16-22 June 2014
The week begins with another adventure on the French rails – the strike which began last week has continued as members of some of the more militant railway unions oppose moves to re-merge the French train operator with the company which owns the track, which were themselves separated some years ago.
Most French people we speak to mutter under their breath – disruptive early summer rail strikes are common in France – this one has affected the first of the university entrance exams.
It all adds up to crowded Gares (railway stations), rail replacement buses, and sitting on trains looking at the grimier, more industrial parts of towns. But by following the old travelling maxim “if it’s heading in the right direction…grab it”, we make it from Le Puy to St Etienne, St Etienne to Lyon, and Lyon to Aix-en-Provence on the one TGV of the afternoon.
Aix after Eight Years
Finally, we arrive on a sun-drenched platform where out of the hubbub emerges our friend Anne-Marie, whom we met eight years ago via the hospitalityclub network. Anne-Marie and her husband Andre are generous and kind hearted hosts – last time we were in Europe they took us in when we were travelling for the first time with Lucas, then a tiny 18 months old.
This time our larger travelling party is loaded into their cars and driven back to their lovely large modern home in Les Pennes Mirabeau.
The Route Cezanne
And thus begins a long lazy week: sun, swimming in the pool, good food, World Cup football on a giant TV. There is an extra buzz in the house as both of Anne-Marie and Andre’s sons are in Brazil for the first two France matches. The Australia v Netherlands game (the most heroic of Australia’s three defeats) does not make it onto the radar of France’s TV networks.
We borrow a car and drive the Route Cezanne, a lovely drive around the base of Mont Sainte Victoire, a weathered ridge which changes shape and colour from every angle, and which inspired many of the great artist’s landscapes. Our circumnavigation took place on a rather rainy day, so the many hues were more than a little flattened, however a break in the rain did coincide with a stop at Vauvenargues, a lovely village on the northern side, where Picasso kept a home.
At Vauvenargues we wandered the streets and lunched on a delicious Provencale daube (beef stew). Continuing on, we wound along narrow roads through a landscape that changes from scrubby woodland to vineyards as we turned for home along the sunnier southern slopes. Even in the rain, Provence has a gentle beauty.
It’s a great week. The June nights draw toward the Summer Solstice, a day on which a music festival is held. In La Gavotte, we are guided to a Saturday Market, where a group of local musicians have gathered to contribute to the national festival. Under the pollarded plane trees, among the local cheeses and fresh vegetables, we hear enthusiastic renditions of some familiar tunes.
Our hosts have an appointment in Saint-Tropez, and we are cast free to drive into Marseille. Soon we find ourselves slightly lost in the long boulevards and narrow side streets of France’s second city. Heading generally downhill, wind our way in the centre, and dive into an underground car park. Noting the location of the car, we emerge in a shopping mall, only metres from the old harbour, which continues its centuries old role as the heart of the town.
On a Saturday afternoon the summer sun has brought out the full panoply of tourists, locals and traders – the cafes are doing a roaring trade, buskers impress, boats chug around the blue waters. The warm coloured Mediterranean stone ramparts of two forts keep the sea at bay, while hill top basilica serenely watches over all. In Marseille, summer is in full swing.
We stroll along Quai du Port to the heavily restored Fort Saint Jean, an age-old collection of buildings that have guarded the narrow entrance to the inner harbour. From the walls, we can see in all directions. A steady convoy of pleasure boats pass out into the open sea, modern yet architecturally sympathetic buildings mark the cultural zone where the port was redeveloped for Marseille’s year as a European City of Culture, teenage youths cool off by plunging off the quay sides and into the turquoise water…
Climbing the Hexagon
The next it’s time to play Railway Roulette again. Fortunately Sunday is relatively quiet on the SNCF system, and at a mere twenty minutes late, our TGV arrives to whisk us up the country. The train gets up to speed and three hours of France whirrs past. Pale limestone crags, pantile roofs and blue-green scrub give way to rounder, greener hills and grey rooftops. As the sun climbs lazily into the sky, we climb north up the French ‘Hexagon’. Fields give way to streets, there is the rustle of passengers emerging from their reverie and collecting their things. We are in Paris.
The Gare de Lyon is quiet yet purposeful as the morning sun streams through its glass walls. Felix anxiously cranes for a view of the Eiffel tower – he was a twinkle in his father’s eye last time we were here, but now he’s a little man on a mission. The mission must wait, however, until we are installed in our digs.
Down into the tunnels, we stop to secure a Thalys ticket to Brussels – onward passage for a week’s time – and then take the RER D (Paris overground train) up the Seine to the quiet of Ris Orangis.