Soon after we emerge from Le Tunnel, we start the time-honoured litany of English folk on to the Continent. “The French are so much more stylish.” “Thinner too.” “Cultured.”
We eat croissants and pains au chocolat and resolve to kick out the schoolboy Franglais once and for all. “I am, finally, going to learn French properly, starting now.”
It is the right time for such declarations. I’m with my son Conor, who has recently finished college and needs to think what to do next. He’s also here to carry my bag as I’ve broken my kneecap.
“At least if you end up in a French hospital, they’re much better than ours.”
But our real panegyrics are reserved for the train: the first-ever direct London to Aix-en-Provence service, which Eurostar is trialling until 29 June (there will be another train to Avignon for the rest of the summer). It is certainly convenient, and fast: after hopping on at London St Pancras, we bypass Paris and before lunch reach Lyon, the first stop. I reckon George Stephenson is up there on his steam cloud laughing into his stovepipe hat, because the age of the train is definitely not over. In fact it might just be beginning, with global carbon dioxide levels hitting record highs and the success of trains like these crucial. Let’s hope they extend the service, and repeat it next year.
Everything goes to plan until somewhere before Avignon, when Conor rouses me from a doze with an alarming message: “Dad, it’s cloudy.”
English weather in France
I look out of the window and let out a gasp of horror. Floodwater is coursing through the countryside while dark clouds pregnant with rain are threatening to unleash themselves on the poor pantiles and cypress trees. We complain to one of the train staff who makes one of those gloriously expressive French gestures that communicate stoical sympathy and fatalistic despair. A few minutes later he returns with a drinks trolley and gives us both a hefty tot of pastis. What can anyone say? Global warming has interfered with the jetstream and brought Provence the worst possible indignity: English weather. It is the wettest spring in years and we have come to go walking.
After just over six hours we arrive in Aix TGV station and pull on our walking boots. The plan is to tackle part of a new long-distance footpath, the GR2013, opened to mark Marseille’s year as European Capital of Culture. This is no ordinary path: it has been devised by artists to reveal aspects of Provence that are rarely seen and less frequently appreciated. The idea is to show the unexpected, and perhaps this is why we find ourselves clambering over a crash barrier and wandering past a quiet lay-by where some scantily dressed women appear to be waiting in parked cars.
“Do you know them, Dad?” asks Conor, grinning. “They’re waving.”
I’m busy photographing a patch of wild iris so leave him to wave back.
The little GR2013 waymarkers lead us past an old second world war base where asphodels now bloom, and into some lovely rolling countryside. Ahead of us is our ultimate objective, Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain that hovers over Aix like a sphinx. If the GR2013 hopes to meld art and landscape, then Mont Sainte-Victoire is its presiding genius, having for many years been the muse for this area’s most famous artistic son, Paul Cézanne. He painted the peak’s crisp geological geometries 87 times, a creative response that would electrify the young Pablo Picasso.
For our brief overnight stop in Aix, I’m determined to visit Cézanne’s studio (atelier-cezanne.com), purpose-built so the artist could easily view his mountain. His tiny house has miraculously survived much as he left it: his hat is on the peg, his backpack waits by the chair, and on the wooden desk stands his last wine beaker, dry and purple-stained. It is as though the man has simply flown from the window and is out there with the nightingales. All around are objects recognisable from his paintings: the olive jar, the wooden rosary, the empty bottles and the armless cherub figurine, mundane objects that he transformed into thrilling and potent images.
During Cézanne’s life, few people, a handful only, came to this place. He had abandoned the art world of Paris and been depicted as a failure by his former friend Emile Zola in the 1886 novel L’Oeuvre.
Our guide to the artist’s studio, Gabriel, makes a face: “After that, the two men never spoke again.”
Gabriel shows us the extra-tall door in a corner of the room, which allowed Cézanne to take big canvases outside to paint in natural light: “He lived on an allowance from his father then, when the father died, Cézanne inherited everything.”
