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Five Days in Provence

It’s September – your wife/ partner has used up their entire annual leave and you’ve got 5 day’s to spare. You work for a company that has a “use it, or lose it” holiday policy. Do you:
a) spend five days at home doing the chores that you have been putting off for the past year; or
b) embrace the “cheap flights” and “” world that have helped shrink-wrap the earth to the size of a computer keyboard?

Lift off! Within seconds I could see our house – we live 10 minutes drive from the airport. I thought of my wife, Nibby waking up without me and made a note that someone in our village has a swimming pool. I decided to get to know them on my return. In an hour and forty minutes I was in Marseilles to begin five days in Provence. Not exactly Peter Mayle’s year, but better than glossing the skirting boards. I wondered what would be in store for me as I reached into my pocket for the £1.50 to purchase a shot of caffeine from the friendly cabin staff dressed in luminous green. I was sure that, in case of emergency, the colour had been chosen to save the need for floor lights leading to the exit.

Day 1 – A Bad Shoulder in Avignon

The “shoulder season” in the Mediterranean is the period between the return to school after the long summer, and the onset of the half-term holiday at the end of October. The weather is still warm, prices are lower, accommodation is in greater supply, and battalions of children are absent. Take the weather comment with a pinch of salt. Provence had what appeared to be its annual supply of rain upon my arrival. (I would later find out worse was in store.) Nevertheless, the intention of taking a meandering, scenic drive to Avignon in my hire car was rendered useless by the zero visibility, coupled with rain so horizontal that I wondered how it could possibly be falling from the sky. I had to take the A7 toll road instead, the inappropriately named “l’autoroute du soleil”. My “shoulder season” was already slightly chipped.

However, within fifty minutes, the ancient walled city opened its gates to what was the Capital of Christianity in the middle ages. From its place as a trading centre in the 12th Century, to the arrival of the popes during the 14th, the sense of age was overwhelming. Not least of which, because the battalions of children appeared to have been replaced with, what appeared on first sight, to be a global Saga convention being held at the Palais du Papes. The palace was the residence of the sovereign Pontiffs, and many of the delegates must have been some of its original residents on a nostalgia trip to their former home. My “shoulder season” had already become rather arthritic. However, the tour of the Palais was enthralling. It’s twenty-five rooms, courtyard, cloister, halls, chapels, private papal apartments and priceless frescos are a compulsory visit. I did wonder however, whether the man and woman that narrated the English version of my audio guide have the concession to do the same for each monument around the globe. No matter what country and what monument, I was sure it was their voices purring out of my headset. Are there similar French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese couples that are as prolific? The thought of six couples delivering the patter on each ancient global attraction is quite a wonder in itself.

Pont St. Benezet is the other “must see” in Avignon. It’s a short walk north west of the Palais du Papes. Otherwise known as Pont d’Avignon, only four of its original twenty-two arches remain. As a result its span across the Rhone is broken. Most of the bridge was swept away by floods in the 17th Century and, given the rain that I’d witnessed; I was amazed that the remaining arches survived my visit. I was delighted to hear the dulcet, soporiphic tones of our English speaking global headset guides pouring from my audio.

Each city is best walked. The café lined Place de l’Horlage, the expensive designer shops and galleries in rue Joseph Vernet and the rue des Tienturiers – the heart of real Avignon. It was here that the delegates to the aforementioned Saga convention were unlikely to venture. The 18th Century calico-printing business that gave birth to its name can now be heard via the beat of the local patois along the narrow, cobbled streets, tiny bars, brasseries and shops. A visit here for a glass of the local Vaucluse heart starter would have ensured that the Saga delegates cured their arthritis in those “shoulder season” joints and had their arms wheeling in concentric circles like a demented Pete Townsend. The nearby Koala Bar on the Place des Corps Saintes attracted a far younger crowd who were into loud rock music and all things Aussie (including Osbourne). At the then ripe old age of 39, I thought that some of the regulars believed that I must have strayed from the global Saga Convention that they had no doubt heard about.

Rest. Knackered after my early start, the small Hotel Garland, formerly a private home, situated under the bell tower of St Dideri Church and a sort walk from the Palais du Papes provided the much needed bed. Mme Michelot and her black cat were a slightly spooky welcoming feature. I had weird dreams.

Day 2 – From Avignon to Aix

“Here comes the sun, do do do do”. I opened the shutters to discover shafts of warm sunlight beaming through the grilles over my window. It was going to be a good day. A drive across the Luberon that took in the villages along the wine route of the Chateau de la sud Luberon beckoned. “Sun, sun, sun here it comes.”  George Harrison’s song of joy had stamped its imprint on my brain as I said “adieux” to Avignon, and headed towards the Eastern Vaucluse and the picturesque hilltop villages of Gordes, Menerbes, Bonnieux and Cucuron.

The approach to Gordes was sensational. The ancient stone gleamed gold in the sun, offset against the deep blue sky, it transfixed me as I drove up the narrow winding road and left the plain below. However, it was too beautiful. The village was so pleased with itself that it’s stuffed full of expensive restaurants, cafes and art shops. It is apparently the village of choice as second homes for the A- list media types who are so far up themselves that they’ve all damaged their wisdom teeth. Gordes therefore is rendered somewhat soulless. I stayed for 30 minutes, which was long enough to spend nearly 6 euros to park my car and sip possibly the most expensive soft drink sold outside of the Champs Elyses.

