Discovering Czech Cubism

Confession: I always thought I hated cubism.

I realise now that I hadn’t given it a fair shake. I was familiar enough with Picasso’s muted palettes and almost-recognisable jumbles of shapes, which had never quite done it for me, but I preferred…um, just about everything else out there. Apparently I hated fun. Sorry about that.

I was still clinging to this snobbery a year ago when I visited Prague’s Veletrzni Palace, the sprawling modern art branch of the Czech National Gallery. It’s not especially central, but if you find yourself in Prague on a rainy day, please please please visit this gallery. It’s honestly one of the best I’ve ever seen.

Wandering through the early-20th c. European stuff, I at first saw little to challenge my established opinions about cubism. They have quite a collection of Picassos there and some Georges Braque (a sampling of which are pictured above), all of which continued to not-quite do it for me. But then I got to the Czech artists (also pictured above; the top painting is by Josef Čapek, who coined the term ‘robot’, of all things), with their brighter colours, their inventive shapes – their playfulness. The Czechs, I learned, were masters of cubism, and they delighted in pushing its limits. The movement arrived here around 1911, and Czech artists put their backs into it and kept innovating away well into the 1920s.

The result was loads of excellent stuff. I found myself slowing down, paying closer attention, actually enjoying what I was looking at. I LOVED it, in fact. In half an hour, I went from hating cubism to being ravenously curious about it. I needed more.

And that’s how I learned about the Museum of Decorative Arts’ Czech Cubism exhibit, housed in the cubist House of the Black Madonna. Obviously, I had to go.

That’s right, cubist architecture is a thing that exists in Prague. Every feature in this building has a cubist touch, including the stairs. It even houses a cubist café. There are some paintings and sculptures displayed here, but the focus is really on the decorative arts.

You can see how cubist design draws a lot of inspiration from crystalline forms (“a natural form par excellence,” according to the museum’s informative plaques), and how they love to play with the oblique plane (‘diagonal stuff’ to you & me). And they had to work that into tables and chairs?!

You’ll notice in some of these photos how the designers shunned right angles even at the expense of functionality; half these objects look like the gentlest use would send them toppling over. Others look like poorly-disguised torture devices. Yet they’re spectacular. Gorgeous. I want one of each.

I passed a couple of contented hours at this museum, snapping far too many pictures of near-identical chairs. I’d assumed that this would be the end of my cubist awakening, until I wandered into a little activity corner and found this:

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This is well-loved, and barely clinging to life.

It’s a MAP OF CUBIST ARCHITECTURE IN PRAGUE. The Czechs even had brilliant architects exploring what they could do with this movement all over the city. I still had an hour or two of daylight left, and was right in the middle of a big cluster of them. Gogogogogogogo!

See how creatively they worked cubism into their designs, while still making, you know, usable buildings? The Diamant building bulges out so that it’s not straight up-and-down, while the later Adria Palace shows how the style evolved to incorporate rounded features and busier decoration.

This was a GREAT way to explore the city, by the way. I passed through multiple Christmas markets, and soon felt a warming buzz from all the hot wine I inevitably bought. Because these buildings are newer, I didn’t have to spend any time in the jam-packed Old Town. I found all kinds of excellent Art Deco buildings on this walk, as well. It was wonderful.

took a break in the awesomest soviet-era dept store
These mannequins haunt my nightmares, but I kind of want those outfits.

I also stopped in briefly at the most incredible Soviet-era department store, apparently unchanged in several decades, which brought me nearly as much delight as the entire cubist experience.

I just barely managed to finish off the most central buildings on the map as I lost my light.

But that wasn’t the end of it! There was a small cluster of cubist homes perhaps a 45-minute walk from my apartment. Well, I had to see that. So my journey stretched into its THIRD day.

I didn’t quite hit all the cubist buildings in the city – some were scattered pretty far & wide – but I made it to about two-thirds of them, which is a reasonable sample size. It was fascinating to see the many ways these artists translated cubist principles into architectural design. I mean, before you saw these things, could you have pictured a cubist lamp post? Fence? Window frame?

I decided to end my scavenger hunt back at the House of the Black Madonna, possibly my favourite building in this style. I wandered into the Grand Café Orient, which claims to be the only cubist café in the world, and found a seat.

