Sunday, March 29, 2009

La randonnée

We didn't know it before we came to Aix, but hiking is really a part of the popular culture around here. You can walk to a trailhead that is barely outside the city limits of Aix. (It may take about 40 minutes of walking to get to that trailhead, and another fifteen to get to what really feels like a hiking, but you can do it.) Besides that, there are lots of trailheads that are a short, local bus ride away and even more that are a longer bus or train (or two) ride away, but still close enough that you can go make it there for a day-hike. And there are really great hikes leaving from trailheads within Marseille (ah Marseille!).

It's great.

The trails are really well marked with very tidy, well painted lines. The markings are very easy to follow. Each balisage or "marker" is just a line (or two) in the color(s) of the trail you're on. If you're just supposed to follow along the way you're headed, you'll see the marker like the one on this tree on the right. If you're supposed to turn left or right, the marker is shaped to indicate that, as in the schematic below. And if you kept going straight and didn't turn (in other words, if you were going the wrong way) either because you were trying to go off the trail or because you missed one of the hard-to-miss markers, a neat little "x" would tell you that you needed to go back a few paces and find the right path.

Ok, so by now you've seen the little pictures to the right of the schematic ... how many hikers does it take to paint a trail marker in France? Apparently it takes three, but they do it really well.

Probably because they trails are so well marked and accessible, people are out taking advantage of them. All kinds of people -- from serious hikers to people who are wearing street shoes (no stilettos ... yet!) and should probably be exercising a little more caution than they are. To be fair, I've gotten a look or two from the real hikers for wearing my running shoes rather than hiking boots. And mostly the people wearing perfume that you can smell for a minute or two after you've parted ways aren't too far from the trailhead on trails that you probably could do in loafers ... if it's dry and if you've got good balance.

We've been doing quite a bit of hiking lately and we are even the proud owners of two topo map hiking guides published by La Féderation Française de la Randonnée Pédestre that are small and light enough to take on the hike with you but more educational than a plain old topo map so that you get to learn a little something about the area around the trail you're hiking. They're like a portable interpretive center.

Check out these links for pictures and info on the hikes:

Sainte Victoire -- Refuge Cezanne-Collebasse to the Croix de Provence

Lac Bimont, Hameau les Bonfillons, St. Marc-Jaumegarde

Fontaine des Tuiles

Les Goudes -- le col de la Galinette

La Glacière -- Photos lost when James' computer crashed :-(

Cassis -- le plateau d'En-Vau

La randonnée -- Refuge Cezanne-Collebasse to the Croix de Provence

As you may remember from the Path of the Painters post, or as you may already know because you're a Cezanneophile, or as you may be learning as you read this (get to the point already, right?), la montagne Sainte-Victoire figures prominently in the landscape of the Pays d'Aix. And after living here for a while, it feels comforting to catch glimpses of it from places in Aix, or to see it when you're on your way to Paris on the TGV, or when you're taking a bus away from Aix to go on another hike. I guess it would be more comforting if you saw it when you were coming home, but it tends to be dark when we're coming home so we don't get to. In any case, Victoire (as I like to call her) is really quite beautiful and whatever magical thing it is about the light at this latitude, it lights up the rock in infinite ways. These two photos were taken about an hour apart: white (left), pink (right).

We decided that for our first outing it would be most fitting to go to Victoire, so we tried to plan said hike. And it was actually looking pretty complicated.

We hadn't been to a bookstore yet because we were told that hiking maps were prohibitively expensive, so I looked online. I found plenty of photos of recent hikes on Sainte-Victoire and plenty of information about Sainte-Victoire and her influence in the works of Cezanne and Picasso, but there was next to nothing about the hiking trails or how to get to the trailheads. Finally, and I don't remember what I ended up searching for, I found Les Amis de Sainte Victoire, which at least had some vague maps of the trails.

Then there was the issue of how to get there. Most of the hikes we've found online (and in the books we have now seen) assume that you have a car and can park at one of les parkings so they don't include ways to get the trailheads by public. However, lucky for people who want to hike Victoire, there's a little shuttle called "La Victorine" that makes several trips a day, everyday, to the north and south sides of Victoire and passes by places where, thanks to Les Amis, we knew there were trailheads. And, it's only the price of a local bus ticket! (Although it has its own, special tickets.)

So, considering that the Victorine site has info about hikes that you can do on Victoire, you might expect it to be very informative about where the stops are in relation to the trailheads. But this map is it.

