Friday, August 07, 2015
Sur la Route: Nord
They've fenced in Antoine St. Exupery's airfield. I came past on a summer's evening last year, on the way to a memorable meal at Auberge La Môle (Though in Provence, all meals are memorable). The new stone wall would not have contained the wandering spirit of St. Ex, which often took flight from the dirt strip beyond, a spirit eventually lost to the waters just south of here. As for my own wandering spirit, it would have to find satisfisfaction in keeping between the lines of a road stretching itself east along the Côte d'Azur.
The twisting road unwound itself at the old Greek trading post of Hyéres, the olive trees falling away as the auto-route took me through a landscape reminiscent of the work of Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keeffe, rocky arid mounts rising toward the flawless blue sky of July, though here ancient fortified villages have replaced the stone spires. Cezanne found great delight in this earth, in Montagne Ste-Victoire in particular, at whose foot lies the grave of Picasso, a man greatly inspired by his predecessor.
Amidst this dry landscape there were fountains, drawing from the same spring that the Romans had used to soothe their battle-wounds. The picturesque city/town of Aix-en-Provence has grown up around them, water gushing from each square, interconnected by narrow lanes choked today with the pressing bodies of tourists. They meandered and dawdled, their steps taking them in unpredictable arcs, bisected by the lightning-fast straight courses traced by instrument-laden buskers moving as if late for work. We escaped them and the heat for a meal in a small bistro, cooling our heels upon the colored tile. Afterwards, LYL led me around the twisting maze of the city where she once attended university. All roads lead to the Cours Mirabeau, where we sat for a coffee in the Deux Garçons, myself imaging what native sons Cezanne and Zola would have talked about when they took their positions beneath large, intricately framed mirrors. Probably commenting on the passersby, as did we.
The location of our hotel above the Cours Mirabelle ensured a poor night's sleep, mostly by the street cleaning crews at work in the soft light of daybreak. But it also created a pleasant opportunity for a tourist-free retracing of steps through the city at dawn. Afterwards, we drove into the greener and more fertile rolling of hills that is the Rhône Valley. It was the dreaded first weekend of the month-long summer holiday, and it seemed like all of France was on the move. Or not, as the snail-pace of the auto-route allowed us a bit too much time to ponder the ugly architecture of the up-and-coming Confluence, where the Rhône and the Saône joined together after caressing the contours of Lyon. It was refreshing to walk these streets at a pace slightly quicker than which we had driven, in a proper French city, along broad boulevards framed by tall 17th and 18th Century facades whose glassy street level floors were devoted to 21st Century capitalism.
Lyon is both famous and infamous for the deliciousness of its food, and our steps seemed to take us from table to table. In between we wandered gingerly over the cobblestones of the old town, where the tourists were protected by machine-gun toting soldiers whose armored bodies looked as if they have arrived from a century all their own. We left all of them when we crossed over to an affordable-looking artistic quarter marked by a series of murals standing above the river. Beyond the photogenic Robert Bresson primary school to Place de la Comedie, marked by a grand fountain designed by Bartholdi, looking nearly as grand as the Statue of Liberty that he had designed a decade earlier. As we were admiring her waters, we were politely asked to step back so that a film crew could shoot what might go on to be the latest hit in Bollywood.
That evening we ate in a culinary school set up by renowned chef Paul Bocuse, housed conveniently on the ground floor of our hotel facing the Place Bellecour. As I sat at my window-side table, I noticed that I was drawing a fair bit of attention from passersby, who would either stare, or give me a thumbs up. This would be repeated throughout our travels over the next few days, making me begin to wonder what French celebrity they were mistaking me for.
Another early start, from one wine producing region to another. But Burgundy would wait for another day, and before long its vineyard studded hills would flatten out as we drew closer to Paris. We would stop fifty kilometers short, at Fontainebleau, to stretch our legs amongst the Chateau's 1900 rooms. Napoleon and Louis XIV had slept here, in one or two of them, built over a series of centuries. Whomever the Emperor, he must have had a hard time sleeping beneath the busy patterns of wood, and stone, and tapestry. After two decades amongst the Zen aesthetic of Japan, I found it all headache inducing after awhile. So the chateau's vast open grounds were a relief and a delight, a series of simple demarcated right angles looking quite...Zen.
We ourselves slept at another Chateau that night, preempted by a stop at the midway point between them for a party which had served as the catalyst for the entire road trip. LYL's friend was holding the party for her daughter's 40th birthday, and as the light was softening from the day, we found ourselves on the lawn of an old longére French house which stretched across what would be a full city block. We sipped from glasses of vin blanc while listening to a guitar driven chamber orchestra playing through their repertoire of 1950s light jazz. A quintet of Moroccans served up an assembly line couscous, as a lamb spun lazily over an open fire behind. As our host had once been an Ambassador, we were in a rather colorful and diverse crowd of expats from whatever their country of origin. No one was where they had once belonged, as if a jigsaw puzzle had been spilled across the grass. I had the best of conversations, I had the worst of conversations, and after one too many of the latter, LYL discreetly pulled me away in the direction of the car.
Not long afterward we pulled up before our chateau, our shadows elongating toward its well-lit facade. I half imagined that it truly was ours, with the staff waiting inside to bid us goodnight and to count down the hours until the first coffee of dawn.
On the turntable: "Colors of the World"
On the nighttable: Colette, "Break of Day"