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Grand Café Orient (Source)

Yeah, sure enough, everything here is just a little bit oblique, a touch crystalline. It’s cubist alright.

Quick story. I’d read that the staff here are pretty rude if you only speak English, so I’d carefully memorised all the Czech things I would need to say in order to obtain a coffee and cake. Everything went great, and the server was perfectly civil, until I forgot how to ask for my bill. I had to ask (apologetically) in English, and the server went through the most extraordinary transformation. He started to contort himself into bizarre exaggerated postures, and proclaimed, “Oh, THE BILL! Madam would like HER BILL, PLEASE…HERE IS YOUR BILL, MADAM.” So that was weird. Good cappuccino, though.

But anyway! What fun this all was! I got to explore an aspect of Czech history & culture that I’d never even realised existed. I got to see Prague with new eyes, the home of artistic achievements I’d never known how to appreciate. And to my everlasting surprise, I like cubism now.

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Provence 9: Luminy to Cassis (THE END)

I took so many photos. This is nowhere near all of them.

 

I left my bizarre dorm-B&B to a chorus of indifference from my temporary roommates. In light of the previous day’s navigational adventures, I got an early start and gave myself a good 8 hours for perhaps a 5-hour walk. I would end my day in the seaside town of Cassis, my final stop in France.

This walk was stunning. Breathtaking. Astonishing. All those clichés that I wish I didn’t use so much, because it leaves me with inadequate adjectives for a situation like this. It was also hair-raisingly precipitous, with narrow paths clinging to towering cliff-faces, and climbs up sheer rock walls requiring the heavily-laden hiker to test her strength, balance, and grip, or else plummet to her death.

Whenever I felt that my life wasn’t in immediate danger, I took photos. Everywhere I looked, I saw a view that I didn’t want to forget.

 

 

 

I was alone for most of the morning, the terrain being a bit inhospitable for the casual outdoorsperson. Just at the point when the dizzying heights and crushing loneliness were beginning to threaten morale, though, two runners overtook me. I could see them coming up behind me for some time, skipping gaily along ledges that had almost sent me plunging to my death only minutes before.

They stopped for breath and a chat when they reached me, and they were pleasantly eager to share their knowledge of the region. I learned, for example, that some of the tallest cliffs in the south of France were to come very shortly (photos below). They were also excited to practice their smattering of English on me, which led to the following exchange (italics were said in French, non-italics in English):

DUDE 1: You’ll love Cassis! It has several…what’s the word in Englishbitch?

ME: …

DUDE 2: Yes, it’s true! Very nice bitch.

ME: …

DUDES 1 & 2: [Smiling happily at me]

ME: ???

DUDES 1 & 2: [Smiling expectantly at me]

ME: …Oh, BEACHES!

 

My running friends eventually continued on their way, wishing me bon courage for the rest of my walk. There is something about that well-intentioned sentiment that gives me the opposite of courage. It’s as Han Solo says: “Good luck! (Yer gonna need it.)”

 

As it turned out, I was past the most palm-moistening parts of my walk by now. Though the terrain was still very much variations on the theme of ‘steep’, the path had at least widened, and it’s also possible that my body had just run out of whatever hormone it is that makes you fear death. By the time the path dipped down into a sort of gorge, I was quite sad to be leaving the bowel-loosening heights of the cliffs.

 

That didn’t last long, of course. The gorge ended at the bottom of a sheer, towering wall of rock. “Surely I don’t have to climb that,” I thought, naively. Some minutes later, I was sprawled at the top of that same rock-wall, gasping out a torrent of very rude words between laboured breaths.

 

From there, though, it really was clear sailing. I began to pass cheerful groups of chattering hikers as the ground leveled out somewhat and Cassis grew bigger before me. The path dipped down to a beach on one last calanque, the Calanque de Port Pin, which is clearly a popular stop for hikers. Hot and tired, I tore my boots off and strode ankle-deep into the clear, sparkling water. With a yelp and a leap, I was back on the beach. The sun may have made it feel like June, but it was definitely December in the waters of the Mediterranean.

 

I climbed a small final hill, smiling through gritted teeth at the holiday-makers all around me complaining about this one minor exertion, and there was the end of the park. Just like that!

It was about 1:30 pm. I hadn’t even stopped for lunch yet.

