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Here Comes the Sun

AixWhen I arrived in Aix-en-Provence a couple of weeks ago, it was a gorgeous summer afternoon in the south of France. The sun was shining, the sky was lapis blue. But it was not hot. Strangely enough, it wasn't all that warm. By the time I left the outdoor cocktail party for Vanderbilt-in-France alumni, it was downright chilly. That evening, sweaters and jackets were de rigueur (a must) in a place where intense sun and heat has made creating l'ombre (shade) an art form.

By Sunday, the Aix sky was overcast and rain showers punctuated sightseeing and strolling around la vieille ville (the older part of the town). I took lots of photos but the fabulously blue southern France sky was in nary a one. A good friend and fellow Francophile who came down from Paris to play for the week even exclaimed, "Where is the Provence sun that I have heard so much about?!"

AixOn Monday, we made the best of it and enjoyed a tour of several 17th and 18th century bastides et jardins (southern France country houses and gardens) in the countryside around Aix. Our French guide, Anne-Marie, rolled back layers of history with stories of aristocratic and wealthy families who would escape the stifling summer heat and pungent smells of town and find refuge in the sweet air of the campagne. One bastide even had a grotte de fraîcheur, a cool room decorated with seashells that had a cold spring pool and misters-an early version of the spa.

Over dinner on Tuesday night in St. Rémy, we contemplated what a sunless week in Provence in June would feel like. Bizarre. Odd. Not a vacation, we concluded.

St. RemyOn Wednesday morning, our worries were over. We opened of the shutters of the terrace-summer had arrived. The sun was out in full force. The heat was rising. It was as if the long, rainy, cold spring had never happened. Sweaters went to the bottom of les valises (suitcases) and tee-shirts and sandals were donned. To celebrate the occasion, we bought beautiful cheeses, olives, bread, fruit and rosé wine at the market and made a picnic on the terrace with its view of the Alpilles mountains.

Saturday put the exclamation mark on the season. It was June 21, the summer solstice and first official day of summer. Since 1982, France has opened its arms to the longest day of the year with the Fête de la Musique, a music festival where musicians of all types perform in the streets of towns across France. This year, more than 20,000 celebrations were held. In St. Rémy, we roamed the blocked streets of the town and took in Senegalese drummers, a modern version of Edith Piaf, a rock group and country western dancing.

SunflowersAt one of the outdoor markets that week, I passed a flower vendor with tournesols (sunflowers-literally, "turn toward the sun") for sale. The sign read simply "Soleil 5 euros le bouquet." A 'bouquet of sun' and a real confirmation of summer. I was charmed.

June 25, 2008


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