A hip traveler heads south this French winter
By Sofie van Donselaar (Hip traveler)
Before the advent of the “Jet Age”, overseas flights to exotic destinations weren’t really an option and the only choice to escape the cold northern European winter was a very long train ride or boat trip. In those days the south of France was a very popular winter destination and not just because there was no boat involved. The weather was milder than in most parts of Europe at that time of the year and the scenery was (and still is) gobsmackingly beautiful. This made the French Riviera the perfect place for royalty and the plain wealthy to- as we say nowadays- hang out. Rumor has it that it was F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Tender is the Night” who decided that the south of France should be a summer destination instead of the traditional winter destination it had been up to that point. Just remember that in the 1930’s when Fitzgerald wrote his famous book there were no reality shows (no Paris Hilton) but the French Riviera did have a lot of ex-Czarist royalty, British socialites and American expats that could show our Paris (the socialite, not the city) a thing or two.
Speaking of Paris (the city, not the socialite), this is the city everybody thinks of when you talk about visiting France in the winter. It’s the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe that come to mind, all lit and romantic in the snow. But- even though the City of Light is beautiful, there’s much more to France in the winter than just Paris. The Illuminated city may have blinded you with its lights, but if you want to take a peek at the ‘real’ France, head south my intrepid traveler.
I personally didn’t feel like I’d really seen the real France until I discovered the southern part of the country (most French people can back me up on this one). Yes, I know that you can’t avoid the image of celebrities and royalty in Cannes or Nice and the fancy Yachts in the harbor at St Tropez during peak summer. We know that in summer the heels will always be high, the dresses short and the champagne will flow. But when the temperatures drops, the Riviera returns to being quaint part of provincial France with (as I can imagine) a big sigh of relief. And after that last bit of summer glitter has been brushed off you’ll see a whole new side to the south of France that you’ll simply love.
One of the best kept secrets of southern France (that I will never keep) is the town of Aix-en-Provence or ‘Aix’ for short. Aix is one of those places I love, mostly for its elegant architecture that just feels so natural there. They don’t even have to try.
No wonder that the famous post-impressionist painter Cezanne (who was born in Aix) was so inspired by his native town that he made many of his iconic paintings in and around Aix. When he left to study in Paris the only place that wanted to exhibit his work was the Salon the Refuses. This was the salon where they would show all of the works rejected by the jury for the official salon because they didn’t add up to what was then considered tasteful or real art. We can conclude one thing based on this information: Paris was wrong. If you compare Cezanne’s work inspired by Aix, you’ll see watercolors and serenity; his works from his time in Paris, on the other hand, is considered dark, sharp and moody. So I consider Cezanne to be on my side when it comes to Paris vs. the Riviera, and you will too.
When you wander through Aix you will understand why Cezanne and so many other painters spend a lot of time there. Walk through the Cours Maribeau with its rows of trees and classic buildings on each side of the road. Take your time to admire the fountains or have a coffee on the Place de l’Hotel de Ville. Visit the Aix Cathedral (Cathédrale Saint Sauveur), the 17th century mansions and of course one of the fine Museums in town.
Make a quick stop at La Cure Gourmande store, a candy shop in the traditional French style; with piles and piles of chocolates and cookies, the cutest gift wrappings and (most importantly), it all tastes so GOOD.
I hope you consider allowing the south of France to enchant you this winter. Because you know, in the south, they have plenty of amour and lots of lights too, but most importantly, they have that unique provincial air that gave the region its name back when the Romans first trampled along its lavender filled meadows. Go to Province and the south of France this winter, you will be glad you did.