Colorful Vignettes – introduces photos with their background story as well as gives accounts of travel experiences wherever they happen ….
It’s mid December and also in Marseille it is getting colder but the sun mostly gets through later in the morning often pulling out a blue sky with it, which makes you forget about cold. My plan to visit Aix en Provence for its Friday art and antique market did not make it as the weather prediction for that day was not attractive. I went Saturday, with around eight degrees Celsius it was pleasantly fresh, as suits a Christmas season.
Walking through the cultural part of Aix with its museums, art shops and my favorite streets where the color ochre stands out, I noticed that the architecture of Aix is a little less ochre when it is cold and overcast, but as during the previous day in Marseille, once the sun comes out … things come back to normal. Who said it was cold? And nothing had happened to colors, they all came back, vibrant and sunny.
On the other side of Cours Mirabeau, the shopping and restaurant areas looked as during the summer season, all terraces were occupied, people having a drink, this time with their coats on. It was not less busy. Seeing that new terraces were being prepared for the evening, outdoor life goes on as usual … until it gets really cold.
In the train from Valence to Grenoble I noticed the wonderful golden foliage of most trees in this region of the Alps. I was invited by friend Bernard for the weekend, and fortunately the weather was soft for the autumn season. Bernard said it was the wind from the south that kept the temperature warm, and we would have the time for a hike in the mountains on my second day. I had brought my camera with me.
We participated in a French folk dance session on my first day, at the home of one of Bernard’s friends. With about twenty men and women present I was not sure how that would work out for me, being ignorant of traditional dance. But the music did it all.
Two professional instructors used their skill to explain the two double and one double step formations of each dance in simple demonstrations. In practice I concluded that it was better not to use the mind but to go with the flow of the music. And it flowed.
That’s how I felt too during the walk in the mountains, going with the flow in this silent and wholesome landscape. The ‘paysage d’or’ as Bernard called it, reminded me of Japanese gardens in autumn, but here on a large scale in France. There was a silence that made it easy to become one with the mountains and the trees and take in the rich shades of golden colors. The classic striking beauty of the autumn season.
We hiked on the side of the mountain range Belledonne which gave an excellent view on the mountain range Chartreuse behind us. These mountains are sporadically covered with small settlements that are called ‘hameaux‘ in French. Some people passed us going downhill on bikes, heavily braking and still going fast. Imagine what strength it takes to go all the way uphill on a bike. Hiking or biking, well-being it is in this golden landscape.
Six November golden sunset cloud formations in Marseille
Inspired by their visit to Marseille last May, Hans and Cia, now married, returned to the city for their autumn vacation. The times that I was free to join them we let the weather dictate the plan for the day. It was not always the weather that was an issue. Our first plan to visit Palais Longchamp did not work as we found out that the tram taking you there was not running. Continuing on foot and finally arriving at Vieux Port with all its anchored boats and ferries, Cia thought it would be nice to make a boat tour.
That’s what we did, taking a ferry boat to the Frioul archipelago, a group of four islands, one of which is Chateau d’If, a former fortress, and later ‘prison island’, famous for the great escape story ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, by Alexandre Dumas. I was not sure if I would end up with sharp pictures as the wind was fierce and the boat wobbling, challeng- ing my grip on the camera. ISO 400 and a fast shutter speed did the trick.
Seeing Marseille from the Frioul archipelago gives quite another attractive view of the city. Like the Calanques, the four islands are of limestone, and fall under the protection of the Calanques National Park. Formerly the archipelago formed a city defence line but over time things have changed. Since 1974, there is a small village with a marina, making the islands attractive for day and weekend visitors.
It was sunny and fiercely windy but we were impressed by the low growing vegetation on the islands, which cover about two hundred species. A high variety of succulents, and one flower plant we had never seen before. When we saw cactus with its red fruits we knew they were edible, but when Hans and Cia tried to pick one their fingers got covered with tiny needles. Better to say “Don’t eat the cactus fruits!”