On to Menerbes. Shaped like a ship, its narrow, stepped streets present a pot-pourri of Provencal colours, fortified buildings and neat terraces. I liked it. Despite the fact that it was lunchtime and I was not hungry, it had a beat.

Bonnieux was a cyclists paradise. I wish I could think of a suitable collective noun for what looks like groups of psychedelic martians competing with each other for the “who’s got the narrowest wheels” challenge. It must be great though to be able to bust ones lungs like that. Bonnieux boasts a view of Gordes, Roussillon and nearby Lacoste, which takes the breath away even without the need for a cycle.
On to the rue de chateau de la sud luberon, with vineyards and chateau that demanded a “degustation”. Blast – I had the car and couldn’t. Aix therefore beckoned.

I had difficulty navigating the sprawling suburbs. It took me a while to work out that “Toutes Directions” signs pointing to the right, actually mean, “go straight ahead”. Still, once in the old city I was rewarded with an exquisite blend of pastel coloured buildings that housed the restaurants, cafes, bars and people lining Aix’s narrow, mazy streets.

With a Provencal meal booked for the following evening, I decided to eat at SAS, Aix’s best-known Senegalese restaurant. Three hours and two courses later, I left with a bruised backside from a chair that collapsed faster than a Jurgen Klinsmann dive. Crack, crash, “crap”. Take my advice. If you are ever in a restaurant on your own and find that the wicker chair gives way, do not under any circumstances grab the tablecloth to break your fall. You’ll end up wishing that the alarm clock would ring, awakening you from a rather surreal dream. Unfortunately, the only ringing I could hear was the side splitting laughter chiming from the thirty-one other hungry souls, wondering whether this was a distraction from their empty tables. A walk to the broom cupboard, thinking that it was the loo only served to enliven the unintended cabaret. The food was great, but the service was so slow that I half expected a croissant with my main course to double up as “le petit dejuner”. If you’ve got the time, the Yasser d’agneau is a must. Fortunately, it doesn’t come wrapped in a Palestinian headscarf, but is a “shoulder season” shoulder of lamb, stewed in lemon juice, spices, mustard and onions. Not sure if it was really Senegalese – but it was tasty nonetheless.

Day 3 – Markets, Cezanne and Mt Ste Victoire

Saturday is market day in Aix. The city is enveloped with stalls selling every possible produce delivered by the rich Provencal soil. At Place du Pecheur, you’ll move at the pace of an “escargot”. I swear that I counted up to 27 varieties of wild mushroom on one stall as I inched past. Magic.

The Atelier Paul Cezanne, a 15-minute walk from the centre is worth a visit. The studio is left exactly as it was when the great artist brushed his last stroke and passed on to the still life in the sky. Some of the fruit could do with replacing though – unless rotting flesh was an allegory for something vital that had entirely passed me by.

Mt Ste Victoire, 8 km to the east of Aix was painted by Cezanne countless times. It’s walkable – about a three to four hour round trip. However, after an episode on Table Mountain 9 months earlier, I’d developed chronic vertigo. It’s a good job I’m only five foot seven. The 60km circular drive around the mountain was pretty good compensation though. At Vauvenarges, a red-shuttered fourteenth century chateau boasts an uninterrupted view to the slopes of the mountain. Picasso bought it in 1958 and lived there until he went to paint with Cezanne in 1973. He’s buried in the gardens. The property is private, unmarked and still owned by his step-daughter, so there’s absolutely no chance of seeing whether the master’s handiwork stretched to painting the walls and fine glossing the skirting boards.

The premier view of Mt Ste Victoire lies to the east of Le Tholonet, at Maison de Ste Victoire, now a tourist-centre at the base of the massif.

Le Bistro Latin for dinner? Why not. When the best Provencal bistro in Aix offers a set menu for 26 euros, it struck me as somewhat churlish not to go. I was glad I had booked, it was worth the indignities at the Senegalese restaurant the previous evening. A meal at Le Bistro Latin helped me realise why Provencal cooking is one of the great cuisines of France. No collapsing chairs and broom cupboard incidents here. I returned to the Hotel Le Manoir a tranquil and historic house with a 14th century cloister, well replenished and able to drift to sleep for my final night in Aix.

Day 4 – Pognol, Cassis, Le Corniche des Cretes and Le Merde du Chien

I pointed the car towards the coast. Cassis is a small fishing port, south of Marseille, much loved by artists at the turn of the last century. No doubt it was also favoured by the Saga conference delegates during their youth at the same time. Winston Churchill later used it as inspiration to paint. The drive wound its way through the Chaine de la Ste-Baume and the small towns of Gemenos and Aubagne, the birthplace of Marcel Pagnol, who set the wonderful “Jean de Florette” and “Manon des Sources” on the slopes of the Garlaban mountain just to the north.