 

With many hours to kill before my Cassis AirBnB would be ready, I set about exploring the town. Well, no, I started by walking straight to the first seafront restaurant I came upon, sitting on their patio, and ordering a kilogram of moules frites. They were both divine and restorative.

Feeling like a new woman, I took a look around Cassis. It’s a charming little town, touristy but not cloying (at least in December), and it’s managed to shun the luxury travel market that I hear has ruined most of the Côte d’Azure. The town’s main drag faces onto the port, and restaurants buy their seafood from fishermen selling the day’s catch only steps away from their front doors. As ever, I tracked down the local Christmas market, which felt totally out of place in this sunny, 25°C paradise. The poor Père Noël must have been roasting

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This is my favourite photo I’ve ever taken.

I checked in to my AirBnB, took a nice big nap, tried & failed to take a bath because there was no hot water, then my BO and I hit the town again in search of supper. Found a place with a decent-looking dinner special and loads of locals making merry inside (good sign) and grabbed the last table I could find. I’d just placed my order and settled in with my journal and a glass of wine, when two middle-aged gentlemen approached me. My shields were up as they sheepishly asked if they could possibly sit with me and watch the football match. One of them clocked me with uncanny accuracy, though, when he added that they would buy my drinks for the evening in exchange. Welcome aboard!

We fell into conversation, discovering (to my astonishment, after a full week passed exclusively in French) that English was the most comfortable language for all of us. My new friends, Norwegian Jon and Swiss Robert, dutifully kept me in my cups, and we chatted away for hours.

Norwegian Jon was clearly the gregarious one, accustomed to holding court, friends with everyone in the room. I was vaguely irritated that he seemed to expect to be right all the time – to be seen as the go-to authority on everything under the sun. I challenged him on certain bold assertions he made (max. population that the Earth can sustain, for example; YOU’RE WRONG NORWEGIAN JON, I READ ABOUT THIS IN NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC), since I can’t pass up an opportunity to sass a stranger. It was all perfectly friendly, but I could see that he wasn’t used to being talked back to. Anyway, after he left, Swiss Robert revealed that Norwegian Jon is in fact a bajillionaire with a sprawling villa, who gets invited to royal parties and things all the time. So I guess that was my big chance to seduce a millionaire, spoiled as usual by my lip. (You’re welcome, Mike.)

Swiss Robert & I then chatted with a local at another table, who used to live in Montreal. I’ve mentioned this one before. Very much enjoyed the novelty of gushing about NHLer Michael Cammalleri, of all people, with a Frenchman in Cassis, but wasn’t overly sympathetic to his complaint that Canadian women are too assertive. Maybe he & Norwegian Jon could find some common ground there.

But by that point I was too tired to argue, full of wine, cognac, and some bizarre pear eau de vie, along with an otherworldly fish soup, dos de loup (I think loup is seabass?), and apple tart. I exchanged sleepy bisous with my new friends and waddled happily off to my Airbnb one last time. I really did love Cassis.

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And just like that, my walking tours were over. I bused to Marseille early the next morning, took one last look at the city, ate one last fish couscous (holy. cow.), then caught my plane back to Prague.

What a trip this was, though. There were some days when I felt a bit disconnected, I suppose, but by the end, I felt a powerful affinity with Provence. I mean, it’s Provence. I’m hardly the first. The amazing food & drink helped out there (seafood…yumm…couscous…omgggggg…rosé…who knew it could be so delicious???). And the people! The whole time I was there, people – locals for crying out loud – kept telling me that the French are rude, that they hate foreigners, all the usual stuff. Yet I had almost exclusively lovely encounters. They were possibly the warmest people, on the whole, I met in all my travels. What’s the deal?!

On the other hand, can you imagine living in a place with *those* views, *that* food, all that culture & history, and gorgeous summery weather stretching into December, and ever being grumpy?? No, I refuse to believe it.

Provence 8: Marseille to Luminy

Pretend those maps line up…

I woke up bright and early in Marseille, and the eastern sky was barely starting to glow when I was out the door for my adventure in the Calanques.

A calanque is a small Mediterranean inlet, quite common along the south coast of France. They’re basically tiny fjords, and I do indeed pine for them. Stretching along the 25 or so km of coastline between Marseille and Cassis is the Parc national des Calanques, a rocky, mountainous park that I love with my whole entire heart.

