At sundown, I sip a glass of Provencal vin rosé entranced by this ever-changing light on Mont Ste-Victoire from the terrace of a house close to Aix en Provence. I promptly decide I must drive all the way around it tomorrow following the Route Cézanne. I want to get up close and it’s an easy day trip.
Mont Ste-Victoire dominates the landscape and lies east of where I sit. It’s a huge limestone mesa stretching eleven miles and rising 3300 feet above the Provencal countryside reminding me of Table Mountain in Cape Town. The top third is rocky-steep and treeless, pale grey in some lights, and dark and brooding in others. In the middle is scrub, la garrigue, punctuated by umbrella pines and huge boulders lying on thin soil. Lower down where the slope is less extreme, the back roads wind through oak forests growing in dark red soil. From the house tonight I can see the Croix de Provence atop the western peak and the paragliders that swoop like flies around it on calm evenings.
I start early next day and drive the mile to Le Tholonet, a tiny village at the foot of Mont Ste-Victoire that was a favourite of Paul Cézanne, the painter and favorite son of the Aixois. In the late 1800s, he regularly made the journey from Aix to Le Tholonet by coach, a bone-breaking ride up and down mountain sides on a winding track, to stay at the Chateau Noir. The moulin, windmill, he often painted still stands about 75 yards from the village crossroads. Today, it’s an art gallery and I meet Laure Willems inside. She is a painter of some repute in Provence and is as obsessed with Mont Ste-Victoire as Cézanne was, painting in a similar style. Laughing, we talk for a while – me in fractured French and her with pigment-stained hands. I buy a print of the mountain at sunset with the red soil of Provence in the foreground. Laure shows me the spot where Cezanne first saw Mont Ste-Victoire – I admire the back-lit, blue-grey peak beyond an olive grove. Lastly I pay my respects to Cézanne at his memorial recalling how long I’ve loved his work and the region of his birth.
This early, the restaurant Cézanne frequented is closed, but the owner lets me in to take a photograph of the corner table the painter used. With the tables bare, chairs stacked, and not one print of his work on the walls, it’s dim, utilitarian. I hardly recognize the place shown on the website, but Le Relais Cezanne transforms in the evenings and has a terrace across the road where you can enjoy good food. Chez Thomé , another fine dining establishment just around the corner with plenty of parking, has a huge terrace and several dining rooms dating back over a century. At its back door, a small sign indicates that King Edward VII of England enjoyed a meal here in April 1906, six months before Cézanne died. I wonder if they met.
Next I admire the 17th century Chateau du Tholonet a 100 yards away. It’s just as Cézanne painted it, golden in the morning sun at the end of an avenue of plane trees. Of pleasing proportions, it is now the headquarters of the Société du Canal de Provence, the company managing the extensive irrigation projects in Provence, and is closed to the public. I sneak in an open gate for photos and a gardener kicks me out of the grounds.
Soon I’m heading east again along Route Cézanne (D17) that follows the mountain’s south flank. The road is narrow with no shoulders – barely enough room to pass oncoming traffic, which means driving here is not for the fainthearted. I’m amused that the posted speed limit is 56mph (90 kms/hr) when I can’t go faster than 28mph (45 kms/hr). This is France!
Drifts of periwinkle-blue cornflowers that colour the fields on my right are soon overtaken by small oaks and later by scrubby vegetation as the road climbs higher. I find it nightmarish passing the processions of fanatic cyclists because I can’t see around the bends; then on the down slopes they whiz past me on the wrong side of the road leaning over so far on the curves I’m sure they will crash.
I stop often to take photos of the mountain that towers above me, its vertical ridges now in sharp relief in the sun and the Croix de Provence silhouetted against a deep blue sky. The flat valley below is carpeted with vineyards and olive groves as the morning mist shades the distant hills blue and burns off to the south. Along this section many trailheads with parking lead hikers and mountain climbers to the high ramparts of Mont Ste-Victoire where there is a small chapel close by the cross. I know there is a footpath somewhere that is an easy though long climb, but fail to find it.
On I go through the wine-producing villages of St-Antonin-sur-Bayon, Puyloubier, and Pourrières whose clustered houses glow apricot in the sun. I enjoy seeing the fat purple and green grapes almost ready for harvest on every side and the old Provencale farm buildings with their terra-cotta slates and peach-hued walls. The grapes will be picked within a month and turned into the delicious vin rosé that never fails to remind me of Mediterranean heat and the many meals I’ve eaten here.
At Pourriéres I turn north, and the road narrows and climbs. The soil is a dark, burnt orange contrasting vividly with the ivory and grey limestone. After a final turn, I reach 631 m (2000 ft), the highest I’ll get, at Col des Portes. Now I’m driving west along the north side of the mountain and trees obscure the view. Downhill amid more crazy cyclists, I head for Vauvenargues.
The forested northern slopes do not flatten into a wide valley like the south. As the road descends, it clings to the south side of a gorge. If I look up and south, I see La Croix de Provence backlit on Mont Ste-Victoire’s western end from the other side – I’ve come nearly full circle and have a date with Pablo Picasso who considered Cézanne his artistic father.
If you go
- Best months to visit: April, May, and September because it is cooler than mid-summer and less crowded
- Transportation to Aix: Fly into Marseilles or arrive by high-speed SNCF train (Train Grande Vitesse – TGV) at Aix station.
- SNCF trains: Start at Rail Europe
- Major car rental companies: at Marseilles Airport (Marignane) and Aix station.
- A shuttle to Aix centre is available from the TGV station.
- Tourist office, Aix en Provence
Written by and photos by Julie H. Ferguson for EuropeUpClose.com