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.

Long shadows: lone tree in snow (photo)

I went out and about today on the scooter, to climb my local mountain here in the Alps, Mont Salève. It’s one of my favourite things to do – to start at the bottom and get to the top, by scooter, bike or on foot. I took my camera, as always, and took this photo on the return home.

When I started and when I ended there was sunshine; in between I was caught in hail, snow and heavy rain. Yet the worse the weather became, the more I enjoyed it. There is snow there, at altitude; here, lower down, there is none – just sunshine and green fields.

You can see more of my photographs here.

The French Alps: winter photo gallery


This gallery contains 8 photos.

I took these photos on recent walks near my home in the French Alps. The first photo in the gallery, ‘Winter Sunset’, was included in Flickr Explore for January/February 2012. You can see more of my most ‘interesting’ and Explored … Continue reading

All you’ve got to do is not exercise for twenty-three and a half hours a day: the long tail of everyday life

I saw this excellent video on Martin Weller’s blog and was so impressed I thought I’d share it here. The message is, in short, that exercise gets the ‘biggest bang for your buck’ in terms of any lifestyle change you can make. You needn’t hatch plans for that triathlon, either: it focusses on walking in the main.

That’s 30 minutes a day to reduce a number of risks of ill health. The implied message here is that relatively small changes make a big difference. In a way, it’s like Chris Anderson’s idea of the ‘long tail’: we don’t need to embark upon an enormous feat of fitness like climbing a mountain or running a marathon. Instead, we can achieve success through an accumulation of smaller successes.

So, why stop at exercise? Learn a language, write that novel – ok, perhaps ‘read that novel’ is more likely if you’re time-poor. But the point is that the changes needn’t be the kinds of major ones we chase when the New Year begins and we jot our hopeful resolutions in our new diaries. And, if you like photography, you could always try Blipfoto.

“Sh*t Photographers Say” and elitism in photography

That heavyweight heading shouldn’t put you off. All I’m saying really is nothing new. Since photography has been opened to the masses through the availability of cheaper, easier to use digital cameras and the ability to publish freely online, ‘professional’ (and the less well-paid ‘serious’) photographer has to cling on to power somehow. This short film brilliantly and hilariously shows how.

The opening line – ‘I only shoot film’ – pithily represents the elitism of pro/serious photography, and is funny too. When in doubt, deny the very basis of the revolution – in this case, suggest analogue is better than digital. But don’t feel isolated, pro snappers. You’re not the only ones. The assertion of power, conscious and deliberate or otherwise, happens everywhere in culture, everywhere in life. In fact, we’re probably doing it right now.

Get the tongue wagging – wine tasting at St Martin at Peissy

Every year of living in France we’ve visited nearby Peissy, in the Genevois basin, to taste the wines as part of the St Martin’s Day celebration of new wines. It’s a fun day – the people are friendly, the wines (especially the whites) are excellent and there is some good food, too. I’m certainly no connoisseur, just an enthusiastic amateur but it’s a great chance to find out what the local Swiss wines are like.

Autumn is here. This barn is by Peissy, in the Geneva basin, where we went wine tasting.

It occurred to me while we were there that the tongue is at the root of wine tasting. Not only does it taste the wines, of course – but you get to talk about them. After a couple of ‘tastes’ (I drink, not pour) it gives you the confidence to speak freely about the flavours you find in the wines – I think it frees the palette, too.

The lunch of champions. The sausage is called an longeole, a long sausage made of beef and pork. Marvellous.

This freedom of the tongue stops short of declaring that the wines taste like ‘sweaty gym shoes on hot tarmac’ but it does mean you get to think about what you drink, which has to be a good thing. You might even find yourself saying things like ‘high tones’ or ‘long oaky finish’ if you’ve tasted enough. That said, no one appears to be drunk, of course – and young adults drink them, too. What an education. It helps understand why people are said to have a healthier attitude to drinking.

View from Peissy over to Geneva. The vines are changing colour.

