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!