At the root of all the wonderful food in this region is a landscape that’s just as diverse as the nourishment it lends us. The rocky soil, they say, provides the perfect footing for ornery grapevines tended by vintners of generations past. And while the colorful homes, winding cobbled streets and heavily fountained squares lend a paradisiacal air to the region, make no mistake – this is rough country.
We visited in June, just as the hillsides of chaparral are shedding their blanketing green understory. It’s hot and muggy, so naturally, our first inclination was to head out for a long hike. The peak of Sainte-Victoire looms over the countryside around Aix, and the spine of its foothills separates the rolling hills on one side from the valley that pushes toward the Mediterranean on the other.
One of the nice things about Europe is the excellent public transportation. With a pass that cost 5 Euros, we had 3 days unlimited travel on the buses in and around Aix, including one that took us right to the trailhead to climb the mountain. The start of the walk has a stick figure of a backpacker pointing the way, and soon we found signs approximating distances to nearby towns via the mountain. Five and a half hours to Le Tholonet, for example, which sits in the valley on the other side.
The first hour or so of the hike was up a steep, sometimes-paved fire road with good shade. As we climbed higher, the landscape opened up as trees began to fall away. The path narrowed but was nicely switch-backed, so at times it didn’t even feel like we were climbing. Just below the summit sits a refuge, partly constructed out of the surrounding rock walls and including an immaculate hostel with a fireplace and sleeping platforms.
We took in the view of the sea on one side and the faint outline of the Alps on the other, then sat down for a lunch of several cheeses (bought from a market vendor who told us none of them came from more than 15 kilometers away), bread, and a small bottle of wine. After lunch, we scrambled the last bit of the trail to a massive cross at the peak standing stalwart in the violent winds as we struggled to remain upright.
We decided to take a different way down, taking the spine back toward Aix, which
turned out to be much steeper but had excellent views. On the way, we ran into a nice German guy who’d gone to high school and university in the States. We asked him if we could catch the bus at the bottom of the trail we were on, and he told us he thought so. He asked us if there was water at the refuge, as he’d only planned to carry enough to get to the top. We hadn’t seen a working spring, so we gave him some of ours.
Maybe an hour later, we arrived at a huge dam that had created one of the crystal blue lakes we’d seen from above. Without too much trouble, we caught the bus back to Aix. While Anne-Claire peeked in a few of the stores around a square, I sat down and had some Pastis. I wasn’t big on the anise flavor, but the sweet tingling from this typically Provencal drink was pretty nice after a hot day.