Until about a month ago, I’d never heard of Marcel Pagnol, though he’s beloved in France as a filmmaker and writer. But on the eve of my trip to Marseille, a friend recommended I read his books, La Gloire de Mon Père and Le Château de Ma Mère (My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle).
Once I read them, I fell in love too. These two tender memoirs recount Pagnol’s boyhood adventures in the back country above Marseille, around the turn of the 20th century. They capture an innocent time of hunting and hiking, secret springs, heartfelt friendships, and familial love, set against the sunny, rosemary-scented scrub of Provence. I loved these books so much that on my recent visit to Provence, I set out to follow Pagnol’s footsteps.
“I was born in the town of Aubagne, beneath the goat-crowned Garlaban, in the days of the last goat-herds,” begins My Father’s Glory. The house where Pagnol was born in 1895 is now a museum with a small collection of artifacts and a few recreated rooms. The real treasure, however, was the gentleman who worked here as ticket-seller and guide, a veritable fount of Pagnol knowledge. Pagnol’s mention of “the last goat-herds,” he told me, is a tribute to Marcel’s brother, Paul, who was the last goat-herder in the area, and who died in 1932 at age 34.
Aubagne is also home to one of the oddest tributes I’ve ever seen, a miniature world of Marcel Pagnol, which pays homage to their native son’s movies and books, as well as the local craft of clay figurines, called santons.
I spent an afternoon in Marseille, hunting for the family’s apartment at 51 rue Terruse. Marcel’s father, Joseph, was a schoolteacher and the family moved often, living here for only three years. A plaque notes that Marcel’s mother died here in 1910.
As it turns out, December is not an ideal time to visit the Provence of Pagnol, whose adventures unraveled in more clement seasons. Though I caught several glimpses of his beloved Garlaban mountain (photo above), I was unable to visit La Bastide Neuve — the family’s summer cottage — and it was too chilly to hike the 20-kilometer “sentier de Marcel Pagnol,” the network of trails used by Marcel and his childhood friend, Lili des Ballons.
But I loved visiting the village of La Treille, perched high above Marseille, yet still considered part of the city’s 11th arrondissement. From here, the family would walk two kilometers to their summer house. Despite the sharp mistral wind tearing through my coat, I could still imagine the sleepy square in the lazy heat of an August afternoon.
In his later years, Pagnol returned to La Treille to vacation and work. He filmed many movies here — among them Le Cigalon and Manon des Sources — and started writing La Gloire de Mon Père in the the fancy villa pictured above.
The family has a plot in La Treille’s tiny village cemetery (photo left). If you’ve read the books, the names are especially poignant. There’s Joseph, the father, his second wife, Madeleine (whom Marcel reviled), and Marcel’s siblings: his mischievous brother, Paul, sister Germaine, and youngest brother, René. Marcel has his own tomb (photo right), with an inscription that reads: He loved the springs, his friends and his wife.
Cemeteries usually make me too sad, but this one had a lovely atmosphere, surrounded by blue sky and Provencal hills. It seemed a fitting resting place for someone who loved this country so much.