Holiday Goddess editor, writer and sought-after stylist Jane de Teliga goes in search of Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence.
Like a homing pigeon as soon as summer comes in Europe, I feel the urge to fly to the South of France. One would think I’d have had enough of those dusty avenues of dappled plane trees, rustic village squares and endless shops full of lavender bags by now but no there it is again – that instinctive urge to migrate South.
This summer it was Easyjet from London to Marseille. As the capital of Provence, Marseille is a great hub for exploring the South of France. The city itself has that raffish, slightly dangerous air peculiar to old seaports. It’s just not my kind of town, although I did once stay in the strangely wonderful Hotel designed by Le Corbusier, fascinating largely because it’s still in original condition. For an authentic architecture experience this is the place but I’m on a mission to find Cezanne.
Picking up a car at the airport I head straight out of there to the very picturesque town of Aix-en-Provence. It’s just 30 minutes away from Marseille and a whole other world of Provencal charm.
There are dusty plane trees galore in the hot dry streets, the grandest being the Cours Mirabeau, the main boulevard lined with restaurants, cafes and hotels. A brief encounter with our booked hotel on the Cours Mirabeau made us flee to the excellent but busy Aix Tourist Office to find another. And what a gem they suggested.
Modern hotels are generally not on my radar, however the newly renovated Hotel Cezanne was great. Though the décor of the foyer was awash with garish colour, the room itself was lovely. Small but perfectly formed, the room was a comfortable fresh cocoon with an excellent bed, proper feather pillows (not the usual rock hard French pillows), a delicious breakfast and friendly service. Yes well it did come at a price but so worth it.
The aptly named Hotel provided a perfect base to explore all things Cezanne as he was born and he died in his beloved Aix. If you want to really understand Cezanne’s paintings come to Aix.
Here you can visit the Atelier Paul Cezanne, the beautiful little studio he worked in the last years before he died in 1906. His studio is so evocative, still furnished the way he left it when he died after catching pneumonia while out painting nearby. In the large room, with its grey washed walls and huge window, you feel Cezanne’s presence powerfully.
His coats and jackets still hang in the corner of the studio and on a shelf against grey washed wall, are ranged so many of the familiar objects he used in countless still lifes. Traditional Provencal jugs, fruit platters, glass bottles and a row of grey skulls, remind us how a great artist can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
After the studio visit, a hot walk up the steep hill, Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain that Cezanne painted obsessively, is revealed suddenly in all its majesty. In a small park you can see reproductions of his famous paintings while looking across at this arresting scene. His blocky squares of paint document the sharp light, raw craggy mountainside, deep green pine trees and the ochre Provencal houses on the nearby hillsides.
Here you see why Cezanne is the ‘painter’s painter’, the man that influenced modernist art movements from cubism to abstractionism. This pilgrimage is an art experience made all the more powerful for being outside the walls of a traditional museum.
To stay in Marseille for an architectural experience:
Hotel le Corbusier
280 Boulevard Michelet
40 avenue Victor Hugo
9 avenue Paul Cezanne
To book tours for three Cezanne sites, which include Cezanne’s studio, the Bibemus quarries and his childhood home Jas de Bouffan, contact:
Aix-en-Provence Tourist office
2 place du General de Gaulle