Passion for Provence
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).
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
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.
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
* 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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