The Cézanne trail at Aix-en-Provence: a photo diary

I was lucky enough to spend some time in Aix-en-Provence this weekend, to enjoy the city and to explore the life and work of Paul Cézanne. I have loved the work of Cézanne for some time now, so to visit the major locations in his life was a real pleasure. We took the Cézanne Trail, visited his atelier (studio), journeyed over to Mont Sainte-Victoire and – although not directly related to Cézanne but which I’m including for completeness – we visited the village of Gordes, one of the most picturesque in all of France. This is a brief guide, with photos.

The Cézanne Trail
The ‘Cézanne Trail’ runs throughout the city, an imaginary path that links the thirty or so significant places in his life – where he was born, the café where he met with friends, the cemetery where he is buried, and so on. It is almost impossible to lose the trail, since it is marked with beautifully detailed golden discs around one metre apart, like that shown above. (Despite this, we still managed to lose it – but that is a different story.)

Cézanne, outside the office de tourisme.

The trail begins (at what is, incidentally, perhaps the most impressive tourist office I have seen in any French city), with a familiar image of Cézanne in bronze: an older man, in working clothes, with a backpack full of artists’ materials (later, we would see that very backpack and other materials in the atelier, or workshop, where he painted later in his life: more on that below).

Exploring in Aix-en-Provence.

The wonder of a trail like this is that you get to see a great deal of what is a very beautiful city whilst having a purpose – a trail that doesn’t (often) repeat itself. Some of the places on the trail are less interesting than others, either because they are less directly linked to Cézanne’s life, or because they have been renovated and their original interestingness lost. The trail conveniently stops half way at Les Deux Garçons, a café where Cézanne used to meet friends and where you can watch the world go by.

The light is incredible in Provence.

One of the most impressive locations is the cemetery where the famille Cézanne are buried, Le Cimetière Saint-Pierre. Impressive, but alas for us not illuminating: the map at the entrance which should contain a numbered guide to the plots was incomplete. What’s more, the office was closed and the cemetery too large to explore in the hope to find it. In short, we couldn’t find the grave but wandered through the smartly tendered grounds in any case. (Even an internet search could not reveal the precise location – all I know is that it is in allée 6 according to this blog post. Too late for me but perhaps not for you.)

Le Cimetière Saint-Pierre. Cézanne and family are buried here - somewhere.

Atelier Cézanne: the workshop
Although not strictly a part of the Cézanne trail, the atelier or workshop, is a short walk up a hill, in a pleasant garden scattered with tables and chairs (and ideal for shade when it’s hot). Although there is only one room and a sizeable garden, it is most definitely worth visiting in my view.

Atelier Cézanne, interior. Copyright Atelier Cézanne

To stand where Cézanne stood; to take in the unique arrangement of sunshine and light through the enormous window of his studio; to be surrounded by the everyday objects of his life – some of which were painted in his most celebrated still life work – is really quite special and one that stays with me as unforgettably moving.

Mont Sainte-Victoire
It’s impossible not to visit what might be considered Cézanne’s muse, the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted several times. Impossible because it is so central to his life and painting that any visit is incomplete without it; impossible too because it is so near to Aix itself.

Mont Sainte-Victoire can be seen from Aix - if you get high enough

You can see the mountain from Aix, in fact and from this perspective it has its distinctive triangular shape: one side steep,  another running slowly in a straight line – the outline in total described as an enormous wave.

Mont Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne's 'muse'

Gordes, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region
Described in my tourist guide as one of the most photographed places in all of France – quite a feat in a country already packed with beauty – is the hillside village of Gordes. It is built into rock and looms impressively above the road and the plains below.

The hillside village of Gordes in Provence, from below

Close by is the Sénanque Abbey. When visited at the right time, when the lavender fields that surround the ancient abbey are in full bloom, it must be quite amazing. We visited just out of season but it was nevertheless impressive. The road nearby climbs steeply to take us north, back to the Alps, back to home.

The village of Gordes, carved into the rock

What remains almost unbelievable about the trip to Provence is the immense change in landscape from the green mountainous area of where I live in the Alps, to the red earth and mistrals of Provence. Cézanne country is unforgettable.

Senanque Abbey, Gordes. The fields are full of lavender.

Details: if you want to take the Cézanne trail, you can pick up free map at the Office de Tourisme, in the heart of Aix-en-Provence, or download it here. The office provide information on the other places I’ve detailed above, too.

