A perfect day in Provence II. May 21
Spent the day in Aix en Provence, a place I had visited twenty five years ago when a small group of us from different countries had met in one of the University hostels to spend a couple of days editing a book under the chairmanship o f Prof. Howard Mehlinger of Indiana University. The Sourcebook of Teaching Social Studies was published by Unesco in 1980 I believe. That was when I was still at the old ERC.
Aix today is an elegant town with shops, apartments and restaurants that cater to a more prosperous elite than mere students. Tour buses stop here enroute to Marseille and the Cote de Azur. We drove around until we saw a sign pointing towards Atelier Cezanne, the studio of the famous artist. After driving around seeking a parking place, and finding none, we stopped in a quiet residential neighbourhood and walked a fair distance. Followed a group of tourists headed for the same museum, which turned out to be a small house set in a garden with many trees. Some tourists were sitting in the shade of the trees waiting to enter as the house was small and very old, the guide told us, and it would not be safe to let so many people in upstairs. When we finally managed to walk up the narrow stairs we found ourselves in a fairly large shabby room with large windows that let in the sunlight.
It was disappointingly bare of paintings, with only a few framed sketches and faded photographs on the walls, and some memorabilia, such as a painter’s smock, easel, paint brushes and pots and pans for making tea. I felt it was not worth the time and effort getting there and paying an entrance fee. Having seen the paintings of Cezanne in museums around the word, this “atelier” was a let down!
After a quick lunch at home we set off for Marseille, a half hour drive along the highway from Aix. It took much longer as we got into the heaviest traffic I have seen so far in this part of the world – a testimony to the size and importance of Marseille. As we drove in we got a view of the dense spread of the habitation along the Mediterranean, the tightly packed buildings spread over the nearby hillsides. In the curve of he sea was the island of d’If and its fortress made famous by Alexander Dumas in the story of the Count of Monte Cristo. High on the hill across the bay was the Church of Notre Dame de la Garde which was our destination. We drove past the port, and the many yachts and boats anchored there. A wide plaza was crowded with small shops and tourists.
It took a while for Priya to negotiate the narrow streets – on both sides of the streets there were cars parked so there was little space to negotiate! – climb the hill with its hairpin bends, until we came to the parking area at the foot of the Church its dome and walls with broad dark stripes characteristic of Moorish architecture. On the spire of the church there is a golden Madonna with the infant Jesus, glowing bright in the evening sun. An elevator took us up to the entrance from where we got a beautiful panoramic view of the city and coast. Below us jutting out on a square promontory into the sea was the chateau built by Napolean for Josephine where she could live looking out to the sea.
The interior of the church was richly painted, the tall arches and domes decorated with paintings, stained glass windows coloured the high walls. Hanging from the ceiling were models of different kinds of boats, for this is a city of seafarers, and each model was of a different kind of boat. The church has been endowed by many contributions of well- known wealthy families of Provence, and individuals, in thanksgiving for prayers answered, their names inscribed on tablets set in the walls. Walking around behind the church we saw bullet marks on the outer walls where shells had struck during the siege of Marseille in the Second World War.
The view from here of the urban sprawl of Marseille and the sea curved around the low hills was spectacular, as I thought of boats and fishermen returning home anxious and stressed, and seeing the glowing golden Madonna from a distance, surely more inspiring and heartwarming than a mere lighthouse!
Our return home was equally stressful driving for Priya – who is an excellent driver – until we hit the highway and speeded up.
We arrived in time to fetch the children from school at 5 pm. Avantika is a lovely
teenager in ninth grade, and the twins are eleven year old Vedika and Aditya. They go to the international school which is very close to the house. Their school starts at 830 am, so mornings are not as frantic as they are in Delhi, getting kids ready for school. Lunch is served in the school, which the kids unanimously said was awful, but they are not permitted to bring snacks from home! So they come home hungry, ready to snack.
In the evening we sat down with a glass of wine to watch the news on TV channels in India followed by movies.