A Week in Provence, Part 3: Les Calanques

As silly as it might sound, I was pretty excited about seeing another area of Provence – the Mediterranean coastline – for the first time in my life. The evening after we hiked Sainte-Victoire, we met Julie in Aix-en-Provence for drinks and dinner we had to ‘rush through’ in 3 hours so we could retrieve our bags at the campground before the night attendant closed up for the evening at midnight. From there, we took the short drive to Julie’s apartment in Marseille.

The next morning, we drove to some of the cliffs that bookend the city of Marseille. This part of the Mediterranean coast is particularly rugged, and the cliffs were just a taste of what we’d see later that weekend. The area is full of winding roads that swing past row upon row of craggy grapevines that produce some of the world’s best wine. We stopped at a vineyard called Domaine du Paternal, had a few sips of rosé, red, and white, and bought a few (very reasonably priced, for the States at least) bottles.

The next day started with a warm hike from the road, through the rocky chaparral, past bizarre rock formations, and into a sparse forest for about an hour before arriving at Calanque d’En Vae. Not far from Marseille, a series of inlets called ‘Les Calanques’ jigsaw the coastline, creating crystal clear bays mottled with deep greens and blues and walled by steep cliffs on either side. Our calanque had a small sandy beach, but to get some protection from the sun, we hike along one side toward the mouth of the bay. After another charming picnic of salted meats and stinky cheeses, we took a dip in the chill waters. I’d guess that the water temperature was around 60°F, though I was caught gasping for air, as the shock coming from 90°F air made the difference feel more extreme.

We swam around for a while and watched the climbers scaling the wall opposite us. Kayaks are allowed in the bay, but motorized boats have to stay out, so it was easy to just enjoy swimming the ¼ mile across to the other side. Even with the long hike to get there, the area was buzzing with people here to beat the summer swelter.

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A Week in Provence, Part 2

The View from the Climb

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.

The Gate to the Refuge atop Sainte-Victoire

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.

The Wind-Protected Refuge

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

The lake formed by the dam

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.

Pastis, back in Aix-en-Provence

A Week in Provence, Part 1

Sainte-Victoire from our campsite

If you told me the idea for farmers’ markets came from Provence in southern France, I’d have no trouble believing you. As much as the cicadas chirping and the warm summer winds typify the region, it’s also full of people enamored with where they live and the cornucopia of consumables that come from this region.

Though perhaps typical of all of France, if you ask a Provencal to recommend a cheese or a wine, they’ll probably tell you where it came from before they tell you the type of animal or grape (respectively, of course) that was its origin. While we were visiting Aix-en-Provence, where Anne-Claire studied abroad in college, I was the beneficiary of two tremendous culinary tours de force.

We camped on a hilltop at the edge of the town overlooking Sainte Victoire, a craggy peak dividing an otherwise rolling valley of forests and turquoise lakes. Our second day in town, we got an unexpected invitation to lunch from Anne-Claire’s host family. In just a few hours, Amablé threw together a feast. What started with prosciutto-style ham and a healthy salad quickly turned into a pastry shell filled with cheese and spinach. As the newest guest and given that my mouth wasn’t much good for speaking French, everyone else figured I might as well put it to use eating, so I was given second (and sometimes third) helpings of every course.

Paragliders enjoying the Mediterranean sunset

Stuffed to the point of bursting, I watched as the main course came out, these sort-of bready tubes covered in red pepper sauce that come from Lyon. Delicious, but again, once we’d all had our fill, I was given the final serving. Then came cantaloupe for dessert. But, this being France, a single representative of any one course just wouldn’t do, so we had ice cream after that.

It was a truly epic lunch and we had a fantastic time visiting. Anne-Claire and I took a short walk around 5 to see her school in Aix and say hello to the director 10 years on. We went back to Amablé’s house and had a light dinner of meats, cheeses and tapenade in the cool evening air on their patio.

The view from the terrace

Marseille

Two days later, we were in Marseille staying with Julie, Anne-Claire’s language partner from her time in Aix. After a day of sightseeing around the cliffs and beaches of Marseille (more on that in a later post), we went over to Julie’s parents’ house for dinner. Once again, French hospitality didn’t falter. We had champagne and sausages, along with a few other little munchies, to start with before even sitting at the dinner table. A caprese salad, steak and potatoes came next, followed by some lamb. Over the course of dinner, we tried three different bottles of wine, all from the local area. Dessert was fruit, and as the sun set in the distance and we took a stunning view of the Mediterranean from the terrace, we enjoyed a digestif – plums soaked in alcohol. The fruit themselves were tasty, but the drink afterward was a perfect end to the meal.

Catching up

Pardon my next few blogs if they’re a bit disjointed, as I’m trying to catch up. Turns out, there’s just too much to do in all these fascinating places, and finding time to craft coherent blogs is tough.

 

Sophie and Anne-Claire after dinner in Paris

A rushed overview of Paris…we had a terrific time walking all over the city. We happened to be there on a summer weekend, so most of the sites were packed. In some places this didn’t matter. Seeing the Winged Victory in the Louvre is worth it, whether you share the experience with one person or a thousand. In others, like a crypt in the southern part of the city, had such a long line that they stopped letting people stand in it 2 and a half hours before it was supposed to close. We checked out Montmartre, but the usually peaceful steps had been turned into a trail biking course. We did manage to see the Musée de l’Armée on a Monday. The overview of the lead up to and connection between both of the World Wars gave me an understanding of the conflicts that I’ve never had before.

Just about every meal we had in Paris rivaled the best meals I’ve had in my life, but one in particular was terrific. Anne-Claire got in touch with a childhood friend, Sophie, and we met her for a 4-hour dinner (about typical for a dinner with friends in France, from what I can tell) at a little bistro near our hotel. Charming conversation, a bottle of wine, splendid duck and of course a decadent dessert made for a great evening.

Enjoying the sunset in Paris

Another not-to-be-missed experience was watching the summer sun set late (around 10:30 or so) in the Jardin des Tuileries with Place de la Concorde in the background. A bunch of teenagers were laughing and enjoying the evening, as were a few couples with wine, sitting in the green chairs that are strewn around the pond.

Fountain at Versailles

On the day we left Paris, I took an early train to Versailles. Unfortunately, government workers were threatening to strike that day, so they didn’t open the Palace until later in the morning. I did have a marvelous time getting lost in the gardens and amidst the mythic fountains that Louis XIV and his successors had for their own personal playground. Anne-Claire met me later with a baguette, sausage, two kinds of cheese, and a selection of pastries for a delightful picnic in the gardens.

That afternoon, we took the train to Aix-en-Provence…more on that soon.

Slight Clarification

Ireland seems a world away from where we’ve just arrived, a little town called Chefchaouen in the Rife Mountains of northern Morocco, so it seems a little odd to still be writing about it. But I did want to make one thing clear about my last post on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland did gain its independence from Great Britain in 1922, just after World War I. In my post, I alluded to Ireland’s full independence coming after World War II, in 1949, I believe. Between 1922 and 1949, Ireland was a part of the Commonwealth of the United Kingdom, but pulled out of that all together as the 5th decade of the 20th century was ending. That’s the independence to which I was referring.

I think I’ve got this right, though I don’t have any reference materials to check my facts at the moment. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email if there’s something that needs further corrections or clarification.