A favourite place: Mont Blanc and the Alps


I ride a scooter when I’m not on my bicycle but, since there has been quite heavy snow on the most interesting bits of where I live – that is, higher up, on the mountain – it has been difficult to get out and about. Today, for the first time in a while, I got the scooter going and set off up the mountain.

It was cold and some of the melt had turned to ice on the mountain road. But this is the vista I was rewarded with at the viewing point. I’ve seen this dozens of times but it never fails to fill me with awe, especially as you turn into a steeper section of the road and the sky is suddenly replaced with the Alps range as you level off.

Lake Annecy, easy to spot from here, was shrouded in mist. Only when I had taken several shots did I realise how cold it was there. I put my gloves and helmet on, and headed back down. I’ll return here from now on, all over the summer – it’s one of my favourite places.

Bartholdi’s famous statue fountain freezes in Lyon: photos

This weekend we visited Lyon. It was cold, certainly, but I didn’t expect to find the water that normally cascades from Frédéric Bartholdi‘s famous statue in Lyon’s main square to have frozen solid.

It’s one of France’s more famous statues, designed by Bartholdi after he had finished the Statue of Liberty. So, it normally attracts a decent crowd but there were more people than usual for a cold day.

The horses, already amazingly energetic, seemed to be racing to break free from the ice.

It was an unforgettable sight that perfectly ended a great weekend. We’ll always remember this trip to Lyon as the one where Bartholdi’s statue froze.

Writing about France

I’ve read some amazing books on France – notably, Graham Robb’s Discovery of France and his Parisians. Long live travel writing! But there’s been some horrors, too. Ah, the thwarted promise of Tim Moore’s French Revolutions (cycling and France, what can go wrong? Much, it seems).

So, it’s hard not to feel a little bit sceptical when one finds a new addition to the canon. It seems I’m not alone in my cynicism. John Crace in his (often comically irreverent) ‘Digested Reads’ series for The Guardian compresses Pamela Druckerman’s story of why she thinks French children are better behaved. Writing as if from Druckerman’s perspective, he chimes:

I came to motherhood late and, being a hack and not having much work on, I naturally decided to write a book about it. All I needed was an angle. And then I remembered I was living in France and could pass off some general observations about the few middle-class Parisians I knew as insight.

The tendency to ‘pass of some general observations’ based on limited experience is a compelling one and you’ll find me doing this most night about the French, the Swiss and the English as well as anything else that comes my way. Now, where’s my pen and paper…

Art and ‘strangeness’: the Isenheim altarpiece at the Unterlinden Museum

I went to Colmar looking for something else but found the Isenheim altarpiece.

Planning a visit to Colmar, a small town in France’s Alsace region a few miles outside the border with Germany, I came across a guide to the Unterlinden Museum where the altarpiece is on show. It jogged a memory: I remembered reading somewhere that the Isenheim altarpiece is widely regarded as one of the most important works of Western art.

The Isenheim altarpiece, in the Unterlinden Museum

The Isenheim altarpiece, in the Unterlinden Museum

Despite this, few appear to have heard of it and fewer have seen it. Colmar is not central to the conventional tourist trail, except perhaps during December, where it gives itself entirely to Christmas celebration. In a quiet corner away from the colourful markets, the processions and performances, is a beautiful museum, of which the altarpiece is the jewel in the crown.

The resurrection panel, perhaps the strangest of all

The resurrection panel, perhaps the strangest of all

The altarpiece, thought to be the work of Matthias Grünewald and painted between 1506 and 1515. It is tied to the history of the Antonite Monks and particularly to Saint Anthony’s Fire, now known as ergotism, an often fatal disease caused by poisoning. There are several accounts of the altarpiece, including elaborate praise from J.K. Huysman. The altarpiece was once a series of panels that were configured according to the Christian calendar. The following model shows how those panels were once assembled.

The altarpiece was a series of panels, now separated. This model shows how they were originally assembled

The altarpiece was a series of panels, now separated. This model shows how they were originally assembled

The paintings are some of the most striking I have ever seen. Upon entering the long room where the altarpiece is kept, one meets the remarkable ‘crucifixion’ first panel.

