With my free weekend in Europe, I decided to use trains to explore the south of France, and check out Provence (or at least a small part of it). The reason for that choice is somewhat complicated and a bit geeky - it centers around a book. One of, if not my favorite authors is Guy Gavriel Kay, a Canadian author that I discovered in high school, when he published one of my all time favorite fantasy series, The Fionivar Tapestry (FT). The FT is a work if high fantasy that pays homage to works like the Lord of the Rings, but with Kay's special ability to write beautiful prose, and a uniquely well-done mix of the "real" world with fantasy worlds. His successive works, which I have also loved, drifted from fantasy into historical fiction, but still retained element of the fantastical, and got better written as he improved as a writer. The a few years back, he absolutely delighted me by writing a book (Ysabel) that brought back a few Fionivar characters, while setting the book in the current time in the South of France. Set mostly in Aix-en-Provence, I've wanted to go there since reading Ysabel, and as was only a few hours by train away, now seemed like a good time.
Friday afternoon I took the train from Toulouse, through Marseilles, and on to Aix-en-Provence. It was a fairly lengthy journey all told, and it was about 9:30 by the time our train pulled into the station in the center of town. Traveling by train in Europe is so relaxing - it's amazing to watch the scenery slip by, and the south of France is beautiful. We sped along the sea in places, past old walled cities, and through varied countryside.
After getting out in the center of town, it was about a 15 minute walk over to the hotel that I had booked, that was really well placed as it turned out. It was a pretty quiet evening - after a long week of work and a long train ride, I wasn't up for much and had a big day planned for Saturday. I only had a day and a half (maybe a little more) and wanted to make the most of it. The hotel was nothing special, but was in a great location.
Much like Toulouse, the weather in Aix was amazing all weekend - 20 degrees, and sunny, making for a perfect weekend. In addition to being the setting for Ysabel, Aix is know for being the home of Paul Cezanne, one of the most prominent of the French Impressionist painters. I've always been a huge fan of Impressionist art, and Cezanne (along with Seurat) have always been my favorite artists. So between finding the settings for scenes in Ysabel, and checking out things related to Cezanne, I figured I could fill a couple of days. And there was wine to drink.
I was up early on Saturday - out the door by about quarter to eight. I wanted to catch the morning light, and get out ahead of the crowds. I was successful on both accounts, as the streets were deserted, and the sun hadn't gotten too high in the sky. As I headed out of the hotel, I decided to use an app on my phone to give me a guided tour of the landmarks of the city. The tour started maybe two blocks from the hotel, at La Rotonde, the most famous landmark in Aix. Built in 1860, this massive fountain was once the entrance to the city. Today, it sits more at the heart, and is the entrance to the Cours Mirabeau. The fountain is pretty amazing, with many sculptures adorning every side. The three main sculptures on top, done by different artists, symbolize Fine Arts, Agriculture and Justice. They each face a different direction, reaching out to nearby cities that represent these pursuits.
Heading east from La Rotonde, Cours Mirabeau is the Main Street, lined with cafes, restaurants and shops. Along the main stretch, a number of smaller fountains mark the main cross streets, and huge sycamore trees (known as "plane trees" locally) line the pedestrian thoroughfare. The tour was pretty good, taking me down narrow side streets, past stores and houses that were built in the 1300s. It's an amazing part of the world. Aix is known for its fountains, and in the first half hour I passed three on the Cours Mirabeau, then got lead to la Place des Quatre Dauphins, and it's fountain with... four dolphins. The after a quick stop out front of the church with the highest steeple in the city, it was back out to the Cours Mirabeau and the Fountain of "Good" King Rene. Apparently he was quite the charitable King, back in the mid 1400s.
Before heading away from the Cours Mirabeau, there was a quick stop at Le Cafe les Deux Garçons, a local brasseries that been on that spot since 1792, and was a local favorite of Cezanne. Over the years Zola (writer), Picasso and Hemingway all frequented the place. I didn't go in, but ended up back there for some lunch later in the day. I did stop in next door at a patisserie, for another amazing croissant for breakfast. I ate it as I continued the tour.
After working my way up some narrow side streets, I ended up in a huge plaza out front of Le Palais de Justice. I was early, but they were starting to set-up what looked to be a huge open air market, which I was definitely coming back to! Further wandering took me to the first stop in my efforts to find locations from Ysabel - Cathedrale Saint Sauveur, where the book opens. The Cathedral is an amazing piece of history. Located in the oldest part of Aix, the site of the cathedral has been a sacred location for thousands of years, going back to a pre-Roman pagan temple. Construction on the cathedral started in the 5th century and took more than 1200 years to finish. 1200 years! As you can imagine, over that length of time, there was somewhat a mixture of styles in the construction. From the outside it looked pretty nice, but I wanted to get inside to see the various parts of it. Sadly I was a bit too early.
While the early start allowed me to wander and take pictures with minimal crowds, the early start also mean that nothing was really open. I used that as an excuse to start the trek north, up to Cezanne's studio - the Atelier Cezanne. I was still a bit early - it didn't open until 10 a.m., and it was only about 9:30. This northern part of the city was up on a hill (it had been a bit of a climb already), and so I figured I'd keep going, and see what else there was.
Eventually I found the Chemin de la Marguerite, a walking trail/path that led up between some of the house, further north of the city. Quite by coincidence, I saw a sign for a historical site, the Oppidum d'Entremont, the site of a 2nd AD Celtic settlement that also features prominently in Ysabel. It was another couple of kilometers north, but I had time and it was beautiful day.
The walk kept me climbing into the local hills, every once in awhile offering up amazing views of the surrounding countryside. Before too long, I was climbing up the dirt road to the site, only to find that the sign seemed to indicate the site was closed. But my French isn't that god, and the gate was open, so I decided to play dumb tourist, and see what I could get away with. I went into to the site, and luckily didn't see another soul the whole time I was there! They've been excavating the site since the mid 1940's, and have discovered an amazing little village that sat on this hill before the Romans arrived. It was pretty amazing to wander around, having the whole place to myself.
Despite how interesting it was, there wasn't a lot to see, so after about half an hour I started walking back towards Aix. I retraced my path back down, but as often happens, found another amazing spot a kilometer or so north of the Atelier Cezanne. It was marked by a small sign, indicating the Terrain des Peintres, which was an elevated park that provided amazing views out over Mont Saint-Victoire. Mont Saint-Victoire is the largest local "mountain", and while at just a little over 1,000m tall isn't that big, it does dominate the local scenery. It was also a key component of Ysabel, and while I didn't have time to get out and hike up like I wanted to, it was amazing to see it. More importantly, Mont Saint-Victoire was a major source of inspiration for Cezanne, and he had painted the mountain from that very spot more than a dozen times. That was pretty cool to experience. Sadly, in the morning light the views of the mountain were not very good, so I decided to come back at the end of the day, to get the proper view, as the sun was setting.
It was a really busy day, and I have lots more to share, but this post is getting long. More to come...