After a good walk in strong wind we reached a point where we decided not to go farther. The thought to go to the village for a meal made it easier to brace for the wind a second time. A curious late lunch it was, steak hachée and frites inside a baguette. On the boat back to the city it became quite stormy, it was safer to stay inside the boat instead of outside on the deck. Not exactly an escape story but an unexpected island adventure.
The next day, the tram was available but it was also raining. Still, the visit to Palais Longchamp could proceed for viewing the paintings at its Musée des Beaux-Arts. Hans and I wondered why painter Jean-Baptiste Olive was so well dressed, with hat and all while in painting pose, at an open window that has a view on the Vieux Port of Marseille. Probably to look good on the painting. Later on the day, since it was still raining, we visited the Musée d’Histoire de Marseille, which gives a diverse and in-depth history of Marseille starting at 60,000 BC with an as diverse collection of artefacts.
Another sunny day made for an inviting opportunity to explore Aix en Provence. I had in mind to visit the garden of Caumont Centre d’Art, which is part of an 18th century mansion. There was currently no exhibition as they were preparing the one on Chagall that starts on November the first. Caumont Mansion is worth seeing for its quiet courtyard, ornamental mansion, French-style café and the little but beautifully designed garden. Having a cup of afternoon tea in a French garden. How very chic.
The main centre of Aix en Provence is made of historical buildings, narrow streets, numerous cafés with terraces and is vibrant with people. The old town radiates youth as it is a university centre popular with international students, while being situated in a mountainous landscape that inspired painter Cezanne, and many other artists, then and now. And, Cours Mirabeau is the most picturesque avenue in Aix for people to meet.
And then there was the second meeting, neither in Marseille, nor in Aix. Dave and Anara were on a month-long journey in Europe. They are friends from California, and had visited Zürich, Florence and would come from Arles to Cassis, which is not far from Marseille. Hans, Cia and I took the bus to Cassis on a Saturday morning and explored its alluring coastline before meeting with Dave and Anara at the Vieux Port of Cassis.
Dave and Anara came from Arles where they had stayed for a week, the place where painter Vincent van Gogh spent his last years. They had intensively explored the town and its culture, and loved it. We talked current affairs, our individual interests, drank and ate a little, and after a few hours it was time for us to fetch the shuttle bus to the Cassis train station for our train to Marseille. The next day, Hans and Cia flew back to the Netherlands. Dave and Anara continued their voyage to Paris, then to Zürich for their return flight to the USA. The following days, the weather was no good for travel.
In the early evening hours along the coast line of Marseille, when the light becomes soft and the temperature goes down, the sea views and the sea breeze make the art of unwinding easy. On one side there is the area called La Plage with attractive beaches, a diversity of restaurants and the giant ferris wheel that can take you for a spin. On the other side is Corniche.
Corniche, in spite of the traffic, is one of the most picturesque parts of Marseille where people like to sail and ferry boats must pass through, giving a perfect view on the nearby Frioul archipelago, and where the lucky ones have a house, or a mansion, on the Corniche hill. Beach volleyball is popular, happening almost all year round.
The Corniche boulevard is wide enough to let bikers pass, and for pedestrians to walk or sit down and become part of the sunset. You almost would forget the traffic that is buzzing along with you, but what gives, Marseille is a dynamic city where plenty quiet spots can be found as well.
Such a quiet spot is the uphill Valmer park that gives even better views, like on If island that is famous for the great escape story of prisoner Count Monte-Cristo. A beauty spot on the coast of Marseille where newly-weds take pictures and individuals sit down for reading … until the sun sets.
A cliché to say, but Paris looks like the best designed and most artistic city in the world. Although I have visited Paris several times in the past, I felt this time more connected and comfortable as this is my third year in France. The only stumble block was getting familiar with the metro system which takes some days to get used to, until you realise exactly where you are in the vastness of the city. My major plan for the three nights I was going to stay was – to see The Nymphéas by Monet.
Claude Monet donated his eight panoramic panels of Water Lilies in 1918 to the French Government as a symbol of peace, as contemplating the tranquil images would inspire peace in people. Indeed, when I entered the first oval room, the presence of the paintings covering the full length of each wall emanated an inviting quietness. And this in spite of the constant flow of visitors that went about. Inspiring in image, color and presence, it speaks with how much peaceful concentration Monet must have creatied each panel.