The crucifixion panel. This had special resonance for Antonite Monks and their followers

The crucifixion panel. This had special resonance for Antonite Monks and their followers

I was left with the feeling that the paintings were ‘strange’ and that I was witnessing something outside of my experience of art (such as it is). I meant this both as a way of describing the effect they had on me – the are awe-inspiring, as well as quite unsettling. But it also captures their provenance and their reputation: they appear to have been created outside of the normal limits of the human imagination, outside of arts history almost, especially the resurrection panel.

I thought, too,  how right Harold Bloom was when he said that the defining principle of the greatest works of art is that they could be considered ‘strange’. Bloom, writing about literature in his notorious Western Canon, had Dante and Shakespare in mind, but I think it equally appropriate for the Isenheim altarpiece:

One mark of an originality that can win canonical status for a literary work is a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies.

I will ‘never altogether assimilate’ the strangeness of effect, form and history that I found in the altarpiece.

When is a walk a hike? Hiking Mont Vuache: a photo blogpost

Me posing and, ahem, wearing tights

At the weekend, Jen and I hiked up Mont Vuache. The small mountain is close by to us and we’ve been there before but this time we took a different route up and down. It’s a moderately difficult hike (that is, you can do it in trainers but not flip flops) and takes a few hours if you amble and enjoy the views as we did. We took the eastern route, which begins in the lovely hamlet of Chaumont and climbs steadily for around an hour before you reach a plateau with a much gentler slope.

An appealing part of the hike are the views. When higher, it offers an almost panoramic perspective: you can see a great deal of the Jura, Geneva and the Genevoise bassin, and Mont Blanc and the Alps. We loved seeing Salève, ‘our’ mountain close to home.

View of Mont Saleve, with the Alps in the background. Our home is down there somewhere.

You know when you’re arrived at the summit because there is a cairn there. You place a stone on the pile, rest for a moment, and if you’re like us, go and find somewhere to eat your lunch.

View from our lunch spot.

The descent was a little more difficult because the leaf fall of autumn hid the loose stones and rocks. Of course, the locals hot-footed it up and down in a nonchalant, carefree manner whilst I walked sideways like a crab, trying not to slip.

On the descent - the remains of the old castle are our goal

So – was this a walk or a hike? And does it matter? Well, it matters in how you classify it for Garmin’s Connect page, or Runkeeper, or any of a host of fitness sites that track and record your sporting activity. As for the definition, well – perhaps it’s to do with intensity, or how long you’re out there, or how fast you move.

We suspect these must be inedible - the locals would have snaffled them otherwise

I’ve tried for a while to define a hike and all I came up with is this: when hiking, you need a decent pair of shoes and you wear a rucksack. If what you’re doing on your own two feet fits this definition, then it’s a hike. Otherwise it’s a walk.

Clear view of Mont Blanc from Vuache, nice

Of course, you could easily walk the route we took to climb Mont Vuache in trainers and without a rucksack. But then it wouldn’t be a hike, would it?

Biketour update, final day – ‘le petit tour’ is finished!

(I have collected some of the photos into a ‘photo story’ of the bike tour. You can find it on Flickr, here.)

The bike tour, like all good things, must come to an end. I made my way from Remoulins, where I stayed in a well-equipped campsite (with pool and restaurant, no less) to The Camargue and specifically to Grau-du-roi, where I found the beach and the Mediterranean, my final destination.

Once again I had a difficult night. The campsite was being used by workers to park their vehicles and stay overnight. So, at around midnight they turned up en masse, in vans, making a lot of noise. Duly at dawn, they took their vans and heavy equipment and left. I was wide awake – disturbed by the noise and now too tired to sleep again, excited by the day ahead.

The cycle went well. I travelled through a tiny village with cobbles which lead to a decent-sized col. Unlike climbing in the earlier part of the tour, this was bone dry and very hot. The landscape changing has been once of the most impressive elements of this trip and even within the 500kms or so I have travelled there has been a dramatic transformation.

Not least in Camargue, where the mountains disappeared and the flat, salt plains and etangs dominate the horizon. Despite being in Grau-du-roi, a coastal village and working fishing port, I had trouble finding the sea! At first it was barricaded by private hotels and villas which each divide and protect their portion. The destination of the sea proved as moving as I thought it might – I love the ocean (who doesn’t?) and seeing it spread before me was really quite something, even for this little trip.

But more urgent matter pressed me. I was hungry and as dry as the dust bowls that surrounded parts of the salt lakes. I bought a beer at a bar – no more food for the afternoon, though – and the barman filled my bidons with ice-cold water and some ice. Bliss. I drank deep. That was the best beer I have had for a long time.

