We didn't know it before we came to Aix, but hiking is really a part of the popular culture around here. You can walk to a trailhead that is barely outside the city limits of Aix. (It may take about 40 minutes of walking to get to that trailhead, and another fifteen to get to what really feels like a hiking, but you can do it.) Besides that, there are lots of trailheads that are a short, local bus ride away and even more that are a longer bus or train (or two) ride away, but still close enough that you can go make it there for a day-hike. And there are really great hikes leaving from trailheads within Marseille (ah Marseille!).
The trails are really well marked with very tidy, well painted lines. The markings are very easy to follow. Each balisage or "marker" is just a line (or two) in the color(s) of the trail you're on. If you're just supposed to follow along the way you're headed, you'll see the marker like the one on this tree on the right. If you're supposed to turn left or right, the marker is shaped to indicate that, as in the schematic below. And if you kept going straight and didn't turn (in other words, if you were going the wrong way) either because you were trying to go off the trail or because you missed one of the hard-to-miss markers, a neat little "x" would tell you that you needed to go back a few paces and find the right path.
Ok, so by now you've seen the little pictures to the right of the schematic ... how many hikers does it take to paint a trail marker in France? Apparently it takes three, but they do it really well.
Probably because they trails are so well marked and accessible, people are out taking advantage of them. All kinds of people -- from serious hikers to people who are wearing street shoes (no stilettos ... yet!) and should probably be exercising a little more caution than they are. To be fair, I've gotten a look or two from the real hikers for wearing my running shoes rather than hiking boots. And mostly the people wearing perfume that you can smell for a minute or two after you've parted ways aren't too far from the trailhead on trails that you probably could do in loafers ... if it's dry and if you've got good balance.
We've been doing quite a bit of hiking lately and we are even the proud owners of two topo map hiking guides published by La Féderation Française de la Randonnée Pédestre that are small and light enough to take on the hike with you but more educational than a plain old topo map so that you get to learn a little something about the area around the trail you're hiking. They're like a portable interpretive center.
Check out these links for pictures and info on the hikes:
Sainte Victoire -- Refuge Cezanne-Collebasse to the Croix de Provence
Lac Bimont, Hameau les Bonfillons, St. Marc-Jaumegarde
Fontaine des Tuiles
Les Goudes -- le col de la Galinette
La Glacière -- Photos lost when James' computer crashed :-(
Cassis -- le plateau d'En-Vau