The eight paintings of the Nymphéas make a length of about one hundred meters and should be seen as forming one uninterrupted picture, with “no horizon and no shore” said Claude Monet. The unique design of the two oval rooms is that they are lit from the ceiling with filtered daylight, making the colors in the paintings change in intensity with the fluctuations of the weather. The two ovals resemble the symbol of Infinity.
Seeing the Nymphéas by Monet was fulfilling, within and without. The previous day had been nourishing as well, visiting two exotic museums with friend Annemarie who once lived in Marseille, the neighbor of John’s family. She knows about my interest in Asian spiritual art and took me to Cernuschi Museum which displays the private collection of late Italian banker and art collector Henri Cernuschi. His collections of exquisite art and his spacious mansion were donated by him in 1898 to the City of Paris, which turned it into a museum, free for all to visit.
The second museum was Musée Guimet, founded in 1889 by industrialist Emile Guimet which contains one of the largest collections of Asian art in Europe, where they had my favorite ‘meditative’ art from India. Although most of the Asian art collections come from China, Tibet, Nepal, Cambodia and Japan, they are all inspired by the diverse spiritual culture of India. Similar to the presence of Monet’s Nymphéas, the presence of the art here also inspires the quietness of the spirit as that is what most figures represent.
Not wanting to spend all my time inside museums, I headed for another favorite area, the Eiffel Tower, the most vast part of the city with the river Seine between Tower and the Trocadero Gardens. It is here where one can conclude how beautifully this city has been designed and built, with space and parcs as the main key for city-living combined with decorative art and architecture wherever one looks.
Before the Eiffel Tower was built people harshly criticised the idea of a steel tower, calling it names. When the design of a glass Pyramid was chosen to decorate the courtyard of the Louvre Palace people thought it was sacrilege. But thanks to the inherent open mindedness of the French culture, genius artists keep Paris wondrous.
Fortunately, lightning, thunder and the much longed for rain recently broke the month-long spell of the heatwave, which was one of the hottest summers in Europe for decades. Although trying to keep cool, my preference was to be active during the day, and I went hiking, almost daily, in the nearest forest area of the Calanques of Marseille.
In spite of the shade, the temperature in this pine forest remained high but the nice thing of its location was the sea breeze coming through from time to time that immediately uplifted one’s spirits. Many people, especially the young, would even make the effort to walk for about an hour down to the coast, to take a dip in the inviting cool sea.
Besides a bit of perspiration and the true need for drinking water, hiking in this more shady area of the Calanques kept the body in the right condition during this kind of extreme weather. What attracted my attention the most was the continuous music of the Cicada orchestra, much louder than I could remember to have heard them at other times. With this heatwave, I realised more than ever how important and how enjoyable green areas are.
The first day of Nathan’s summer vacation took us to the picturesque Luberon region where John had planned a bike trip with the three of us. Luberon is a large mountain range in Haute Provence, ideal for Lavender cultivation which needs at least an altitude of 300m. So was the plan, but as usual, one has to have a plan B as well. Plan A – by train to Avignon, by bus to the village Apt, and a second bus trip to higher located Bonnieux to rent bikes.
Bonnieux is a refined historical village with steep narrow streets and plenty of panoramic views. The 12th century church peaks out above the village, whereas a second church dating to the 19th century is the one for daily use as it is on lower ground. People who live here must have an excellent physical condition as not many of the streets are horizontal, but wind steep-up or steep-down. So it is for visitors, exploring this lovely place is a real workout and .. truly rewarding for body and mind.
The centre of the village gives a full panoramic view of Luberon and we discovered several purple-colored patches that indicated lavender fields, with one on walking distance. Intending to use bikes to explore the area, we noticed that the bike shop was closed, and we turned to plan B – to walk to the nearest lavender field we had seen from high up. In spite of the hot sun, this was easily done. We took it all in – the view of the lucid purple flowers complemented by the dark green foliage of the tall Cypresses and the silver-green of the small Olive trees.