The port is a trifle twee, but no less relaxing for that. Cassis is also known for its “calanques”. These are deep, narrow inlets cut into dramatic, white limestone cliffs. If I had time to remain longer, their inaccessibility by road would have made them a spectacular place to sunbathe and dip into the calm, deep blue fjords. However, on my brief visit, a boat trip taking in three of the more dramatic calanques had to suffice.  Back in the car, the Corniche des Cretes, a vertigo defying drive, snaked its way over the Montagnes de la Canaille. The road twisted and turned like a corkscrew as it rose vertically to offer dramatic views above the sea looking back to Cassis and round the cape to the former shipbuilding town of La Ciolat ahead below. 

Time for Marseille. I had booked ahead into the Tonic Hotel at the Vieux Port on the apex of the Quai Belges and the Quai de Rive Neuve. I’d set Marseille up in my mind as a smouldering ethic cauldron where the north African migrants mixed with the descendants of the revolutionaries that marched from the Rhine to Paris in 1792 giving the French the “Marseillaise” in to the bargain.

I’d also dreamt of bouillabaisse for days. The saffron infused fish soup, possibly the Marseillais’ most renowned culinary invention. It was set up for a calamitous fall. Marseille may be a great city, but my personal experience ensures that I am unlikely to be employed by the city’s tourist board.

It began well enough. My hotel room was in a prime location, and actually had a Jacuzzi. A relaxing soak was in order. As the water fizzed around me, I began to get a headache from the motor, which did not sound unlike our washing machine at home. Scrubbed up and spun dry, I headed out for by destiny with bouillabaisse. I made the wrong choice. The overpriced (27euros) apology that I had at the Hippolite (Sea Horse) on the Quai du Port, thrown at me by a waiter, so surly that I can only imagine that living in Marseille had got to him, was just about saved by the superb ½ bottle of Vin du Cassis to wash down my disappointment. Bouillabollocks!

I decided to head to a bar, any bar, along the Cours Julien for a little après repas jollity. However, I found the atmosphere created by gangs of aggressive testosterone filled men somewhat threatening and turned to head back to the Vieux Port to regain my bearings. As I swung round, my nice new open-toed leather sandaled feet skidded on the largest pile of dog shit ever laid. The poor animal must have been fed on left over bouillabaisse from the Hippolite throughout its life. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the city. I’d already noted that a sixteenth century commentator had stated that it “rained shit…in Marseille.” We should always learn from history.

After a change of footwear and reacquainting my feet with the Jacuzzi, I fancied a pression at one of the many bars lining the Quai des Belges back at the Vieux Port. As I relaxed and admired the street life strolling by in the heavy late summer night air, my beer was snatched by a skinny punk who appeared to be able to run faster than Linford Christie. There was only one thing for it – head to bed and plan my final day well way from this carbuncle of a city.

Day 5 L’Autoroute du soleil – (you must be joking)

I awoke early and planned to get out of Marseille as quickly as my Renault Kangoo would allow me. I’d decided that a circular route through the Chain des Alpitles to Ste Remy de Provence, Les Beaux and, if I had time, down to the Carmargue and Arles, would be just the ticket. To enact the plan I had to take the A7 “l’autoroute du soleil” to past the “arid” Salon de Provence towards Avignon again. However, needs must. The Renault and I were on tip-top form as Marseille vanished behind me. L’autoroute du soleil itself only has two features. First, it’s an autoroute; second – the soleil. Once again its name defined all logic known to its creators. No sun. The sky darkened, vehicles ground to a halt. “Radio Trafic’s” English language service told me what lay ahead. The rain had been so devastating that sections of three motorways in the Rhone Valley had been closed. The first detour at Salon was supposed to divert along the A53 east to Nimes, and then north along the A9. Just one problem – the A9 east of Nimes was also flooded out of existence.

I had to turn back at Salon. Three hours later, I’d completed the remaining 10km to the junction. My relief at being able to head back was short-lived. The motorway to Marseille was blocked at the Salon entrance. I had one choice left, and headed across country through the enraged tempest back to Aix. Although only 30km’s from Marseille, the two cities are worlds apart. Aix is stunning; Marseille is ugly. Aix’s people are beautiful, warm and welcoming – the Marseillais  huh words at last fail.

I bought some gifts and soaked up the atmosphere. Literally, given that rivers of rainwater flowed through its narrow streets like blood coursing through veins pumped along by each clap of thunder pounding out its anger overhead. I was glad that I’d returned to Aix though. A final pression under the rain filled canapé at the L’unic brasserie was the ideal way to wind-down as the heavens dried up, and the sun returned to light the variety of pastel colours that adorn Aix’s lovely buildings.


I had emailed and spoken to Nibby on my mobile regularly. The wonders of modern communication allowed some contact. Sure, it made the world a smaller place, but I’d rather have shared my experiences together. I wanted her to hear the laughter among clientele at the Senegalese restaurant as I wound up on my back with my chair and the contents of the table collapsed on top of me like an Ikea flat pack. I wished to share it all.

However, as the man in a luminous green polyester shirt welcomed me aboard the flight I knew that within two and a half hours she’d be hearing it all again.

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