A wine tasting event like this – which is informal, and run by the people who make the wines, so it’s an enthusiastic encounter, is perfect for tasting different wines all together, one after the other, so you get to compare. This is invaluable, I think – when you taste several together you can really understand some of the differences between them.

What a beauty… kept an eye on me the whole time. Lovely furry coat he's wearing, ready for the snow

Another pleasure is to take the camera. It’s autumn and despite some high temperatures for this time of year, the leaves have begun to fall and vines change colour. So, there’s some good opportunities to capture that my camera. Something for the eye and the tongue, then.


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.

Is photography art? All you ever needed to know is in this portrait

Identical twins - 1967 - Diane Arbus (Copyright Arbus Estate)

For some, photography isn’t quite art because it simply captures reality. There is no artifice in many shots, no craft: the world comes together in a moment of specific configuration, more or less outside of an artist’s intent, and a photographer simply points the camera and – click! Art is made. Or isn’t, since the artist has very little to do. There isn’t the sheer hard work that goes in to, say, a painting or a novel. We might feel – ‘I could have done that!’ And indeed we could, if all photography means is to point and click.

Diane Arbus‘ photo ‘Identical Twins‘ shows us in a very immediate way that photography can do more than that. On one level we have a photo of two very similar girls. However, despite their clear resemblance we quickly notice differences: one girl is frowning a little while the other smiles; one pair of eyes is hooded, the other clear and open; the hands are slightly different, the hair; and so on. And as we notice those differences, we interpret those them as significant and meaningful: we might say that one child is happy; one less prim and proper than the other; one more dominant, and so on. We might then go on to think about the nature of identity, of how uniqueness triumphs uniformity. We find meaning in gaps, the differences between the two girls.

This process of finding ‘meaning in the gaps’ also lends itself to discovering the ‘art’ in photography. In this way of thinking, the similarity is not between two subjects but between the photograph and the reality it represents. The gaps are those elements where the photographer has introduced an element of creativity, artifice, illusion, call it what you will. In the above example, there are many examples. First, the photographer has assembled the two girls in a certain pose, emphasising the same hairstyle, clothes and so on. This helps us in seeing the differences – and finding the meanings – between the two subjects. It’s clearly not just a slice of life, although it might include that.

But note the junction between wall and floor: it is at an angle, higher on the left compared to the right. This is deliberate. We might interpret this as saying: what seems a balanced portrait is actually askew; although seemingly identical, our immediate perceptions are upset by the uncertainty that their differences bring; that the photograph wants to destabilise our preconceptions about what it means to be the same and yet not the same; that ultimately what seems to be a simple capturing of reality is really the product of the artist-photographer intent.

Reading photographs like this is underpinned by two central ideas. The first is that there is no such as thing as an ‘innocent’ photograph, that is, one taken without any kind of artifice or creativity. Even when taking holidays snaps we don’t just point and click: we might frame the face so the top of the head of our subject is not cut off; we’re told to put the main subject to one side to promote a sense of harmony, create some interest. The second central idea, following from the first, is that even the smallest details are often there deliberately. In ‘Identical Twins’, the slant of the junction between the wall and floor is deliberately significant, as we’ve seen.

What we have in this photo is a metaphor for the relationship between art and reality. Where two very similar images (ideas, symbols, techniques) are placed in close proximity it is likely that we will find differences between them. It is in those differences that the meaning lie. ‘Identical Twins’ (it’s title at once both plainly descriptive but, as we’ve seen, highly charged with meaning) by Diane Arbus is one of those key photographs that tell us more about the relationship between photography and reality, and between photography and art.

If you find this image a little unsettling there are good reasons for it. Our minds are programmed to identify the human face. When we see slight discrepancies between the real and the near-real, as we might most often in Japanese ‘humanoid’ robots or ultra-realistic computer games, we enter the ‘uncanny valley’, that phase of interpretation where an image appears strange,   Here, the differences between two ‘identical’ twins remind us of that disjunct. It is also the starkness of the black and white; the unfussy background which focusses our attention; the confrontational quality implied by the pose and gaze direct to the viewer. The film director Stanley Kubrick would later use a similar image for the murdered twins in his ‘The Shining’.