I didn’t get off to the best start. The park begins on the outskirts of the city, and I think I took the wrong bus because I was still very much inside Marseille when it dropped me off and I started walking. It took maybe two hours just to reach the edge of the park and the beginning of the GR98, which would take me all the way to Cassis.

Things got steep and scenic immediately.

I wasn’t operating at full capacity, still shaking off a tiny bit of the fatigue I’d felt after Lamanon, and it didn’t help that I was laden with 2 days’ worth of food in addition to all my usual kit. I was glad, though, that I’d decided to do the walk in 2 days rather than 1, because it would give me time to 1) linger over pretty views, 2) catch my breath as needed, and 3) not carelessly throw myself from a clifftop because damn that path is narrow in places.

And exposed. No shade to be found anywhere, I tell you. It was the 6th of December, for crying out loud, and it was HOT! My thermometer topped 30°c by about noon. Honestly, I hadn’t seen this coming. I hadn’t even brought a hat. And here I was, not even lunchtime yet, with a rosy red nose and a scalp hot enough to fry an egg. I wrapped my scarf (which I’d brought for warmth) around my head and carried on.

Not too much of note happened for most of the day. The views were unreal; with every hill I crested, I would stop dead in my tracks and reach for my good ol’ cameraphone. That golden Provence sun shone cheerily-but-relentlessly, and the blue of the sea & sky pierced straight to my soul. I mean, look at those pictures above. Those are taken with a cell phone camera. They’re not even good. And yet look at that blue!!

My destination for this day was a suburb of Marseille called Luminy, which is really just a university campus nestled in the middle of the Calanques. Though I wasn’t covering much distance as the crow flies, you can see what sort of terrain I was dealing with. I was dead tired by the time the sun started to get low in the sky and I veered up toward Luminy.

I’d been so good, all day, at not getting lost. There were all kinds of forks in the path, but I kept one eye on my map, another on the path markers, and a third on the scenery, and made it about 99% of the way to Luminy before making a proper idiot of myself.

I’d followed a road that a passing cyclist had recommended, and found myself at the top of a hill looking down on the Luminy campus. The shadows were getting long and the sunlight was getting orange, and I was anxious to get down to civilisation. The road, I could see, wound lazily down to the campus. But I was tired and hungry and impatient.

And stupid.

I took a look at Google Maps, and it indicated that there was a path (not present on my official map) that led straight down the hill. I looked around and found a faint trail through the dense, chest-high bushes. Okay, this must be it. I struck off down the path and everything went great for about 20 metres. The bushes became denser, though, and the trail fainter, and I decided to abort and take the road after all. I turned around to head back up the hill, but my path had disappeared. I pushed through the bushes a little ways in the direction I thought it must be, but no trail appeared. I shifted over to an area that seemed less dense. Still no trail. The sun was setting. I had no choice but to put my arms up in front of me and push with all my might through thick, wild bush, all the way back up to the road.

20 minutes later, I burst back into open space, completely exhausted, covered in stratches.

Wild-eyed and bleeding, I found my AirBnB, which was in a student dorm. The arrangement was wonderfully bizarre. The living area, kitchen, and bathroom were all shared between some indeterminate number of students, which I was prepared for. But it turned out that my host was just renting out his own bedroom to me, which I hadn’t realised. He had made a nest for himself underneath a desk in the living area and spent the entire evening curled up under there, directly outside my door, while I occupied his room. I tried to make conversation with his roommates while I ate my supper, but they weren’t the most forthcoming. I suspect that they found the whole situation as baffling as I did.

No amount of awkwardness, nor even a crowd of architecture students loudly collaborating on a project less than 10 feet away from me, could keep me from an amazing sleep, though. I had earned that night’s rest, and couldn’t wait to see what the next day would bring.

Provence 7: Aix & Marseille

Oh. Here’s some fun. I wrote this whole entire post, decided to come back to it later to do a few edits, and somehow deleted it in the meantime.

How character-building. Let’s try again.

I kind of blew it this day. I promise the next two will make up for this minor dud.

I had been looking forward to spending several hours wandering around Aix before catching my bus for Marseille. I’d had good luck the previous night in stumbling upon the wonderful Christmas market, and between the charming downtown and the big, forested hills just outside the city, it looked like I would find plenty to do.