So, ‘le petit tour’ is over. It wasn’t much of a tour but it was mine. The high and low points? The high points were the cycling itself, which I enjoyed even in the worse conditions; the camping at Ancône, right next to lake; and eating from my stove (and listening to the cricket). The low point came during the night, where the constant rain on the tent kept me awake and killed my spirits – and made my bottom lip wobble as I turned my bike into the heavy rain and rush-hour morning traffic in St. Laurent du pont.

The experience has given me some time to think about what makes a good short tour, what to take, some reviews on the equipment I used and all that so I’m going to collect my thoughts on that in the next blog post. Until the next one…

Made it! My trust Orbea on the beach at Le Grau-du-roi, France

‘Un petit tour’ – cycling from the Alps to the Mediterranean, via Ardèche and Provence

In an hour or so I will start cycling solo from the Alps region where I live to the Mediterranean. Along the way I will cycle through the contrasting landscape of Ardèche, through the red earth and tall plane trees of Provence, and end the trip at the wide flat salt plains and lagoons of The Camargue on the South coast. I’m carrying everything I need on a specially equipped touring bike, including my stove, tent and sleeping bag. It will take a few days and 400 or so kilometres.

It’s not an impressive trip especially: Googling ‘bicycle touring’ will quickly reveal the trials of those cross the globe on two fragile-looking wheels, perhaps circumnavigating more than once. One man quit his job, packed up and left home several years ago to embark upon a perpetual world tour, never to return (at least, not yet). Some people might cycle this distance in a couple of days. So, relatively speaking, it’s not ground-breaking. But it is for me. Besides, this trip is the beginning, not the end: I am certain there will be more to come. So I consider this a trial run of sorts: will I like it? Will it like me?

Which begs the question – why bicycle touring? In short, I might not get another chance like this. I have some free-time at the moment, so it’s opportune. I also want to get to know France, and in particular the places I am visiting, in the kind of depth that only the immersive, slow-paced approach a bicycle offers. I want to improve my French; and hopefully meet some interesting people, too – bicycle touring seems to dissolve social boundaries, it’s a good conversation starter. What’s more, I’m obsessed by cycling. It will be a pleasure to be on the road for so long in France, this ‘spiritual home’ of the bicycle (if I still think the latter after this tour I will judge it a success).

I am going to be blogging each evening and Tweeting along the way, technology permitting, with updates (although there will be no photos until the end of the trip since I don’t have the suitable doohickey at the moment). So, bye for now and I hope for a ‘bon voyage’.

My first mountain: cycling Mont Salève

From my study I can see Mont Salève, a mountain that forms part of the pre-Alps before the Alps proper begin. It’s full of tracks for hiking and mountain biking and I’ve taken my scooter along the winding road that traces the mountain’s spine dozens of times, mostly to wonder at the view of Mont Blanc amongst the mountains there.

Mont Salève in all its glory

I hadn’t been cycling long when I began to harbour a desire to climb Salève on the bike. At this point I could hardly winch myself around the block. But my dreams rolled before I could catch them: one day, I would think, one day.

Today was the day. I climbed the mountain.

There are five major paths to follow to climb Le Salève and I took neither the most difficult nor the easiest. I left my house and climbed the longish gradual incline to Mont Sion, when I took the road to St Blaise. These initial stages were the most difficult in the entire climb, at some points exceeding a 10% incline.

The road from St Blaise to Lachenaz is steep - and gets steeper as you climb

Here, I stopped briefly twice to reduce my heart rate, take it all in and shoot some photos. I never pushed the bike. I climbed it all in the saddle. In future attempts, I am confident that I won’t stop at all. At some points I wouldn’t look up in case the hill overwhelmed me. I thought: just keep spinning, just keep spinning. And I did, even though at times the road seem to rise up towards me and my legs burned and the bike weaved and I wanted it all to stop.

The mountain road twists and turns. Once you see the cobbles on the wall, you know you are nearly there

The mountain path itself is relatively easy. Its main difficulty is that it’s long and that one is likely to be tired from getting to this point. I didn’t push hard here and kept my heart rate at a reasonable and consistent level.  When I arrived at Virage du Salève, a stopping point for those who have made the climb, I was welcomed with the most amazing view of the Alps.

