Aix-en-Provence is well worth a visit at any time of year, but it has a special magic in the run-up to Christmas. From December 1 right through to New Year's Eve, Aix plays host to one of the region's biggest Santons Fairs. Indeed, even if the notion of Christmas crèches has no great appeal for you - and, to be frank, quality varies and there is inevitably much repetition of the traditional subjects - you can still enjoy the atmosphere.
The focus of the fair is the place General de Gaulle which, like its counterpart in Paris, is still widely known by its earlier name of l'Etoile and is a vast roundabout on the inner ring road, here circling a massive fountain instead of the Arc de Triomphe. From this place, a number of roads fan out, including the celebrated cours Mirabeau, home to countless restaurants, bars and cafes (of which Les Deux Garçons is probably the most famous). The stands of the santonniers congregate across the broad pavement in front of the tourist office and spreading down the adjoining streets.
Every stall will have examples of the original crèche figures associated with the birth of Jesus, as well as growing numbers of figures representing old - and even some new - Provençal crafts and trades. Traditionally these are made in three sizes not, as might be supposed without explanation, to allow the one-upmanship of my-crèche-is-bigger-than-yours.
The idea was to enable more elaborate crèches to be devised with the diminishing scale of the figurines suggesting depth and perspective.
Just as the repertoire of figurines expands year by year, so does the range of supporting models. As well as animals, the stall-holders will display typical Provençal buildings: cabanons, windmills and the distinctive stone well-heads are a few examples. Most stalls will also offer a choice between ready-painted santons and ruddy-coloured finished terracotta figures for you to paint yourself.
A useful quiz question is 'which is the most expensive of the traditional figures?' In this context, members of the Holy Family do not pull rank: the answer is l'homme ravi, the peasant so overcome by the event he is witnessing that he raises his arms heavenwards. It is this pose that provides the explanation: this is the easiest model to break during moulding and firing and the resultant wastage is reflected in the price.
The fair is best visited in the late afternoon or early evening when the lights of the stalls contrast with the darkening skies to make each display a magical world of its own to cumulatively build an atmosphere that seems more authentically Christmassy than any Santa's Grotto.
On the outskirts are Jouve at Louynes, 04 42 24 01 40 and Richard, 955 chemin Bouenhoure haut, 04 42 20 10 15. Most welcome visitors, although some prefer to make appointments, and it is wise to check before just turning up.
Aix is easily reached by the A8 or RN7 and, even at Christmas, parking is normally possible at one of the many multi-storey car parks around the ring road, all a short walk from the centre. The parking area nearest to the Etoile lies alongside the Gare Routière and is correspondingly most likely to be full at such times.
While in Aix it is worth taking the time to follow one of the walking tours of the old town cited in the Michelin Green Guide or offered by the tourist office. With so many attractive sights and displays at ground level, it is easy to forget to look any higher - but make the effort and you will be rewarded by the magnificence and variety of the architecture of many imposing buildings, as well as the occasional intimate glimpse of the daily life of Aix.
Although the Aix santons fair is amongst the biggest, there are many smaller ones that may be equally attractive in towns and villages throughout Provence.
If you would like to see santons in the context of complete crèches, there are many public ones on display.
Some are in museums, such as that of Arts and Popular Traditions at Draguignan and at Brignoles. The latter will appeal to children, as a coin in the slot will set the figurines moving to the accompaniment of Provençal songs. A large crèche is also to be seen each year at the main church in Barjols.
For a more varied idea of how crèches may be constructed, Cotignac has an annual crèche contest where the entries are on show for about a fortnight over Christmas and the New Year at the pretty Cercle des Arts gallery. There are often large professional displays outside the competition and separate competitions for adults and children.
The latter are often highly imaginative, with some being built into hollow vine roots or half bottles. Styles vary enormously from modern, stylised figures and settings to more traditional landscapes, often created in enormous detail. In the past, a local patissier has entered crèches entirely made of chocolate. This event has proved very popular with both villagers and visitors, who are invited to be the judges for the competition by voting for their three favourites in either category.