Things started promisingly enough. I went downtown and blooted around a bit through the picturesquely winding streets. I stumbled upon the remarkable sculpture garden in the mausolée Joseph-Sec, depicting dramatic biblical moments that mostly involved people in flowing robes meeting gruesome ends at the hands of other people in flowing robes. A little ways up the street, I found Paul Cézanne’s studio. As ever, I was too cheap to pay the admission rate, but I had a little look around the pretty grounds before my eyes started to wander toward the nearby hills.

Here’s where I went wrong: Instead of doing any sort of normal research to find out where I might find adventure in the countryside immediately surrounding the city (or even to find out if there was indeed adventure in the offing out there), I made the mistake of just asking Google Maps for a route into the hills. This wouldn’t be the last time Maps would lead me astray, incidentally…But it showed me a route that wound through suburban Aix before heading up a nice big topographical feature that I imagine would have afforded lovely views if I had ever made it up there.

After what felt like hours of stomping through the most boring residential streets in the whole wide world, I found myself emerging at last into a bit of pretty-ish countryside of the type that I’d been walking through for the past few days. Okay, good sign. I stopped and snapped a photo of a ruined building, and the spring was just returning to my step as I turned to continue along my way. That’s when a car pulled up and a nice man gently informed me that I was trespassing on private property and could I please return whence I’d come. There was nowhere else for me to go, so I turned around and walked all the way back into the city, and that was my morning.

😦

Once back downtown, I followed my nose to a lovely little café (called Fanny’s – not sure how I remembered that one…) and ate a delicious lunch that entirely made up for the rotten morning. Boeuf aux carrottes, couscous, salad, red wine, and an unobstructed view of some handsome Frenchmen – that’s all it takes to cheer me right up, it turns out.

I took one last look at the Christmas market and hopped on a bus for Marseille. It’s a shame I didn’t have a chance to get more out of Aix, because it seems like such a beautiful town, with awesome mountain adventures nearby and everything. Next time!!

I arrived in Marseille late in the afternoon. I threw my stuff down in my AirBnB and headed straight back out, eager to make my way down to the sea in time to watch the sunset.

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After getting mildly lost – nothing serious – I found the Old Port, just in time to watch the sun’s dying rays fade into deep blue. It was a remarkable spot for this, in fact – I was surrounded to my left and right by probably 3 dozen people reverently watching the same spectacle, while directly behind us, terrible renditions of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and White Christmas were being piped over loudspeakers.

I had stumbled upon another Christmas market. It was enormous, with a big, bright ferris wheel towering overhead, and row upon row of festive kiosks. A few blocks away, I found the santon market, which is so big that it is held apart from the main Christmas market. It’s also the oldest of its kind in France, and I of course reasoned myself into buying yet more santons for my poor family.

Nursing a gentle buzz from the ubiquitous hot Christmas wine, I ended my evening by stocking up on groceries, because I would be spending the next two days walking through the Calanques from Marseille to Cassis. This would be the last hurrah of my walking adventures, and I had certainly saved the most spectacular for last…

Provence 6: Coudoux to Aix-en-Provence

[Context]

coudoux-aix

I awoke at 6 am in a cold sweat, and knew immediately that my plan to find a public toilet later in the morning would not work out. I needed to sort out the flusher situation now.

Fortunately, with that panicked thought came an idea. It’s amazing what adrenaline can for to your cognitive abilities, even at 6 am. It occurred to me that, though I couldn’t possibly follow step two of the toilet-fixing tutorials I’d watched (‘replace broken part with a new part that you’ve already acquired’), I hadn’t fully explored step one (‘turn off water to toilet’). Maybe – just maybe – if I was really lucky – the problem would simply be that the water to the toilet was turned off. I found the nozzle indicated in my YouTube tutorials. I turned it. The tank filled up with water and flushed freely and abundantly when tested. I’ve never been so relieved in my entire life.

So! Breathing easy once more, I bid farewell to Coudoux and struck back the way I had come in order to rejoin the GR653A. Well, not quite. I gave the wall-hopping and apiary-skirting a miss this time and followed the road out of town and back into the hills. After a brief but exciting foray into some sort of public works land alongside the Marseille canal that is definitely not intended for members of the public, I hopped yet another fence to rejoin the road just as a cyclist came by. She correctly guessed that I was winging it and asked if she could help me find my route. She called over another passing cyclist for backup, and he gave me such good directions. Wouldn’t have found my way at all otherwise. The Provençals earned another tally in the ‘Not Jerks’ column for their efforts.

