Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Path of the painters

While it sort of seems like it, this blog is not only about the food we eat. It's also about the things we do here, so for friends and family who aren't as enamored of cuisine as I am, I'm going to take a short break from pictures of food and cheese.

I mentioned in one of the earlier posts that Aix is the childhood home of Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola. They were even friends, although their relationship later became strained after Zola wrote some things that made Cezanne a little angry. Something about a thinly-veiled, and unflattering portrayal. In any case, there are lots of sites around here honoring them both, but the more obvious ones seem to be following in the steps of Cezanne and, in fact, as of 2006 he has held the title of the most famous artist of Aix-en-Provence.

A really nice thing to do on a sunny day is go on a long walk toward one of the borders of Aix proper. To be honest the northern, eastern and southern borders seem more scenic than anything westward, but I'm still exploring. One walk that I really like, which was so nice that I did it a second time with James (on a freezing cold day -- if you look closely at the picture, you may see that my eyes are watering and my nose is running it was so cold), is to take the rather steeply sloping Avenue Philippe Solari north to Avenue Léo Lagrange. Up to this point, it's just a pretty walk. If you look back down the hill you've come up, you can see some pretty views of Aix's rooftops and the Chaîne de L'Etoile range between Aix and Marseille. But when you get to Léo Lagrange and head east, you get a really great view of Mont Sainte Victoire, one of Cezanne's most famous subjects, off in the distance.

Behind me, to my right, you can see one of the Pillars of the Gate -- and as much of a mystery as they are to me, I only know their name. They're in the center of a roundabout at the intersection of Léo Lagrange and Avenue Paul Cezanne. I'm not sure what they were the gates of, or when. There are no special markings on them and there's no plaque that I can see commemorating anything, but clearly they were gates into and out of something. So I'm going to have to ask at the office of tourism about these. Anyway, they're not really the point of this post.

If you head farther north on Avenue Paul Cezanne, you get many other pretty views of the countryside around Aix (left) and views of Mont Sainte Victoire (right, below). Eventually, you'll pass the Résidence Paul Cezanne, which I thought was a residence he had lived in but which I discovered, when I approached the gate and tried (unsuccessfully) to get in, is actually a gated retirement community. It's on the same street as the Atelier Cezanne. Hey, it could be his house -- except that upon peeking through the gate that you can't enter, you can see it looks like an apartment building. Anyway, right across from the retirement home is a little pedestrian walking path that takes you to the end of the Terrain des Peintres, or Painters' Territory, and beyond. I think "Painters' territory" sounds weird, hence the revised title of this post.

You can take the path out of Aix, all the way to the Oppidum d'Entremont a Celto-Ligurian settlement dating from the second century BCE. I tried to go there on my first walk, but it was Tuesday, November 11th and the cite is closed on Tuesdays, and on certain national holidays like November 11th (and December 25th, January 1st and May 1st). So it was doubly closed.

Right before you get to the Oppidum d'Entremont, there's a little interpretive center with information on the surrounding countryside. The only thing is, the view from the interpretive center of said countryside is quite obscured (by trees). So you can't exactly tell where you're looking, which is a little frustrating. From further down the path back toward Aix, you get an unobscured view of the Plaine de L'Etang de Berre, the Chaîne de l'Etoile (where there are lots of indigenous species, including some rare orchids, and where as recently as the time of Cezanne there were 326 more species than there are now) and the Roquefavour aqueduct. I'm not sure where the first two begin and end, but you can see the aqueduct with the naked eye -- although not with the camera, which reveals it to be a long, pale, barely visible smudge. According to the interpretive center, it's the largest in the world and it looks impressively large even from a distance. It was built in the 1840s as part of a project to bring fresh water from the Durance river to Marseille and is still in use today.

The countryside around Aix really is beautiful and the pictures don't do it justice -- and this is already fall/winter when a lot of things are brown. It's also really agricultural, and you see some examples of that in unexpected places. For instance, on my way to the Oppidum d'Entremont, I passed by what looked like a public green space/small olive grove. On my way back down to Aix, I learned, from a man who was harvesting the olives, that it was actually a functioning olive grove. Actually, of all the agricultural surprises I could have found, this should probably be the least surprising. According to the tourist office website, there are over 2000 olive growers and around 300,000 olive trees in Aix. I'm not sure who counts as an olive grower, but that's a lot of olive trees.

As you can see, he has a bright green tarp spread out under the tree he's harvesting from. He seemed to be picking the olives by hand rather than shaking the tree, but I guess he puts the tarp down to catch any that fall by accident. He had a basket full of mostly green and some purple and green olives that he had already harvested. He said he was going to take them to a local cooperative and get them pressed into oil. I haven't seen him selling at any of the markets but maybe he uses the oil himself.

(From the tourist perspective, it's really too bad that you can't zoom in on this picture more because he was wearing one of those French striped sailor shirts that I didn't think French people actually wore. Maybe they only wear them when harvesting olives.)


Jessica said...

You're such a good writer! Why is no one commenting??

Erin said...

We did the Cezanne hike, it was very cool - I like reading about the events as the food entries require a glass of wine!