The ridge of Mont Sainte-Victoire rises 900 meters from the thyme-scented hills overlooking the ancient boulevards and alleys of Aix-en-Provence.
One of France’s most recognizable geological formations, this huge stretch of limestone has been the subject of veneration and pilgrimage since the first humans came this way and, wisely, decided to stay.
There is a marked trail to the top and the tricky walk takes two to three hours each way, so it’s best to leave in the early hours, long before the Provencal heat makes it even more difficult.
Michael Hodges goes to Aix-en-Provence to discover the sights and landscapes that inspired Paul Cezanne. Pictured is Mont Sainte-Victoire, which the French artist painted over 80 times
Michael bases himself at Les Lodges (pictured), a luxury spa hotel in the village of Le Tholonet overlooking Mont Sainte-Victoire. He writes: ‘The terrace of the restaurant is cooled by a breeze with the scent of pine and herbs’
Above is a self-portrait of Cezanne
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can go mountain biking or paragliding. Even better, don’t go out at all.
Because if you’re here for a long weekend – Marseille Provence airport is 20 miles away, or by train the TGV Paris-Aix takes three hours – then you can make the most of Mont Sainte-Victoire, just like many of the heat-stricken beauty of Provence. a distance with a glass of something cold and local.
In my case that is a chilled pastis on the terrace of Les Lodges, in the nearby village of Le Tholonet.
Once a nobleman’s manor, this luxurious spa hotel is set amid vineyards and olive groves. The restaurant terrace is cooled by a breeze with the scent of pine and herbs. Rooms for two cost from around £185 per night, excluding Saturday/Sunday (leslodgessaintevictoire.com/en).
There’s also an infinity pool – something that may have confused Paul Cezanne, the French artist who painted Mont Sainte-Victoire over 80 times, burned it into Europe’s collective unconscious and, arguably, invented modern art along the way. .
You can see how he fared now on the luminescent, once-in-a-lifetime Cezanne show, which runs until March 12 at the Tate Modern in London (tate.org.uk).
The inhabitants of Aix were initially sniffing at all those mountains, apples and men in hats he painted, but today the bronze statue of Cézanne overlooks the Fontaine de la Rotonde, the city’s grandiose traffic roundabout-bowl waterworks, draped in lions, sirens and representative female figures, including justice. Follow her gaze and you’ll find the Cours Mirabeau, the wide avenue that leads to the heart of Aix.
Once a nobleman’s manor, Les Lodges (above) is set amongst vineyards and olive groves
Michael says eating in Aix is ’usually an unadulterated delight, with the pantry full of Provençal delights’. Pictured is a square in the city
Hotel de Caumont (above) in Aix is a grand mansion ‘with ravishing historic interiors’ that houses an art gallery
Only the nobility was allowed to walk along the Cours Mirabeau 250 years ago. We all know what happened to them, but their grand mansions remain, often complete with ironwork balustrades and imposing doorways, and perhaps the largest can be found on Rue Joseph Cabassol.
It is now the Hotel de Caumont, formerly a ballet school and today restored with beautiful ravishing interiors and an art gallery on the upper floors with major exhibitions (most recently Raoul Dufy).
Founded by the Romans, Aix has been baking for two millennia. But one of the coolest (and oldest) spots is Aix Cathedral, a ten-minute walk north of Cours Mirabeau. The cathedral was built on a 1st century Roman forum and you can trace layers of history within its walls. Ask for it at the volunteer desk and they will open the monastery garden for you. Inside, you’ll find a tranquil and timeless space where columns are carved with eerie religious sculptures.
Then, cut through Place de la Mairie, where an iron cage atop the 15th-century bell tower protects the bells from the fierce mistral wind. Then float around Les Allees, a network of streets and small squares largely devoted to chic and expensive shops. By now you need another drink. Unfortunately, the café Cours Mirabeau, which Cezanne preferred, burned down two years ago. Instead, sit on the café terrace of the historic (and often busy) Bar Le Grillon with a rosé and a bowl of pistachios and watch the city come out to polish in the relative cool of the evening.
Food in Aix, from low budget to high, is usually an unadulterated delight, with the full pantry of Provencal delights. If you’re presented with a plate of Calissons d’Aix, the irresistible diamond-shaped version of the almond slice, grab one and run before you eat it all. Or step into the Musee Granet, one of France’s finest art galleries, tucked away in a square in the Mazarin district and home to ten works by Cezanne.
But for a truly magical experience, follow Cezanne back to the lower foothills of Mont Sainte-Victoire and the abandoned limestone quarries and pine forest at Carrieres de Bibemus. It has been used since ancient times and is said to have once been a dangerous place, full of screams and hammer blows. Today, as Cezanne knew it in the 1890s, it is a hushed and quiet space that is part nature reserve, part archaeological marvel and part artistic monument.
Michael visits Atelier de Cezanne, upstairs, the artist’s purpose-built studio on the outskirts of Aix
Pictured is a painting by Cezanne of an old quarry, Carrieres de Bibemus
Follow the footpaths and you will pass limestone cliffs that still bear the marks of Roman chisels. Stand in front of the rectangular blocks and it is suddenly clear why art historians claim that Cezanne invented Cubism here.
There is a different kind of revelation at Atelier de Cezanne, the artist’s purpose-built studio on the outskirts of town, just as he left it. His coat and hat are hanging from pegs, his palette and brushes still in place. The gardens are a bit overgrown and full of trip hazards, including power cables – if this were National Trust property, warning tape would have been draped over the rhododendron and the place would be all the poorer for it.
Vive la France Dangereuse – but don’t forget your travel insurance.
Seven night tours of Provence from Cézanne cost £1,975 pp and include train tickets from London St Pancras to Aix-en-Provence, B&B, dinners at a hotel and local restaurants, all local transfers, entrance fees, tours around Aix-en- Provence, the studio of Bibemus Quarry and Cezanne, a boat trip in Cassis and a day trip to Marseille (adagio.co.uk).