Follow MV Northern Exposure on  Follow MV Northern Exposure on Twitter or  Instagram @NorthrnExpo

We'll post whenever the website changes.

Sunday, July 1, 2012, in Cannes, France

Hi everyone. Our month in Toulon is finished, and we’ve moved on to Cannes. Here’s what we did during the rest of our Toulon stay.

With a week to go in our month in Toulon, we decided to expand our horizons in the neighborhood. There were a few places we had in mind for potential day trips. One of the entries on our to-go list meant a slight move backwards to see a neighbor of Bandol, the port we’d left for Toulon weeks earlier.

If you don’t count the dinosaurs who lived in Sanary-sur-Mer 200 million years ago, the first inhabitants of the town were the Romans. The name comes from the 1st-century Roman martyr Saint Nazaire, for whom a tower was built in medieval times. The place remained a sleepy harbor town until the sixteenth century, and became a summer destination when the railroad was built a few hundred years after that. In 1933, Sanary drew German writers and intellectuals such as Thomas Mann and Berthold Brecht, as well as English writers Aldous Huxley and D. H. Lawrence. Things didn’t go so well for either the town or the expatriates during the German occupation of World War II, but the intellectual legacy of the era remains in today’s laid-back, caf�� culture in the village. Jacques Cousteau had a villa in town, and probably developed some of his diving inventions in the area.

The bus ride to Sanary-sur-Mer was short and inexpensive, and took us by roundabouts adorned with newly-bloomed flowing lavender or old, gnarled olive trees. We stepped onto the street and wandered into a traffic-free way that led to the sea. It was obvious immediately that we’d found ourselves in a summer resort. Restaurants in tiny spaces expanded to a dozen tables under awnings on the walking street. Shops were brimming with merchandise inside and out, all with one attribute in common: impulse purchases. There were soaps from Marseille, fabrics featuring rustic designs of olives and branches, packets of sea salts, bright ceramics, and shops selling the swimwear and light clothing that are festive enough to be irresistible and priced to be bought without too much deliberation.

The waterfront was a postcard of bobbing pointu boats and crystalline water. Walkup houses rimmed the port. Round metal ice-cream kiosks along the water’s edge have a turn-of-the-previous-century look, as if patronized by swimmers in striped pantaloons and bulbous swim caps.

The place we picked for lunch, L’Altruiste, was on the narrow walking street enroute to the port, exceeding the already-high expectations we maintain in France. Unlike Toulon or even Bandol, shops in Sanary-sur-Mer conform to the Mediterranean custom of closing for lunch, which in France means a closure from noon to anywhere between 2:30 and 4:30. Most shops reopened at 3:00. Taking our cue from the locals, we rested on a park bench in the shade of a plane tree, and then browsed the shops until our return bus to Toulon.

Apparently, our new travel strategy was to use Toulon as our base to visit all the places we’d missed seeing from previous harbors. So we saw Sanary-sur-Mer after we left its neighbor Bandol, and we visited Marseilles after missing it from Port Saint Louis du Rhone, and now we’d get a last chance to visit Aix-en-Provence after we’d been unable to go there from Marseille.

There were two ways to go by train, the regional train called Ter, which would take you right from centre ville to centre ville, or the TGV, the Tres Grand Vite, or, roughly translated, Amazingly Big Speed train. This was the first bullet train I ever knew about (okay, maybe Japan was first, but in those days, for me, Japan was another planet.) We were surprised that the departure and arrival times were spaced almost the same, whether we took the super-duper train or the plodding commuter version. I still opted for the bullet.

The TGV trains are pretty, and not in a train-from-the-future-as-viewed-from-the-Sputnik-era way. They do look like bullets. They’re reasonably comfortable inside. But I’ll need to paraphrase Mike Myers/Linda Richman’s Coffee Talk here: “These trains aren’t Tres, nor Grand, nor Vite. Discuss.” The train also left us a whopping fifteen-minute bus ride from Aix-en-Provence town, with a round-trip price of about $20 for the two of us and the irony of getting dropped off by a bus a few blocks farther from town than the Ter station would have been.