The lavender fields have a magical presence in the landscape. Lavender is grown for the flowers and for the oil that is extracted from the flower spikes, having a calming effect on one’s skin and on one’s mood. Typically here in Luberon, tall Cypress trees border the lavender fields, both plant and tree are native to the “Old World” symbolising good health, long life and the power of adaptation … the same qualities required for living in the third millennium!
As much as I like the summer sun during the day, I visited the beach area along Avenue Pierre Mendès France during evening hours to experience the soft light that comes before dusk. There was the Nocturne de Marseille happening, a 5km-run organised by the Lions Club of Marseille, dedicated to the association against blindness and help for the visually impaired. Young and old participated in this sunset run that took them through the enticing Borely park to the seaside where the road was closed off to traffic, especially for this event.
A bit farther up, in one corner of the long city coast line, that continues along the Calanques, you can see what many people do after work – they go to the beach with family and friends. Contained parking lots can be found along the avenue, and large grass fields stretch to the sandy beaches where people picnic, play games, do yoga, skate board, jump on a trampoline, ride the ferris wheel, and take a dip in the Mediterranean sea.
The beach area is well visited but is not noisy. The quiet atmosphere that the dusk-hours bring makes it even more special. It is a relaxing affair for taking photos although the light keeps changing fast as well as the sky colors, and brightly lit subjects turn into silhouettes. I noticed three friends standing at the deep colored sunset while being completely absorbed in checking their smartphones. Lovers of nature while keeping themselves active on WhatsApp.
The river L’Huveaune ends here in the sea, and with the sunset-calm it looked perfect. The small river has its source about 50km away at the 1147m-high mountain-ridge Sainte Baume, and finally winds itself through the city of Marseille, joining the Mediterranean sea here at La Plage – The Beach. The last part of this river is used for canoe and kayak training.
The best colors happen after the sun has set, adding even more to the magic. At the busy intersection La Plage, Churros are sold, a fried dough pastry of Spanish origin that is served with hot chocolate. That, or Italian ice-cream – gelato, at the next shop. This is also the area where a circus would park its caravans and plant their huge tents, and where summer parties for the young are organised by the local government. Marseille beach life is quiet yet dynamic.
Whether leaving Marseille left or right, east or west, I love either side – the whiteness of the Calanques de Marseille turn ochre when going farther up east, or farther up west, while the blue and green remain a constant.
On the east, the Route des Crêtes winds between Cassis and La Ciotat, with viewpoints that make you want to stop. Without transport, like John’s Burgman 650, it would be tough to reach the summit, for the long distance and uphill challenge. Some people manage on a bike, but on foot …, this is more of a highway than a route for pedestrians.
On the west, the blue-coast train rides between Marseille and Miramas with nine stops in between. At each station you feel to get off and explore the town and its harbor and the exclusive beaches. That is one of my plans, chalking down three sea resort visits so far.
The sea resort Carry Le Rouet is known for its citizen of honor, the comic actor Fernandel (1903-1971), who was born in Marseille but spent most of his life here, with a staircase descending from his home to the beach, which is now called the ‘Fernandel Beach’. I remember him from the Don Camillo TV series in which he plays a comical priest; he is known in Hollywood as well, acting in the movie ‘Paris Holiday’ starring with Bob Hope and Anita Ekberg.
The mini Light Tower is a distinctive focus point at the harbor of Carry Le Rouet. The light is powered by some solar cells on the top. Around its corner, the coastline continues with pristine beaches and rock formations that extend into the refreshingly clean Mediterranean sea.
Planning to return on time to Marseille, I noticed, together with three other passengers, that the Miramas train was delayed for 30 minutes, and then .. for forty minutes. Consulting the Station Master led only to a confirmation of the situation and according to him, it even could take longer as the train was blocked. Oh, and there was no bus going to Marseille from here.
I decided to go to the town for food and drink, and managed to be back at the station on time, as the train arrived exactly forty minutes beyond its schedule. The Station Master announced the arrival by coming out on the platform, and waved us goodbye. We happily waved back as we were on our blue-coast train .. that rolled again … to Marseille.