Cezanne's Mountain
Climbing Mt Sainte-Victoire
Paul Cezanne
Paul Cézanne was born in Aix en Provence and grew up there, first in the town and later in the house his father acquired on the outskirts of Aix. Towering over the local landscape is the chunky, irregularly shaped Mt Saint Victoire, with starkly white limestone cliffs reaching a high point of 1011m. As a boy Cézanne roamed this countryside with his friend Emile Zola, and later he would go for long solitary walks, his painting equipment on his back, climbing Mt Ste Victoire and walking over every inch of the countryside he loved. The mountain became one of the focal points of his life and he painted it about 60 times.
Climbing Mt Sainte-Victoire
Walking in this countryside and climbing the mountain is to walk right into the centre of those colourful paintings. The stunted grey-green trees and red earth at the base of the mountain and the stratas of white limestone along the plateau at the top are unchanged. The climb can be approached from two directions, either a steep pull up from le Tholonet in the south or a more gradual, though unrelenting ascent from Vauvenargues in the north.
We made the pilgrimage on a glorious clear Sunday at the end of October while staying in the valley in Vauvenargues. Here our hotel room had a glorious view of the mountain and a castle where Picasso spent his last years and is buried. Aix itself would be an equally good base as it is a lively and interesting large town with lots to keep you occupied on non walking days.
In the cool of the morning the early stages of the walk were easy but as the day became hotter, the track started to climb and eventually emerged from the trees into dazzling Mediterranean sunlight.
There seemed to be a lot of other people toiling uphill and, on reaching a little chapel at about 500m, it became obvious that the stream of people, dressed either in colourful national costumes or regal clerical robes, had a loftier purpose than simply reaching the summit. Here it emerged that the throng included the Archbishop of Aix who, accompanied by a rather hot and bothered looking entourage, had also made the climb in order to bless a new altar in the chapel.
We watched the ceremonies for a while and then continued up onto the top of the massif where a gigantic cross stands to dominate the surrounding plain. After a while the crowd spread out and intermingled with the weekend picnic activity. People stretched out in the sun and took photos of themselves in ridiculous positions leaning out over the edge of the precipices. There was a wonderfully relaxed picnic atmosphere.
You can walk for up to 9 km along the top of the mountain, on a sharp stony surface taking care at the slippery and crumbling edges of the ravines. This is the route of the GR 9 as it starts to sniff the Mediterranean after its journey south from Lake Geneva.
If it's not too hazy you gaze over the countryside and imagine the battle in 102 BC when the Roman general Marius slaughtered up to 200,000 members of a "barbarian" army headed towards Rome. Having themselves suffered great losses, the Romans shadowed the eastward moving enemy from the high grounds of Mt Ste Victoire from where the devastating assault was launched. After the victory Marius was declared a hero, "the saviour of the civilised world", and whole generations of male babies were subsequently named Marius
As we made our way down the mountain later in the afternoon, there were still streams of people labouring up the hill. Towards the base of the mountain, the track widened out to allow vehicular traffic and at this point the Archbishop climbed aboard an air conditioned 4x4 vehicle, and sailed by the walkers waving regally as he passed.
You can't always do this walk. In summer when the temperatures are high and strong winds blow there are days of extreme fire danger when all the tracks up the mountain are closed. In 1989 a huge fire destroyed all the vegetation and, in the clean-up, some 17 bodies were found. It seems that people are always getting lost and there is a permanent rescue centre in the valley. As we settled down to a delicious dinner of Provençal rabbit a loud siren sounded out across the valley, signalling an incident on the mountain. The waiter shrugged and showed little interest so we never discovered the outcome.
Our return to Paris at the end of this trip had been planned to co-incide with a monumental exhibition of Cézanne's work at the Grand Palais.

There was the mountain on canvas after canvas exploding in colour, painted from every direction and in every season.
The paintings seemed even more wonderful after our experience on the mountain itself.
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Mt Sainte-Victoire seen from near le Thonolet
Cezanne's Mt Sainte-Victoire
The summit of Mt Sainte-Victoire
The mountain from near le Thonolet
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