The website even has a page devoted to info about several hikes, but instead of being explicit about how to get to the trailhead, in the column where the Victorine stop for a particular hike is listed, it says things like quel parking? or "which parking lot?" and arrêt à la demande? or "stop if requested?" Those little question marks seem harmless, but if the bus doesn't really know which parking lot to stop in or if it doesn't really stop if requested, that means you're walking several extra kilometers along a non pedestrian friendly road to try to find the trailhead. Then again, you might also expect the website to be informative about where the bus originates, but in fact it just says "La Rotonde" -- a large roundabout with bus stops all the way around, none of which is marked as a Victorine stop.

So I say all that at the risk of sounding like a whinybaby not because it would influence us not to go (on the contrary, it makes it more of an adventure!) but because vagueness in the transportation department is a running theme in our hiking outings. Many schedules are somewhat nebulous here, and I don't mean like the CTA where the posted schedule says the bus is supposed to come every ten minutes, but sometimes you wait 40 and then three buses arrive piggybacked (in fact, here the buses are pretty much right on schedule). It's that the schedules aren't always clear about where the bus picks up, or lets off, and sometimes because the bus doesn't actually exist at all. And yet, knock on wood, we've always made it to where we wanted to go. It seems like everyone is used to the vagueness and no one thinks twice about having to ask other people at the bus stops which bus they're waiting for or where the bus to X is and when it leaves. And I'm talking about locals here, not just tourists. So we ask, and people ask us, and eventually you get where you want to go once you ask the right person the right question.

We knew we were off to a good start when it was a beautiful, sunny day and, more importantly, when we found La Victorine parked at La Rotonde and the driver was nice enough to point to the actual bus stop where she'd pick up passengers. (No, even upon closer examination it was not marked as a Victorine stop.) Things got even better when I told the driver that we wanted to get off at one of the "à la demande?" stops and she said it was no problem. Of course, I wasn't totally sure she'd remember, or that I'd recognize it and be able to tell her to stop in case she didn't.

Lucky for us some nice people on the bus overheard me asking another passenger where we were as she was getting off at an unmarked stop. It turned out that the next unmarked stop was ours and that these people were getting off too. Rather than just point us to the trailhead, Geneviève and Gérard invited us to hike with them.

Genevève and Gérard are about 60, live in Aix and have children who are around our age. They're also super fit. They asked us in the beginning if we were pretty experienced because they said that there were parts of the hike that required some athleticism and they told us that if they were going to fast to tell them and we could slow down. It's not that I doubted their fitness or even overestimated my own when they asked those questions, but this turned out to be a hard hike. The trail (the yellow one from the Refuge Cezanne to Colle basse) is, in fact, rated as difficult on this map and that wasn't an exaggeration.

We took that trail up to the crest and then went to le prieuré, or "priory" (which is eventually going to be a spot where hikers can spend the night), and then on to the Croix de Provence (a large cross at the highest point on the western side of Victoire, basically on top of the peak in the pictures above).

There's one part on the yellow trail where you're supposed to climb a chain like you see in this photo, originally posted on the website of Les Amis de Sainte Victoire. This is actually the old chain, but if you click on this link and scroll down a bit, you can see les Amis climbing cheerfully up the current chain which, as the text says, is much improved over the old one because it's heavier and is anchored at points that are off-set so there's less risk of sliding all the way down from the top.

Below one of the pictures, Les Amis say that the chain can be difficult for people who are trying it out for the first time, but they make it up with ease. And that's pretty much what happened with us. Geneviève and Gerard scrambled up like it was a walk in the park and, despite the "new and improved" chain, we took the alternate route (marked on the map with yellow dots) that circumvents the chain. I thought they might like to split up at that point, but they didn't and when we got to the top, we all had a nice picnic lunch together and they pointed out other landmarks that you can see from Victoire.

This view is toward the north. Off to the northeast (right side of the panorama) you can see the snow-covered Alps. (This was at the end of January.) Then the range in the distance in the center-right should be the mountains of the upper Var, and the range on the left of the picture are the mountains of the Luberon (where we will definitely go hiking). The snow covered peak off in the distance on the left is the Mourre Negre (in Provençal, mourre = face/snout/muzzle and negre = black) the highest peak in the Luberon. In the bottom left of the picture, you can just see a little bit of lake which is Lac Bimont. So now you can look this up on a map if you're so inclined.

Here we are at the Croix de Provence, Alps behind us in the distance.

There are lots of hiking trails to Victoire from surrounding towns and villages, and you can even walk to the Croix de Provence from Aix. There are plenty of hiking trails on the mountain itself, or rock-climbing if that's more your speed.

All the hiking around here is great and Geneviève and Gérard gave us some great tips about other areas to go hiking (some of which we've already visited), as well as the name of those guidebooks which make getting there a lot easier ... at least as far as finding the trailhead is concerned. Getting there by public remains a different matter, but we've been able to go hiking almost every weekend since the end of January.

