-the world as I see it
This post encapsulates day II of my Christmas break in the South of France: a day trip to Aix-en-Provence – a choice determined by google and the Marseille bus service. Most of the google search results on ‘day trips from Marseille’ featured Aix-en-Provence on the list and it was just about thirty minutes away by bus. My friend and I boarded the bus to Aix at around 10: 3o am and hopped off at the last stop. The tourism office is about 50 meters from the bus stop but somehow we didn’t find it easily. Blame it on the overpowering smell of freshly made waffles and crepes, which turns my nose into a GPS and makes my feet carry me automatically to the source of that wonderfully enchanting and appetizing aroma. Anyway, we finally decided to use the more reliable ‘sign boards’ as a path finder to direct us to the Office de Tourisme. We went in, picked up a map and inquired about the bus service to Mt. Sainte Victoire. We had seen pictures of it in postcards and from the looks of it, the place seemed like a terrific trekking spot. The guy at the tourism office was also very helpful and told us that the place was one of his personal favourites. Since we were going to take the bus to Mt. Sainte Victoire at 12:15 pm, that gave us an hour to go around Aix.
Although Aix is located so close to Marseille, the atmosphere is very different. While in Marseille, I had my doubts whether I had actually landed in France, Aix reassured me that I was in Provence indeed – in a classy city in the South of France. Aix-en-Provence is a city of fountains, the oldest of which dates back to the 17th century. The La Rotonde fountain near the tourism office is the first one to greet you and welcome you into the heart of the city. It has three statues facing different directions – the one representing law faces Aix, the one representing agriculture faces Marseille and the one that faces Avignon represents art.
We passed by the fountain and walked down the Cours Mirabeau – the main street in Aix. The street acts like a dividing line between the old town and the new town. Trees flank the street forming a rich green canopy in summer, while in winter, they just seem like gnarled and twisted wooden sculptures topped with oddly shaped porcupine quills and spikes of different sizes. Aix is a city of fountains and the Cours Mirabeau bears testimony to that fact. The Cours Mirabeau is also the venue of the Christmas market and is abuzz with activity during this time. It’s nice to just observe people strolling around and checking out gaily decorated stalls, hear the delighted squeals let out by little children on joyrides, inhale the smell of lavender interspersed with that of the mulled wine and French sweetmeats. We then proceeded towards the old part of town – la vielle ville. According to the brochure handed to us at the tourism office, Aix has the third largest collection of baroque architecture, next only to Paris and Versailles. Like the historic centres of most European cities, here too, there are narrow streets and open squares. The city has its share of museums, cathedrals, palaces and historic architectural marvels. I am not going to delve into too much detail, so I’ve just put together some of the stills I captured with my camera.
We headed back toward the bus stop at around 12, giving us just about enough time to grab a waffle topped with nutella. 12:15…12:20….12:25.. the clock ticked by. ‘Were we in the right bus stop? Had we missed the bus?’ Luckily for us a girl waiting at the bus stop spoke English and told us that we could try walking up to the bus depot as all the buses in the city left from there. I wasn’t too keen on doing that as if the bus passed us on the way, it probably wouldn’t stop even if we flagged it down.
Just when we thought that we would have to abandon our plan and stay on in Aix for the rest of the day, the girl called us and motioned to us that our bus was there. We were supposed to get on the L140 and alight at J2/ Barrage de bimonte. It was a hardly a bus, it was a mini van. Had she not pointed it out to us, we would’ve missed it for sure. We shouted a quick “merci” to her and boarded the van. The cost of a one-way journey per person is a euro and it takes about twenty minutes to get there. From the bus-stop (which is just a sign-board) , we were told to walk ahead and we would get to the place. There was hardly anyone about, save for an old man who had got down at the same spot but had disappeared ahead really quickly. We walked at a leisurely pace, feeling a bit queasy from the sugar overdose. After a couple of minutes, we came across a clearing and presumed it was the start of our trek. We made our way through one of the paths amidst the undergrowth. We could see the peak of Mont Sainte Victoire looming in the distance- it got us excited and just a little bit disconcerted as it seemed awfully far away.
After a certain point, the track stopped abruptly and we were not sure how to proceed, so we retraced our steps back to our point of origin at the clearing. The old man was there too. Turns out that he too wasn’t sure of the way to the mountain but he finally picked out a route and seemed quite definite about it. As the route didn’t seem well-travelled, my friend and I decided to head another way, along a path that seemed (slightly) more travelled. We watched the old man disappear again, the alacrity with which he moved was admirable. We made our way though underbrush and gravel-filled paths, hopping over stones occasionally. After about forty-five minutes, we saw something glistening through the trees. We made our way down and realized that we had come to the Lac de Bimont – I let out a whoop of joy and then I realized, with a sinking feeling, that the mountain was all the way across and we had no clue how to get there. Anyway, the lake was this brilliant shade of phthalo green, it could’ve been a cerulean blue but the reflection of the trees around imparted the greenish tinge. The water was so serene and calm that we didn’t mind just spending the whole afternoon by the lakeside in case we didn’t find our way to the mountain.
The place seemed devoid of any form of human life, which would make it a perfect relaxation spot but both of us did not want to go back without going up to the mountain and so we desperately hoped that someone would pass by, preferably someone who knew how we could get there. Our prayers were answered – we heard a cyclist pass by above, but by the time we made our way up, he was out of sight. We headed back in the direction where we had come from and kept walking until we came across a fork in the road. We were not too sure which path to take and neither of us could remember passing by it on our way to the lake. We heard a rustling in the leaves, it was a cyclist – probably the same guy on his way back and, wonder of wonders, he spoke English fluently! We asked him if he knew how to get to the mountain and he told us that we just had to keep going until we saw the dam and then the route would be clear. He also added that we might want to get there quickly as it isn’t advisable to stay around the mountain once it gets dark because that’s when the wild boars come out. We couldn’t thank the guy enough, he saved the day. Happy that we weren’t totally lost, we quickened our pace and forged ahead. When we finally spotted the dam, the route to the mountain became clear. We reached the main entrance to the hiking trails of Montagne Sainte-Victoire quite exhausted. At the entrance, we spotted the old man, who was on his way out! He had reached an hour before us and had this smug look on his face and told us that ‘he was right’. Anyhow, even though the way we took was longer, I preferred it because we got to go down to the lake. The picture below is of the Barrage de Bimont – a concrete arch dam built in 1946.
There are a number of well-marked walking or biking trails around the region that you can choose from. We did one of the trails that took about 45 minutes. We didn’t manage to make it to the peak as we had to board the bus to Aix at around 4:40 pm. If you plan to spend the afternoon here, carry some snacks and drinks along as you might get hungry along the way. The place is a frequented recreational spot for families living nearby. It is extremely picturesque and if you’re a nature lover and a trekking enthusiast, this is the place for you. Forget about the museums in Aix and go here instead. On our way out, we followed the main road and realized where we had gone wrong the previous time. We had stopped at the clearing but we actually had to walk further along the road until the parking lot at the entrance to the Mountain reserve.
Once we were back in Aix, we went around the Christmas market – inspecting the different stalls. The ones I liked best were those selling santons and Santas. A Santon is a nativity figurine made of terracotta and produced exclusively in Provence and Santa-I’m sure needs no introduction. I caught sight of a cotton candy stall and ordered one for myself. Nothing like ending a fabulous day with a Barbe a papa
I sat on a bench and closed my eyes. It had been a long and eventful day – my legs were sore from all the walking, but I had a smile of contentment on my face.