Aix (pronounced “ex”) is the sentimental capital of Provence, and once was the actual one. The first settlers of note were the Romans, who were drawn by the thermal springs, which they named Aquae Sextiae in honor of the battlefield victory of the Roman consul Sextius in 122 BC. The mountain overlooking the town, St. Victoire honors the Roman general Marius, who cornered 200,000 Germans against it in 142 BC. Marius is still a popular name in Provence, and is familiar to those of us who have read or at least seen Les Miserables.

Aix declined when the Romans left, but flourished again during the Renaissance, and reached its glory in the 17th and 18th centuries. One of the beneficiaries of this wealth was the pampered but very talented Paul Cézanne, born there in the mid-19th century. His schoolmate and BFF Emile Zola described their friendship and the city itself in his writing.

We began our exploration along Cours Mirabeau, the broad boulevard shaded by plane trees and ringed with cafés. Anyone who wants to follow in Cézanne’s footsteps, quite literally, can look for the copper “C” markers in the sidewalk or follow a tourist-office map called “in the steps of Cézanne.” We half-followed that map and half-followed a tour in a guidebook, and plunged down the length of Cours Mirabeau on our way through the town.

Our attempts to find croissants in the late morning were rebuffed on the boulevard, so we stopped at a welcoming patisserie and reviewed our touring options. The streets were already a summer tableau, with crowds inspecting souvenir shops, and many conversations overheard in American-accented English. The university founded 600 years ago and the presence of hundreds of thousands of students creates a vitality, not to mention a disproportionate sprinkling of bookstores and coffee shops.

Weaving through one outdoor market after another – the household goods on Cours Mirabeau, an antiques market on one of the squares, a flower market outside the town hall under its stunning 15th-century clock tower – we ducked into the Knights of Malta church, which, among its other notable moments, held the funeral for Cézanne’s mother. We passed lovely large buildings that have been converted to schools or museums, and smaller “hôtels particuliers” (mansions), some restored, and others grimy and in need of paint, that brought back a glimpse of centuries ago.

Students teemed out of the high-school that once was the Collège Royal-Bourbon of Cézanne and Zola. Cézanne, by the way, squeaked through with a 60-70% achievement, barely a pass-fail. We stopped at the Musée Granet, once the School of Design attended by Cézanne. In 1856, the school awarded Cézanne a prize for his work. Alas, he won second prize, and nobody is mentioning who got the first prize. Indeed, even after the school was converted to a museum, the same overseer who didn’t like him as a youth wouldn’t allow any Cézannes into the collection. Apparently, now there are nine of his works there. When we got to the cashier’s desk to enter, we noted that the graphic of artists’ names across the wall didn’t include the native son (although the unknown museum founder Granet is well-represented), and three major works of the few available Cézannes were on tour somewhere. We continued our walk instead.

The Cathedrale St-Sauveur might have been built upon the site of an ancient temple of Apollo, and might not. It’s known, though, that the cathedral began in the fifth century and continued to improve until the 18th century. Its crowning glory is a triptych called “Triptyque du Buisson Ardent” (Mary and the Burning Bush), which was commissioned in the 15th century by King Rene and Queen Jeanne. This masterpiece predictably features the Virgin Mary, with a nod towards Moses, shown in a meadow, no doubt in some sort of time travel. But the surprise guests in the painting are the king and queen themselves, genuflecting respectfully, in a Zelig sort of way.

We ended our tour as we began it, on the Cours Mirabeau, at the Café–Brasserie les Deux Garçons. Since this café was founded in 1792, it’s been the place to be for artists and intellectuals. Cézanne and his friend Zola visited frequently, no doubt while cutting classes at school. I like to think that the “two boys” of the name are the youthful incarnations of great art, but it’s really a reference to the café’s eighteenth-century founders.

From there, we made our way back to the bus and the TGV train station, where I watched one express train passing through on a center track, looking like a flash of lightning.

So we’re on our way. Poppa, happy 91st (wow) and happy Independence Day to all.

Love, Karen (and Art)