The prize for getting to Virage du Salève is to rest - and take in the view of the Alps

I decided to curtail my trip and descend at La Croisette to Le Coin rather than take the road through Le Sappey and return via Cruseilles. The weather was closing in and I felt coldish, although strong. The descent to Le Coin was almost as difficult as the climb earlier! It’s very steep and the many tricky hairpins are hard to navigate. The relatively flat road home was blissfully easy by comparison to what had come before.

The descent from La Croisette to Le Coin is nearly as difficult as the ascent. Nearly.

This is a significant achievement for me in that it is the culmination of months of regular cycling and lifestyle changes. I’ve become stronger, I can ride longer, I’ve lost weight and eat better; I feel better. I love cycling in itself and for what it has given me. I hope to go on to achieve new goals, including a metric and then imperial tonne. You might even find me on a higher longer mountain path sometime soon.

Climbing Salève isn’t of itself remarkable: many do it every day, some perhaps as you read this. I didn’t ride it quickly or with especial elegance or power (indeed, I suffered the obligatory humiliation of being passed by a gentleman at least 20 older than me and who was quite able to say a full and rounded ‘bonjour’ as he passed me on a particularly nasty climb, in contrast to my breathless reply). Nor is it a grand mountain, nor particularly long or arduous. But it was all those things for me. It was truly challenging. And besides, it was my first, so it’s worth remembering.

All of this is doesn’t make me a good cyclist or even a competent one. In fact, I would go further and say I’m a terrible rider. But perhaps before I was abominable, atrocious, lamentable even. At least I’m going in the right direction.

Living in France: the honeymoon is over

We moved to France around 18 months ago from the UK, to the Rhône-Alpes region. I’ve blogged about it before (several times) and how much we love it here.

But now the honeymoon is over.

Things aren’t quite the same. The infatuation with the newness of our local surroundings; the striking novelty of the particular differences in people, culture, foods and customs; the thrill of gazing through the window to see the mountain outside – all these have gently, imperceptibly evaporated. It is no longer quite the same to buy croissants on a Sunday morning and eat them with a bowl of hot coffee. Nor are the always less thrilling issues with living in an other country in general, and France in particular, met with amused charm, a gentle shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders, and a reflection that it is these sometimes difficult but quirky charms that remind us we are somewhere else.

These immediate thrills are gone, never to come back.

And what has replaced them is a deeper love: a richer and more satisfying love, for the people and the places, for the culture and society, and for the abundance of opportunities in all facets of life that ‘our’ part of France and Switzerland offer. The mountain still sits outside my window: but when I gaze at it now, I meet it more as a familiar friend, a sight so well studied that I am beginning to know its nooks and crannies; the way the light meets the sheer cliff face at morning, noon and dusk; the effects of seasons – snows, blisteringly hot summers, the thick cloud of indifferent days; I know its paths, the climbs and the unique way it stands among the other mountains of the Alps. Familiarity, breeding something infinitely more sublime than contempt, rather seems to nurture a growing love, as if it feeds on itself. In a musical metaphor, gone are the teeny screams to The Beatles of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ to be replaced by the excitement, joy and sustained satisfaction of ‘The White Album’.

Le Grand Piton, dusted with snow

Le Grand Piton, dusted with snow

Not just the place, beautiful though it is – it is the culture – and for me the literature, history, politics, art in particular – that mean more than ever, that keep living here fresh and vibrant. Here, the more you look the more you find and its unending generosity is awe-inspiring, just as is the culture I have left and still love so. (Here, the addition of a new culture need not mean dilution: I love England as much as ever.) Without France’s and Switzerland’s infinitely rich history and culture, the landscape – the Alps, Lake Geneva, the beautiful Annecy, just for starters – would not be nearly so rewarding. They feed one another, mean something greater than the sum of their parts only when together, like a marriage. I’ve started to learn more about France through iTunesU, through podcasts and paintings, the French language and reading but, importantly, I have learnt as much as anything else by being here. It’s not an armchair adventure.

And all this is made the richer by having – for the first time, it seems – memories attached with here and nowhere else. I played an album the other day (one of my favourites: ‘The Courage of Others’ by Midlake) and realised that I had, unlike much of the music I listen to, only ever heard it whilst living here. It is from here, like me as I am now.

If this sounds like a lovesong, it is. If I sound pleased with myself, I am – and lucky, too. Now the honeymoon is over, let us start the marriage.