They took off, and Cyclist 1 soon returned to report that she’d found my path. I thanked her, and just before she turned away, she casually mentioned that these hills are full of hunters and that I’d better wear something red to avoid getting shot.

By this point, I was almost accustomed to threats to life & limb. I’m not sure I even raised an eyebrow. I tied a red shirt around my head and plunged into the bush, looking like an idiot, grimly wondering whether it would be the bullet or the dogs that would finish me off in the end.

As it happened, I avoided a violent death in the hills around Coudoux. The hunters, though certainly abundant, proved quite adept at not shooting humans. Can’t say how they fared with the birds.

As I scampered out of the hills and rejoined the GR, I became aware that I was not alone. A huge, friendly doofus of a dog, whom I immediately named Byfuglien (pronounced ‘Bufflin’, after the Winnipeg Jets defenceman with a kind face and the body of a tank), appeared out of nowhere and took an instant shining to me. Perhaps he was protecting me from the hunters…Or the mines…Or the bees…Or perhaps he wanted a taste of the leftover pizza in my bag.

Byfuglien and I spent the next couple of hours chatting away as we wandered through some idyllic farmland. I even found myself contemplating how on earth I was going to smuggle him into my AirBnB that night. As it was, he accompanied me as far as Éguilles, the last town before Aix, where he suddenly took a shining to a very grumpy jogger who was not at all in the mood to befriend a big galoot of a dog. Poor old Byfuglien, oblivious to the jogger’s insults, merrily trotted along by his side, dropping me as suddenly as he had picked me up. It’s fine. I’m okay. Let’s move on.

I was now free to heed the call of my bladder, at least, and sought out a public toilet in Éguilles- which by the way is a lovely, bustling little town with a sweeping view over the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, the town’s charm does not extend to its toilets.

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I elected to hold it until I could pee in a bush.

The rest of the walk into Aix was uneventful, most of it pretty, some of it on the shoulder of a busy highway, getting honked at. I reached the somewhat suburban neighbourhood where I would be staying that night about 4 hours early. I was hungry and tired, and decided to find something to eat in the area rather than go exploring downtown. Two hours later – two hours, I swear on my life! – having found not a single place where I could buy anything to eat of any sort, I finally gave up and made the half-hour trek downtown.

Why didn’t I just do that in the first place? The moment I crossed into the core of the city, there were shops and cafés and restaurants everywhere. As I penetrated deeper into the city, I became aware of bright, flashing lights and jolly music coming from a big plaza. It was the Christmas market.

And what a Christmas market!! There were carnival rides full of beaming children, street performers bothering passers-by, and an endless row of booths stretching as far as I could see down the main drag. There were even side-markets, including an international market with each kiosk representing one of Aix’s sister-cities (where I picked up a delicious Tunisian couscous, washing it down with a Belgian hot wine), and a santon market. I had never seen santons before I came here, but was instantly drawn to them. They’re small terra cotta figurines, often but not always painted, representing people and objects from rural Provençal life. There are figures for farmers, bakers, dancers, cooks, even a walker braced against the Mistral, anything you like. At Christmastime, instead of (or alongside) the Nativity scenes that many of us are accustomed to, the people of Provence use santons to decorate their homes with little vignettes of traditional country life. I just love that. (Also, being small and fairly cheap, they made my Christmas shopping really easy.)

I trundled back out of the city’s downtown charmed, well-fed, and glad that I would have a few hours to explore the next day before busing down to Marseille for the next phase of my adventure. I bought a bottle of wine, checked into my AirBnB, and ran a nice hot bath, and thus ended my Arles-Aix walk.

Provence 5: Lamanon to Coudoux

lamanon-coudoux

This was a day of near-disasters and close encounters.

It wasn’t until 8am that I dragged my reluctant ass out of bed, two full hours later than my usual wake-up time. My throat was scratchy and my limbs felt heavy, and I thanked my lucky stars again and again for my host’s kind offer of a ride this morning. My immune system had been a real pal on all my travels up to this point, but I could feel that if things were going to go wrong, today would be the day.