So more posts to come about other hikes, and with more photos next time -- Geneviève and Gérard's half-jog up Sainte Victoire didn't leave much time for photos!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pi(e) day!

March 14th is Pi(e) Day. It's also the birthday of James' brother John, but since we're rarely in New Mexico in March, we tend to celebrate with pie only, rather than pie and birthday cake.

For the uninitiated, who are probably thinking, "US National Pie Day is January 23rd, so I don't know what you're talking about, unless you're telling me that March 14th is French pie day", note the way I've spelled "pie" with parentheses around the "e". Now you know what I'm talking about. Pi(e) Day is March 14th or 3.14, like the number.

My friend Ann, a pie maker extraordinaire, introduced me to this holiday NINE years ago. The tradition has evolved somewhat over the years, and different friends have been brought into the Pi(e) fold, but the core ideals have not changed. You have to eat a lot of different kinds of pie and you have to eat each slice from crust to tip, making a wish on the final bite of each slice. I also like to have pizza or quiche for dinner on Pi(e) day, but that's not really part of the holiday because it's all about eating sweet pies.

Well, Pi(e) Day doesn't work so well in France. For one thing, there is no 3.14 because dates don't go in the format, they're day.month. So for 3.14, you're left with the 3rd day of the 14th month or, if you get a little loosey-goosey with your decimal point, the 31st day of the 4th month -- neither of which exists in the Gregorian calendar. (And even in the French Republican calendar, adopted for about a decade after La Revolution, there were just 12 months of 30 days each with the extra five or six tacked on at the end, so no luck there either!)

Besides that, it's not so easy to find several slices of pie all in one place (even at the tarte-lady's because hers are mostly savory). Most pâtisserie will have one or two sliced tartes (usually an apple and a custard), but in Ann's and my tradition, we need about five different kinds. You'll be able to increase your pie diversity if you buy some individual tartelettes, but these are round and too small to cut into (normal) slices, so you can't eat them from crust to tip and make your wish.

What's a Pi(e) lover to do?

Well, you can improvise, as James and I did. And you can still go on a great hike in Cassis!

Before leaving for our hike, we identified a boulangerie-pâtisserie where there were slices of the requisite apple tarte and custard tarte (although it was chocolate, not plain). They looked ok, but we decided to press on in search of better tartes after the hike. And we were justly rewarded at Sucr'E Délices, where they were extremely friendly and happy to tell us about their desserts and to discuss the fougasse that they had there.

The window was filled with beautiful desserts, unfortunately for my Pi(e) Day quest, mostly of the non-pie variety. As I stood there looking at them, I wondered if I could cut any of them into pie-shaped wedges and call them pie, but they were too un-pie-like, except for the three we got.

Lemon-basil tartelette ...

Orange-cinnamon tartelette ...

Religieuse à la violette ...

Ok, so that last one isn't, strictly speaking, a pie. Une religieuse (or "nun" -- the little choux on top is supposed to be her head) is essentially an eclair of a different shape: choux pastry filled with crème pâtissière and decorated with glaze the flavor of the filling. (They usually come in chocolate or coffee, but this one was violet!) But like I said, we were improvising and it was more like a pie than any of the other wonderful looking desserts in the window (the tartelettes aside). In fact, it turned out to be much more like a pie than any religieuse I have ever eaten because the choux was actually a little salty -- just like a pie crust. So it was perfect.

And here's how they all looked as slices of pie:

The cut-off sides were eaten first, and then the slices of pie from crust to tip.

They were delicious and nuanced and that religieuse was the best non-traditional pie I have ever had on Pi(e) day. Ok, so it's the only non-traditional pie I've had on Pi(e) day, but still. It was an excellent pastry. Its violet crème pâtissière was not at all soapy -- a risk with violet -- and the choux? This choux was not the soggy, bland choux that you eat only because it's the polite way to consume the delicious crème pâtissière that it holds. No, this choux had texture and flavor. Choux never tasted so good, except when fried and dipped in sugar.

But I probably shouldn't be surprised. I learned, when looking for the link to Sucr'E Délices, that one of the co-owners was named pâtissier of the year last year by a famous French food critic and guidebook author.

I will make sure to go there every time we go hiking in Cassis.

And since I feel like I didn't get quite enough pie on Pi(e) Day, I've decided I'm going to celebrate the holiday at least once more this year. I may celebrate on the 118th day (the 365/pi day) of the year, or I may celebrate by taking my first bite of pie at 3:14 on 1.5 (1st of May).