Colorful Vignettes – introduces photos with their background story as well as gives accounts of travel experiences wherever they happen ….
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 perfect views on the nearby islands of If and Frioul, 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.
Painters loved to come here, in the south of France, where the richly diverse landscape could evoke the most wonderful inspirations, turning a canvas into an image of freedom and wonder. Aix en Provence where Paul Cézanne was deeply inspired by its surrounding nature, he and this region attracted also Pablo Picasso to come and live and paint here.
Cézanne’s painting of The Bathers shows his intention to blend the bathers with the landscape, using the same colors for body and environment. What keeps me inspiring is that he and Picasso, and quite a few others, were clearly the daredevils of their time, blurring the clear-cut lines of traditional painting with their bold use of color and creation of unique appearances that convey emotion, beauty, sensuality, and streaks of character.
Although Picasso enjoyed recognition and fame and wealth during his lifetime, most other painters before him did not. While they miss out on the millions of dollars their paintings can fetch today, they should rest in peace as their art works are not only recognised but also meticulously preserved and tastefully displayed in dedicated museums, attracting art lovers from all over the globe.
Granet Museum and its extension the Chapelle Granet – dating back to 1828 – are tastefully renovated and transformed into large spaces that have retained the quiet and contemplative atmosphere of their past. An ideal atmosphere to reflect on the art on display. Thinking that you have seen it all, in books, posters, documentaries, and movies, I am mostly surprised and often touched by seeing the real thing.
Have you ever met your best Kindergarten friend after 40 years, and it clicked, as if you were back in time while staying in the present? A state not affected by time. If this sounds complex, it is really child’s play. My longtime-no-see Dutch friend Hans passed by In Marseille with his partner Cia, and we took a plunge into our childhood memories with now six decades of life experience in the background.
After Kindergarten we both attended the same primary school, but on my seventh birthday my family moved to another provence, there were maybe two brief visits back and forth after that. Our last meeting was in 1977, in Maastricht, we were in our early twenties, and just before my departure to India. Then, we lost contact.
Over the past decade, we googled each other but did not find any contact-info, until Hans discovered my sister Petra on Facebook, last year, and soon the link was reestablished through email and WhatsApp. Hans and Cia were keen to visit France and came to Marseille this month via a short trip in the south. The first day we would visit art museums in Marseille, however, time stood still, we were in no hurry.
We visited Parc Valmer for the view it gives on the Mediterranean sea and nearby islands, like the famous Il d’If. We had lunch at a restaurant at Vieux Port, where Cia wisely ordered her own dish, but I accidentally ordered for Hans and myself the Plat du Jour, instead of the Salad du Jour. These are two entirely different dishes: one is a healthy Greek salad, the other a big fat French hamburger with French fries. We accepted the mistake, received a handshake from the waiter, and enjoyed the delicious burger and fries.
Up we went to La Vieille Charité, a Baroque-style building complex from 1749 that was formerly accommodation for needy people, and today a museum and cultural centre. There was an extensive exhibition of Picasso that pleasantly surprised us for the several large paintings that were displayed, which were unknown to us. The second part of the Picasso exhibition was at the modern museum Mucem, but the day had passed into early evening, time for a drink, on a terrace that happened to have a direct view on Mucem – Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations – that is located near the sea.
The next day a hike through the Calanques de Marseille, to great spots with spectacular views. Amazingly, Cia who broke her left shoulder the weekend before leaving for France, which did not require an operation but remained painful nevertheless, could very well manage the quite demanding walk through often steep terrain. Remaining in movement helped fortunately the healing process. Time stood even more still here in the midst of wild nature, we covered quite some distance in one day in spite of being immersed in conversation.
A rewarding meeting for the three of us. France and the Netherlands are not too far apart to keep more regular contact, and we will. Meanwhile, time goes on … Hans celebrated his birthday here, and I will next month, and we will be of the exact same age, again, but we choose to stay in our timeless state.
Intending to visit the Granet Museum in Aix en Provence, it takes some orientation to find the place, but no complaints here, the streets of Aix are so attractive, and thus distracting, that it is easy to forget where you were heading to.
The reasons why the streets are so charming is that the town dates back to 123 BC, went through a longtime development of Roman, Spanish and French influences, came to prosper after the 12th century, and .. all this is still tangible and visible when you walk through this warm ochre-colored environment.
The French know how to preserve all that is beautiful. Aix en Provence became an artistic and educational centre in the 12th century and has remained like that to today. The Impressionist art of Paul Cezanne, who was born here, is still alive, among other art forms like opera and dance. So is Aix an international centre of study, keeping the place young and creative.
Today Aix-en-Provence is everything: a wonderfully quiet yet dynamic town with ultra luxury shops and commercial centre, fine French cafés and restaurants, a university centre, a living art centre, and more. It is the well-preserved historical architecture that holds it all together. Especially in this age of ultra modern, Aix is ultra pretty.
Oh, we discovered the Museum Granet was closed, because it was Monday. No problem, we will be planning another trip soon. Aix en Provence is only 30 km from Marseille, and this region is called PACA: Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, which has a great train system.
One of the main reasons why I can enjoy regular outings along the coast of Marseille is that Nathan, who is an autist and has a high energy level, finds his deep calm by being in natural settings. He has a personal preference for beautiful spots that are mostly off the tourist track. With all its sculpted mountains, blue sea and fresh air, it is easy to find true repose here in South France, one that reinvigorates the total being.
A half hour train trip, over viaducts that date back to around 1907, takes you to Ensuès-la-Redonne, a lovely small village where we – John, Nathan and myself – visited the little Vieux Port that is situated below the railway station. Those who have their houses built on the Calanque that surrounds the port, enjoy amazing views, with private staircases that take you down for a dip into the ice cold sea.
As it is still Spring with the sun less intense, sitting here peacefully and relaxed on large boulders, is all what it takes to come back to a true state of well-being. Even the train trip is an easy going affair that takes you along panoramic views of the ever fascinating coastline.