My host and her boyfriend chatted away merrily as we drove – she speaking very quickly, he using all kinds of French slang I’d never heard in my life – and I did my best to fight through the mental fog and keep up. As it happens, in their review of me on AirBnB, they explicitly singled out my French for praise. Either they’re even more generous than I’d thought, or I’m truly gifted in the smile-and-nod school of feigning comprehension.

My hosts dropped me off just outside Pélisanne, nearly halfway to my destination of Coudoux. I soon rejoined the GR653A, and having saved so much time, was able to amble along as slowly as I needed through the quiet countryside.

The path wandered up from the low farmland into some gentle hills, providing my first glimpse of Cézanne’s beloved Mt. Ste-Victoire looming near Aix-en-Provence. Though Aix was my next day’s destination, I had to veer quite some distance south to make it to Coudoux (pronounced ‘coo-dooks’, by the way; apparently it’s a Provençal eccentricity to pronounce these final consonants that you would expect to be silent), a detour necessitated by lack of available accommodations along the way.

I left the GR about 5 km outside of Coudoux and followed a road through the hills leading to the village. It was a busy enough thoroughfare, so I walked in a ditch alongside it to avoid being flattened. An older man, covered in what looked like motor oil, dirt under his nails, with a no-nonsense look about him and a gruff manner, pulled over and started barking instructions of some sort to me. I had a hard time understanding what he was saying at first (at least he wasn’t coming on to me, anyway), until he sighed, got out of his car, and directed my gaze toward the hillside. “Stay on the road,” he said. “The hills are full of explosives.”

Oh…Wait, what?

He quickly warmed up to the topic, his brusque manner melting into a modest pride as we talked; undetonated WWII mines in the hills around Coudoux appear to be a particular passion of his. From what I could gather, this area became some sort of dumping ground for explosives in the latter days of the Second World War. I realised that there were warning signs everywhere, but they were so similar to the warnings about hunters (very common around here) that I hadn’t even noticed them. Wildfires frequently strike during the hot, dry summer, and apparently the resulting explosions are quite dramatic. “Boom boom!” He even showed me a small crater nearby, maybe 3 metres across. I was chastened. He eventually continued on his way, and I turned back toward Coudoux, squeezing myself meekly onto the narrow shoulder of the road.

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WHAT AN INVITING PATH

The minefield eventually turns into parkland as you approach Coudoux, and I decided to veer off the road and find a footpath down into the town. I’d like to draw your attention to the photo above, in fact. As you can see, there is a path winding invitingly down to Coudoux. Simple. There is no possible way that this will not lead me to my destination.

Two problems. First, this path is far more meandering than it looks, so it took quite a long time to get down to town-level. Second, and most importantly, it leads not into town, but to an apiary on the outskirts. An apiary, of all things. Hard on the heels of Death by Explosion, here I was facing Death by Bee if I dared to advance. There was no other way into Coudoux because the apiary was flanked on both sides by the tall, unbroken garden walls of the town’s outermost homes. There was really nothing else to do except to retrace my steps up the hill and find an alternative route down to the town, which would probably add an extra hour to my day…

Unless…

It was for me the work of a moment to remove my backpack, toss it over some innocent inhabitant’s 6-foot-tall perimeter fence, and send my body scrambling after it. After a mad dash round the front of the property, I repeated the manoeuvre, surprising myself with a considerably higher drop on the other side. And like that, I was dusting myself off on a street inside the town of Coudoux, with no one the wiser. Listen, I don’t condone trespassing, kids. It’s just that there was no other way into this strange place.

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It looks so innocent

So I arrived at my AirBnB and was greeted by the owner’s sweet and somewhat doddering old mother. She showed me the place (which was excellent, and charmingly done up for Christmas), confessed that she didn’t really know anything about it, and wandered off to an adjacent apartment. I noticed that there seemed to be something wrong with the toilet – it didn’t flush too well when I tried it – but I elected not to bother Maman. It probably just took some finessing. Besides, I was only going #1.

I napped away the last of my almost-sickness, then went out for a late supper (another unbelievable pizza, if you’re curious, with wondrously flavourful toppings like artichoke hearts and capers and mushrooms and olives and goat cheese, accompanied by another scrumptious, dry local rosé, and topped off with an exquisite crême brulée, thanks for asking). Waddled home well past Maman’s bedtime. Her windows were dark. When I tried the flusher again, I realised that it was properly, for-real not working.

