures helped form this medley, driven by fishing and trade. Marseille is the second-largest city in France, spreading out around the Mediterranean coast southwards into sandy beachside suburbs before surrendering to the fingers of the Calanques, limestone channels that were given national park status in 2012. At its heart, though, is the Old Port, recently pedestrianised by Norman Foster, strung with restaurants and busy with tourists.
Just beyond it is the Euroméditerranée zone, a cultural development begun in 1995 and accelerated by the city's stint as European Capital of Culture last year. Here you can gawp at the Villa Méditerranée, an extraordinary cantilevered building that juts over a basin of water, and the MuCEM, clad in a honeycomb of concrete and linked by walkways to the 17th-century Saint-Jean fort. Close by, Les Terrasses du Port is a flash new shopping centre, while Les Halles de la Major, carved out below the green-and-cream striped cathedral, is a new retail area colonised by boutiques selling everything from ice cream to charcuterie.
Marseille beats with a faster pulse. Yes, there's plenty of history all around you. I toiled upwards to the splendid neo-Byzantine Notre Dame de la Garde for a view of the ferry coming in from Algeria. I shuffled around the Panier district, an absorbing maze of alleys pricked with tourist shops selling navettes (a local biscuit), soap (a local speciality) and pastis (a more satisfying local speciality). I dutifully marvelled at the 17th-century city hall ("Much too small, but very loved," I was told). But Marseille feels as if it's really about its people: it is edgy, modern, multicultural and a world away from the sleepy slopes of the Luberon. "We speak very loudly," one local told me over a spectacular bowl of bouillabaisse at Le Miramar restaurant next to the port. "Like the Italians do."
Mama Shelter, my home for the night, encapsulates this idea. Part of a small chain with outposts in Paris, Istanbul, Lyon and Bordeaux, it is set away from the city centre to maximise a "living among the locals" aesthetic. The minimalist white rooms contain a bed, an iMac screen and little else, while the restaurant on the ground floor is big on "sharing", with communal tables, an open kitchen and an emphasis on finger food.
The bar has one of the largest selections of pastis in the city: blue, green, strong, weak, whichever version of anise-flavoured alcohol best works for you. In your downtime you can watch as a mixologist spins cocktails, or play babyfoot (table football), or even create your own in-room video to share with other guests. The idea is, apparently, to get into the "Mama spirit".
I like to think Mama would have been proud of my efforts there. But also that Arnaud would raise a glass – rosé or not – to my tour of the Provençal hinterland. In the end, it's a matter of perspective. One of these versions of France looks back to a quieter, simpler way of life, and one embraces the future, fiercely. Choose one or the other. Or even better: choose both.
Eurostar (eurostar.com) runs services to Marseille via Lyon and Avignon from St Pancras International and Ashford in Kent starting May 1 2015. Fares start at £89 ($170) return to Lyon and £99 ($190) to Avignon and Marseille.
Bastide de Marie (en.labastidedemarie.com) at 64 chemin des Peirelles, Menerbes, offers suites from €350 ($530) per night on a half-board basis.
Mama Shelter (8 25 00 62 62; mamashelter.com/en/marseille) at 64 Rue de la Loubière, Marseille, offers doubles from €89 ($135) room only.
Sun-E-Bike (4 90 74 09 96; sun-e-bike.com) at 1 avenue Clovis Hugues, Bonnieux, offers e-bike rentals from €35 ($53) per person per day.
Le Miramar (4 91 91 41 09; lemiramar.fr) at 12 Quai du Port, Marseille, has a great location on the harbour; main courses from €29 ($44).
The Telegraph, London