Cézanne’s stubborn refusal to give up on painting must have been particularly annoying to his parent, a self-made man and bastion of the local bourgeoisie. No one liked the young Cézanne’s works, except the occasional maverick American. At one point some citizens of Aix actually asked their unwanted artist to leave. Sales of his paintings were so rare that the lower room of this one-up-one-down house became choked with canvases.
In the upstairs studio, I find a chest of drawers under the north window that contains souvenirs, photographs and mementoes, among them a letter written to Claude Monet and the clay pipe that features in The Card Players.
Last year, over a century after Cézanne died, it was reported that one of the five versions of this painting sold at auction for over $250m. It’s a shame, I reflect, looking down at that cheap clay pipe, that his father didn’t live to see the moment when his son’s painting became the most expensive the world has ever seen. Mind you, if he had, he would also have witnessed his grandson selling off those treasures for a few francs in the days after Paul died.
Aix’s old town
Leaving the studio we set off up the hill to find the viewpoint where Cézanne painted many of those Mont Sainte-Victoire pictures. Like the studio, it is still much as he found it: a fabulous panorama of pantiled rooftops and cypress trees stretching out across rolling hills to the spectacular peak topped by an enormous cross. One local who spied on the old white-bearded painter reported that his technique could be highly unorthodox. He once got so angry with his failure to render the sublime colours and forms that he grabbed a nearby rock and smashed it through the canvas.
That peak will be our goal tomorrow, but first I want to find Cézanne’s favourite cafe, Les Deux Garçons. We stroll in the twilight through Aix’s fine old town, admiring the tall stone buildings and the narrow streets that open into lovely squares. We stop to eat in one of these, then carry on to Cours Mirabeau, a broad, tree-lined boulevard with, at number 53, Les Deux Garçons. The cafe is unchanged since Cézanne drank his favourite vermouth there. His favourite seat is there, at the rear of the main room on the right, under the ornate gilded mirrors. We drink to Cézanne and his endless determination.
In the morning we take a taxi to a supermarket, stock up on food then get dropped off at the village of St Antonin-sur-Bayon at the base of the mountain.
Almost as soon as we get going we fall into step with a retired army officer, Jean-Jacques, who tells us he has breakfasted on the tiny blue flowers of the aphyllanthes, and proves it by picking some for us. They are very sweet but not very filling.
“This was a Roman road,” he tells us as we carry on along the GR2013. “In those days you could come up all the way from Rome on the Via Aurelia then join the Via Domitia at Narbonne and head into Spain. Provence was very important to the Romans – that’s why they called it Provincia.”
He himself is trekking from his front door to the Atlantic: “It should take about 45 days.”
At a plug of rock underneath the vast cliffs of Mont Sainte-Victoire we come to a cobbled area and a simple hut known as Cézanne’s Refuge, a spot the artist had used to paint the peak. Here we leave Jean-Jacques and head up the hill, winding through patches of wild irises. At every rise in the path, the botany changes: tiny narcissi giving way to delicate wild tulips and then to spotted orchids. We are grateful for the cloud: this could be a hot and shade-free walk in summer (the authorities frequently shut the path for weeks, even months, to prevent summer fires – so check before setting out).
It is late afternoon by the time we reach the old priory, its honey-coloured stones scratched with over three centuries of graffitti. Built in the 17th century, it was ruined during the Revolution, then rebuilt by volunteers in the 1950s. Tucked into a niche in the jagged limestone ridge with views to the Mediterranean and the Alps, it is a stunning location to spend a night. We search around the back and find the refuge, a large room with two big sleeping benches and a fireplace.
As the light of day fades and rain begins to fall, the other parties of walkers set off down again. One of them, a veteran of nights in the refuge, warns us: “It will be cold tonight – you should go down on the north side, there’s plenty of firewood there.”
Taking our torches we set off. We’d been told to watch out for wild boar but we see no sign. This section of the mountain was bought soon after Cézanne’s death by Picasso, who moved into Château de Vauvenargues below. It had been Cézanne’s unique vision that had impressed the Spaniard, inspiring him to push on into the uncharted territory of cubism.