Not to worry, I’m resourceful. I searched YouTube for toilet-fixing tutorials. They all followed the same simple formula:

  1. Turn off water to toilet.
  2. Replace the broken part with a new part that you’ve already ordered from the internet.

Useless!! But what could I do? I was too shy to wake Maman up, and wasn’t sure what she could do about it anyway. So far I was adhering to the ‘if it’s yellow let it mellow’ principle…maybe I could make it until morning, report the problem, and find a public toilet before the gastrointestinal situation deteriorated…

Maybe.

With a troubled heart, a broken toilet, and a belly full of pizza, I lay down to sleep.

Je. Suis. CANADIENNE.

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“I’m from Canada and they think I’m slow, eh?”

I’m not accustomed to seeing people’s eyes light up when I tell them I’m from Canada, the general consensus being that, while nice, we’re also boring, we apologise too much, and we talk funny. In general, as I travelled through Europe this fall, my various interlocutors would offer some polite riff on, “Oh I hear it’s beautiful there!…Um…And cold!” And then either I’d get cosy and regale them at some length (“Ever been out in 40 below before? Your skin freezes in 5 minutes!”), or they would tactfully change the subject before I could really get going. This was not the case in Provence.

Remember how ebullient my Lamanon host was in the last post? So much so that I couldn’t understand a single darn word she said? A good part of her excitement, it turned out, was due to my nationality. “I was just talking about you last week!” she announced (I think; who could say, really) in greeting. “I met two other Canadians at a party!” Then she directed my attention to a special little centrepiece she’d arranged on my table, with two Canadian flag toothpicks leaning proudly against a no-smoking sign. Well, if that wasn’t the sweetest gesture.

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*sniff* Truuuue paaatriot looove…

So many of the people I spoke to in Provence had some sort of special relationship with Canada. Parents told me about their children and grandchildren living there. Young people told me about gap years spent there. Those who had never even been told me of their dreams of moving there. One eccentric millionaire (story to come; a little ways off yet) claimed that his relatives made up 90% of the population of a particular Saskatchewan town. Countless conversations like this emerged, nearly every day.

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I even found France’s only hockey fan: One night, at a bar in Cassis, I had the entirely unexpected pleasure of bonding with a stranger over our shared appreciation of NHL left-winger Michael Cammalleri, of all people. Now, Cammalleri’s a very good player, but he’s no Wayne Gretzky. I’m not sure I would expect the average Canadian to have heard of him, come to that. But my new friend, having lived for a year in Montreal and acquired a taste for hockey, even admired Cammalleri enough to have bought a t-shirt that he treasures to this day. The guy liked that Cammalleri is half-Italian, like him. I like that Cammalleri is small and scrappy, like me, and also that his face is handsome (though running low on teeth, if we’re honest). I don’t think any experience was ever as unlikely as my lengthy, mutually enjoyable conversation about pint-sized, half-Italian greybeard Mike Cammalleri in a bar in Cassis, but this was exactly the sort of thing that kept happening, and that left me feeling quite a close connection with the people of Provence.

Once I had noticed the local affinity for Canada, I started to ask people what was drawing them there, of all places. It was neat to hear about how they perceive my home. For starters, the single biggest draw was opportunity. Jobs are scarce in France, and Canada  is seen as a land of milk and honey – and what’s more, one that doesn’t mind if you speak only French (so long as you stick to Quebec, at any rate). I suppose this shouldn’t have come as a surprise – Canada is prosperous, of course – but I think I’m accustomed to being overshadowed by the capitalist black hole to our south.

Montreal particularly seemed to capture people’s imaginations, being a modern, bustling, (sort-of) quintessentially North American city. I think Canadians often prefer Quebec City, due to its quaint European charm, but it turns out that those who have grown up surrounded by quaint European charm, who have known only quaint European charm their whole lives, find Quebec City to be a poor facsimile. Well fair enough.

I also heard over and over that Canadians are nice and that Provençals are assholes.

I still don’t believe that latter bit, but incidentally, the Cammalleri fan told me that there was one reason why he would never be able to live in Canada permanently: Les femmes portent la culotte – The women wear the trousers.

I fail to see the problem.