Sunday, August 21, 2011

Après-midi à Aix

As the temperature continues to climb here, we headed out to explore one of the many towns right at our doorstep. Aix-en-Provence is actually much more than a town. It is a small city housing embassies and a couple of universities. It prides itself on being the more cultivated centre for art and education, in comparison to Marseille. And in many ways it lives up to its reputation. In other’s it is absolutely no different from Marseille. On the outskirts are big box stores like any other city, and in one we went into to look for a tool for Pascal we found car cleaning products with the OM logo all over them. OM is the soccer team of Marseille and you can see people all over the city wearing their blue and white t-shirts, jerseys, pants and caps. Yes for some here soccer is so important that you need to clean your car as an OM fan. Interestingly this set of box stores is open on Sundays because the unions protested for the stores to stay open so that employees can work more. This is such a reversal of the attitudes of many unionized workers here that I can’t help but chuckle a little.

Aix though, has a lovely old town which is closed off to vehicle traffic. A fantastic move to draw the tourists into their history. Here we were able to wander through the multiple markets in many of the different squares and admire the architecture as we went. The educational point of the day was an explanation of why older sections of Mediterranean towns like Aix have narrow streets; it is to block out sunlight and keep the houses cooler in the summer. In addition to admiring the building, local breads and olives, Keith bought a braid of garlic and has made it a goal to have some garlic in every dinner from now on. Don’t worry, I’m well stocked up on mints.

Aix is full of cafes and even on a hot busy Saturday we were able to find a spot to have lunch. Pascal, Jacqueline and I all had the plat du jour, while Keith opted for steak tartare. In the heat of the day sitting on a shady patio with ice cold water and the anticipation of good food with friends cannot be rivalled.

After a lovely lunch, we drove out to the Barrage de Bimont, a damn and reservoir, with glistening blue green water.  Overlooking the reservoir is the Sainte Victoire Mountain and a new hiking challenge once the weather cools off a bit. Keith and I were immediately drawn to the topography maps displayed in Aix with the different routes. So once again as we seem to explore more areas around us, we simply seem to encounter more places we must see and things we must do.

Friday, August 19, 2011


Four days in Paris was our mini-vacation for the summer. Going in we knew this would not be enough time to see everything, but being there only reinforced this. Paris is so full of history and culture that I think it would be difficult to truly see all of the city even if you were there for a month.  The historical relevance of Paris for the past seven hundred years is awing and is apparent in the architecture and majesty of the city.

So we started our tour where so many others start: The Eiffel Tower. Yes, it is full of tourists and yes, it is not really the pretties of buildings, but it does have spectacular vies and was actually interesting to read about the making of the tower. 

In addition to the Tower we spent our first day being complete tourists; wandered across the river to the Arch de Triomphe, down the Champs Élysées, basking in the sun in the Tuileries Gardens, and walking along the Seine. Along the Seine we ran into the “Plage a Paris”. For a month every summer, a beach is set up along the side of the Seine, so that Parisians do not have to leave the city to go to the beach. Of course you can’t actually swim and the beach is only a couple of kilometers long, but I was surprised to see how many people were actually “sitting” on the beach. We had been warned about this spectacle but could not help getting a good chuckle out of it when we saw it for real.

I have also now found the ideal summer job for anyone interested. If you want a summer of no responsibility and walking on the beach, the plagiste job is for you. And you get to wear a hip yellow polo. From what we could figure out the plagistes walked up and down the Plage a Paris and occasionally handed out pamphlets with a map on them. I’m not sure I want the job, but I would like the polo shirt!

We finished our first day in Paris with a visit to Notre Dame. After hooking up with the free tour in English for ten minutes, we opted for the audio-guide. With the guide we not only got a detailed description of the art work, organ, and stain glass, but we also got entrance into the Treasury. The Treasury not only contains various vestments, ornate chalices, bejewelled relic casings, and some strange momentos of the Archbishops of Paris (including a glove holder), but also miniature cameos of all of the Popes. It is quite the collections and a reminder of how powerful the church once was, and specifically the riches that surrounded this legendary church. 

We went back to Notre Dame a couple of days later to go to mass and to see a concert featuring medieval music and instrumentation. The group consisted of only six members. Three singers and three instrumentalists, but the music was amazing. All of the selections were about Mary to celebrate the Assumption and some though religious in lyrics had music that originated in popular ballads and songs of the 13th and 14th centuries. The acoustics were amazing and for one song the singers walked up and down the length of the church. Eerily, it was almost impossible to locate exactly where they were, as the music travelled so well throughout the cathedral. I was also impressed with the instrumentation. One of the singers played a tambourine, but really played it. He didn’t just bang on it but was able to produce timbre and dynamics that I almost never associate with tambourines. There was also a flutist who played various different flutes, recorders and an ancient style cornet. The skilled required to transfer between these different instruments was impressive. The only down side to the concert was the organ improvisations. Between each set of songs performed by the group the organist did improvisations. The first couple were quite enjoyable, but the last were so modern and contrasted so much to the groups music that even a couple of the singers were rolling their eyes. 

We also spent a full day at the Louvre. We could have spent probably three days there but we tried to be strategic. As any of you know who have museumed with us, it can be grueling. We made sure to take breaks, choose the specific exhibits we wanted to see and we made our best effort not to read everything. It was tough, but we saw more this way and with actual snack breaks we didn’t die of exhaustion. Our other big strategy was to wait to see the Mona Lisa last. Since we went on a Friday the Louvre is open until 9:30 p.m. and we were able to avoid most of the tour groups by waiting until about 9:00 to go see the Mona Lisa. We were also able to actually get close enough to look at the detail.

One of the most interesting exhibits we visited was the one on Mesopotamian art. So much of it was larger than life and mystical, yet you could see the aspects of daily life in it.

This is only the top of one column that would have aided supported the roof of a palace.
Man with goat.

Over our stay we did two lovely walking tours with Paris Walks. One was on the background of the Marais district which started out as a swamp, but was populated by kings and royalty, neglected and seen as a rough area of town, settled in by the Jewish population of Paris, and the home to some great artists and writers like Victor Hugo. We went to the Victor Hugo museum as well. I had no idea of the energy and multiple disciplines he practiced. Not only was he a writer, but he painted and was an influential politician. We also did a tour of the Montmartre district and discovered the multiple homes and studios of famous artists, as well as saw the scenes that they actually painted.

There are many reasons to take walking tours including the stories and anecdotes about the city, but below are some jewels that we never would have discovered on our own.

"French Republic or Die" Graffiti from the French Revolution, inside a church. People have obviously tried to get rid of it, but the paint soaked into the stone and it is there permanently.

The screen of the pre-reformation church of St. Etienne. The only one still in existence in Paris. This intricate stone work was used to separate the lay people from the religious. Obviously in those days there would have been no altar in front of the screen. And yes those are stairs going up to a walkway that goes up and down the second story of the church.

Yes, this is a vineyard in the middle of the Montmartre district. I guess they still make wine from it every October, but the quality is questionable.

A baguette from the bakery voted to have the best baguette in all of Paris for 2010. The vote for 2011 is still to come. The baguette did pass Keith's high standards for baguettes as well.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Photos de Provence

So as I mentioned here are some “typical” Provence pictures from our trip a couple of weeks ago.



The Roman Arena at Arles
The Arena was used as a fortress in the Middle Ages and became a city within a city.
You can still see some of the stone work used to block up the arches.

The Roman Theatre in Arles