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Passion for Provence

When I first set foot in Provence as a student over twenty years ago, the coldest winter in decades bewildered the south of France. Snow dusted palm trees and cypresses up and down the Riviera. Centuries-old fountains transformed themselves into extravagant ice sculptures. Le mistral, the notorious north wind that blows down the Rhône Valley, blasted the region for days on end forcing everyone to stay indoors. Those unlucky enough to find themselves out in the elements seemed more surly than usual.

I was thankful for my down coat, long underwear and winter boots. But I longed for a hint of the region's intense sun, cobalt skies and luminous quality of light made famous by painters such as Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. And I wanted to experience firsthand that particular joie de vivre natural to natives of the Midi, the colloquial name of southern France.

Winter's irony soon gave in to my wishes. Provence exploded with light, color and scent. During that spring in Aix-en-Provence, a cosmopolitan university town about 17 miles from the port of Marseille, I lived a language, culture and world view other than my own. And in the process, I discovered a passion for the inimitable art of Aix's famous son, the painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906).

Mont Sainte Victoire"Were it not that I am deeply in love with the landscape of my country, I should not be here," the artist said in 1896. Cézanne's devotion to his birthplace is evident in his multiple panoramas of Mont Sainte-Victoire, the limestone mountain that towers east of Aix. Cézanne's fixation with this image parallels the series paintings of his contemporary, the Impressionist Claude Monet. What art lover has not viewed Monet's haystacks in different lights of day or the façade of Rouen cathedral at dawn or dusk? But the similarity ends there. Monet's Normandy, with its muted light, gray clouds and cool climate, has nothing in common with the sun-soaked, jewel-toned and earthy reality of Cézanne's Provence.

As a student, I looked out from my window each day at Mont Sainte-Victoire's distinctive silhouette. Today, I like nothing better than a good drive around the base of the mountain or a hike up to the top to see the iron Croix de Provence (Cross of Provence) up close. If time permits, a long lunch at the Relais Sainte-Victoire in the village of Beaurecueil is an added treat.* And coming back to Aix by way of the beautiful château of Vauvenargues where Picasso is buried is a definite must.



Cezanne PlaqueAnother compelling Cézanne site is his studio Les Lauves north of town.* In 1901, the artist purchased a small plot of land planted with olive and fig trees near the road le chemin des Lauves. He had a studio built which today remains much as he left it. The artist painted many of his still lifes and his monumental scenes of bathers at the studio. It is possible to visit other sites in Aix frequented by the painter. All you have to do is follow the bronze plaques imprinted with a large "C" which are found on sidewalks all over Aix. Or you can request a map "In the Steps of Cézanne" from the Aix tourist office.*

Cézanne's role as artist ambassador for Aix and its environs has drawn me to the area many times since my days as a student. I have decided to make yet another pilgrimage this summer to meet up with friends and get my Provence "fix." And while this time I won't need a winter coat, I might try to find a postcard photo or two of the Midi taken during that strangely snowy winter of 1985.

* The Relais Sainte-Victoire is located at 53 avenue Sylvain Gaultier in the village of Beaurecueil, approximately 10 kilometers from Aix. www.relais-sainte-victoire.com

* Cézanne's studio at Les Lauves is located at 9 avenue Paul Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence. www.atelier-cezanne.com

* The web site for the Aix Tourist Office is http://www.aixenprovencetourism.com/.

June 4, 2008

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