Now, as the dying sun swings low through banks of cloud, we are treated to the mountain’s own ever-changing gallery of light and form: the valleys and forests below fading to soft dark trapeziums and the ridges beyond stretching out in bony layers of mauve and orange. I see then why Cézanne had struggled to represent what he saw, painting the same scenes over and over again, trying to capture something beyond the visually transient.
Wild boar sausage and red wine
Back at the refuge, we stack up a roaring log fire and bake potatoes, which we eat with wild boar sausage and rough red wine. It is going to be a night of pure tranquillity and mountain views. Conor and I can have a father-son discussion about his future. I can mention Cézanne’s life and his heroic determination to follow his passion and talent (though I might play down the way he wilfully ignored paternal advice). It is then that we hear the commotion.
Out in the yard are five heavily laden donkeys tended by a large group of men and women, all dripping wet and cold. A film crew has arrived together with a cast of actors and a support team, part of a project to make a film for next year’s Avignon Festival. Our quiet evening has disappeared, replaced by a long wild night of sprawling conversations – conducted in Franglais, of course – and singing. The father-son stuff will have to wait, but perhaps Cézanne had already made the most vital point for me.
At dawn I am woken by sunlight creeping under the shutters. Can it be true? I tiptoe past slumbering people and piles of wet clothes. Outside I stumble to the edge of the parapet and look out on a magnificent panorama of clouds lying below the peak. We are marooned in a sea of white and above us, at last, is that Provençal sunshine.
• The trip was provided by Visit Provence (visitprovence.com). Réfuge Baudino and Réfuge du Prieuré on Mont Ste-Victoire are free, first come, first served. Walking tours including refuge stays can be organised by Evana. Travel was provided by Eurostar on the inaugural weekly service from London St Pancras to Aix-en-Provence, from £109.50 one-way (until 29 June, then service goes to Avignon for the rest of the summer; next year tba), and by East Coast which has returns York-London from £26. Accommodation in London was provided by the Renaissance Hotel, St Pancras (020-7841 3540, marriott.co.uk, doubles from £247). Further information: aixenprovencetourism.com
Fields of Provençal lavender are a beautiful sight during the summer months. Villages host lavender festivals and producers open their doors to visitors, including La Ferme de Gerbaud, a herb farm just outside Lourmarin. A 90-minute guided tour is €5 (free for children), or the Thursday-night tasting meals – which include delicacies such as lavender biscuits – are £26, including wine and a tour of the farm.
Cycling is a great way to explore the quiet roads of Provence. The Vaucluse region has cycle paths, themed routes and accommodation that welcomes cyclists. Visit provence-cycling.co.uk for information, advice and tempting itineraries, such as a ride around the Châteauneuf-du-Pape vineyards.
Off the coast of the French Riviera, at Provence’s southernmost point, are several Mediterranean islands known as the Iles d’Or – Porquerolles and Port-Cros, (which are both national parks) and Levant (which is more touristy, and largely nudist). The islands are covered in pines, fruit trees and vineyards, and with very pretty paths, little villages and beaches. There are lots of expensive places to stay but Hotel Les Medes on Porquerolles has rooms and apartments from €96 per night.
The Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (4‑27 July) is an annual music jamboree focusing mainly on opera. From 14 June, the prelude to the main festival includes free concerts on the Cours Mirabeau, one of the town’s liveliest streets. During the festival proper, many of the performances take place in atmospheric outdoor settings, such as the grounds of a chateau or the courtyard of a former archbishop’s palace.
Cotignac, east of Aix in the Upper Var region, is a charming town overlooked by tufa cliffs topped with medieval towers, hiding caves and the remains of troglodyte dwellings. With lots of holiday homes to rent, it could be a good out-of-the-way base for exploring the Provence cities and the Canyon du Verdon – one of Europe’s most stunning gorges – and the bright turquoise Ste Croix lake, both an hour away. Cotignac has an outdoor theatre in summer, and there are waterfalls nearby at Sillans-la-Cascade. Other authentic villages to visit include Tourtour, Entrecasteaux, Sillan la Cascade, Barjols, Aups and Villecroze.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk