Thursday, 12 May 2016

Aix - Never mind Brexit, what about Britin?

Monday 9th May, 2016

I have written before about how we love the stretch of countryside that forms the foothills of France's southern uplands. It stretches the length of the country's Mediterranean coast, about 15 - 20 kilometres north of the Autoroute from Nice to Perpignan. We have travelled through most of these wooded, vine clad hills over the years, but yesterday allowed us to fill in a gap between Cotignac and Aix en Provence. Now we are staying in Beaurecueil, a small place a few kilometres east of Aix. The bus stop outside the campsite gates has a view of the Montagne Ste Victoria lifted straight from Cezanne. 

It's surprising, given how many visits we have made to the South of France, that we had never been to Aix, except for once when I drove through the middle of it by mistake. We have had a great day out, and it probably ranks along with Marseille and Narbonne as places in the south we have enjoyed the most. Partly this comes down to good luck, though the day was forecast to be blustery with showers, in fact it remained dry, and we stepped off the bus in Place General de Gaulle straight into a European Festival of Culture run by the Mouvement Européen Provence.

A space in front of the Office of Tourism had been fenced off and about twenty small white pavilion style tents erected. Most were occupied by delegations from the countries of the EU - most were here, from Scandinavia to Italy and Greece to Portugal - core Treaty of Rome members, and the countries who joined later from the South and the former Eastern bloc. There was a carnival atmosphere with lots of national pennants fluttering among the gold and blue of the Union flag. Most tents had people dressed in national costume and some places had plates of national delicacies on hand. Not everyone was represented, no Benelux, Irish or Croatian delegations. Most conspicuous in their absence was the second most populated country in the EU; of course Britain was not there because we are very confused about the European project leaving aside the June debacle.

The Polish contingent
A fierce looking, but friendly Bulgar - vice-like handshake almost put us in A&E!

Next to a statue of Cezanne (straw hat, folding easel on back) a small stage had been erected, after a brief welcoming address from an official, a group of dancers took to the stage dressed in traditional costume. We assumed they were Provençal, though at times the music they danced to seemed more Slavic or from the Balkans. The language of the songs certainly was not French, but it might have been Occitan I supposed. In a sense, the fact that the dancers and the music proved difficult to place reinforced the 'pan-European' nature of the event, underlying how the folk traditions of Europe ignore the lines on maps delineating national borders and reach back into the far past to our common Indo-European roots. The tunes might have sounded Armenian, but the way the dancers wielded sticks, then danced between them crossed on the ground was pure Cotswold Morris.

The thought crossed my mind that rather than the current debate about 'Brexit', the real issue is 'Britin' - we have never really signed up to the core idea behind the European Union - 'Unity Through Diversity' - as a nation we struggle with the notion, we still perceive our history as 'an island story' that asserts a separateness that must be defended, and fails to acknowledge how Britain's past and current culture is inexorably tied to a broader European history. The simple truth is, at home you rarely see the EU flag at all, it's as if we are a bit wary, or scared of what it represents. Hopefully we won't exit in June - but I can't see a positive vote resulting in us becoming more enthusiastic Europeans, I suspect we are doomed to be forever the EU's lukewarm member. I find that sad.

"So, Gill, could you just outline for me why you are not a great admirer of Michael Gove...."
The dancing and singing was great; photographs can't really capture the energy and zest of the performers, many of whom looked late middle aged. No arthritic creaking knees here! I took quite a bit of video which I will try to upload to YouTube once we escape the Wifi and 3G black spot we seem to be inhabiting at present.

Aix is famous as a city of fountains, ancient and modern. We wandered off in search of the Mur d'Eau, a water installation by Christian Ghion created in 2014. It was a little out of the centre and took a bit of finding. At 157m wide and 17m wide it would have quite a sight, if the water had been switched on, as it was it looked like a big wire mesh, which it is, without the wet stuff. The detour took us into an area of new development, mainly student halls of residence and a new Conservatoire for music, dance and drama. For the past century France has been at the forefront of architecture, embracing the modern and helping define the post-modern. They know a thing or two about creating contemporary public spaces, and the area in front of the new Conservatoire was typical, expansive but not belittling, minimalist without being gaunt. A nice touch was the way the smoked green glass windows of the first floor dance studios gave passers-by a glimpse of the activities within, maintaining privacy for the dancers, yet revealing their form to the onlooker as shadowy figures in motion.

We headed back to the old town and spent about three hours wandering about, from fountain to fountain, down grand boulevards through shady squares and narrow old streets. Half way through, after being a bit taken aback by the prices on the Cours Mirabeau, we found a modest place called appropriately 'Le Petite Cafe' - pie of the day, courgette and onion, with salad, 8 euros - inexpensive, simple and delicious....

Lunch - Gill looking suitably Gallic striped 

So,  pictures of the delights of Aix en Provence; there are many.


The large fountain in the Place General de Gaulle is big, but boring

The old mossy ones on Cours Mirabeau are more interesting, and useful - women washes recently purchased strawberries.

A small, nameless fountain in a square with no name - we were totally lost at this point.

The square, somewat unimaginatively is called 'Place et Fountaine des Quatre Dauphin - built in 1667. 

We think this may be Place et Fontaine L'Archeveche, or not....
Les fontaines provide focal points to meet old friends
or have a moment of solitary contemplation
Not just running water...

Squares and public spaces:

From the Apple Shop on Place Gereral de Gaulle
down the broad eighteenth century avenue of Cours Mirabeau..
to the statue of Roi Renee at the end of the 700m boulevard is a huge, tree lined public space.

The Place de Mairie provides another large gathering place full of cafes and places to eat.

Less frequented during the day , the Place de Cardeau has a range of ethnic restaurants and the streets around it more culturally diverse and a bit of a hipster hang-out in the evening, I suspect

Interesting old streets with quirky shops:

Where are we?
Macaroon tree

Strawberry Fields forever...

old shops

daft brushes
lavender bears

Intriguing public statuary:

King Rene - a key figure  15th Century scholar-monarch who ruled the Kingdom of Sicily and Naples, but based his court at Aix - poet, artist and philosopher - a true Renaissance man.

The magic realism of streets
The court official nipped out for a fag break in full regalia

Lots of visual puns in Baroque sculpture - here: ouch! that lintel hurts...

More Baroque visual humour - a deconstructed arch.

A niche at the corner - very ant-classical..

more statues with a sore head..

Pediment sculpture attempting to leave the building - more Baroque humour.
The sacred...
and profane.

The Mausolee Joseph Sec has one of the few sculptural assemblages dating from the Revolutionary period - 1792
In some ways its what you  might expect - breezy allegorical figures in a Roman style.

The iconography however is very odd - what are all the nails about?

Why is the female figure hammering a nail into the recumbant man's ear?

Another nail - why?

Who is the regal figure - Charlemagne, Clovis?
Why does the sheep look like Michael Gove - all mysterious, I need to Google it.

An unusual conclusion 

We were busily agreeing, while struggling to find the right place to catch the return bus, that Aix may be one of the most satisfying cities we have visited on this trip; then something very odd occurred. It was late afternoon and the bus stop was crowded with students and office workers heading home. A middle aged couple were waiting to enter the bus and a youngish women with three kids in tow was getting off. I have no idea what happened or what was said but in a trice the younger women pushed her nose within an inch or two of the older one's face, screaming insults at her. The victim backed away followed by her assailant. They both ended up standing a couple of feet in front of us. The diatribe continued, even though the older women's husband now placed himself between the two as a barrier, hands held aloft in a gesture of contrition. The yelling continued unabated for some minutes, despite the oldest child's attempts to lead her mother away from the spat. The bus queue looked on non-plussed, the bus driver hovered, unsure of what to do, and the situation only calmed when a brave onlooker put their arm around the young women and quietened her down. We really did think the situation was going to erupt into physical violence. It was probably the most aggressive situation we have ever encountered on our travels. What triggered the outburst was unclear. The kids did look of mixed race. Had the older women said something that the younger took as a racist slur? We will never know, but it was certainly a memorable end to our visit to Aix, for all the wrong reasons.

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