In the footsteps of Cézanne in Provence | Travel

Ohey cow! It’s hot in Aix-en-Provence. There, summer invades the senses – the bright light, the prickly pines, the mercury pushing 38C. Each fountain in front of which you pass murmurs an invitation to jump in. Every sidewalk cafe seems to catch up with you, begging you to sit down.

So it was in June that I went to the Carrières de Bibémus to warm my eyes for Paul Cézanne. Aix’s most famous son visits London’s Tate Modern on October 5 in Britain’s first career-long retrospective since 1996. In all there will be around 80 works by the great proto-modernist, with large loans from Japan, Brazil and Europe. and America. Still life with apples and peachesseveral views of the Montagne Sainte-Victoire, property of the Tate Modern portrait of Cézanne’s gardener, Vallier. . . What better way to prepare for them, I thought, than to head south to see where they were painted?

Only, that morning in Bibémus, I wasn’t so sure. Everyone says the quarries, ten miles east of Aix, are the place to go. Yet, as I climbed out of the minibus taxi, it was hard to see their interest. The poor air conditioning in the van had not improved my mood. Neither is the view from the parking lot. There were none; just an impenetrable screen of stunted Aleppo pines. The heat was like a wall.

Cafes on Rue d’Italie in the historic heart of Aix-en-Provence

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“We have to walk a bit,” said our guide, waving through the trees. Access to the quarries is only given to guided groups, and as we follow it south, this unlikely hole in the ground has begun to reveal its secrets.

These are the colors that strike first. The rich orange ochres of the stone, the cobalt blue of the sky, a stain of violet bark, the greens of pine needles; all seem straight out of Cézanne’s palette. Then, as you descend into the quarries themselves – and their delightful pools of shade – the shapes take over. Twenty-foot walls of golden-brown limestone dominate the sky. In some places they are flat; in others they bulge or bow towards you like the buttresses of an ancient citadel. It’s a visual feast of facets and angulations, rendered accentuated by the sun.

Clearly, Cézanne loved it. “The jagged shapes of the hollowed-out quarries suited his visual language,” says Natalia Sidlina, co-curator of the Tate Modern exhibit, which is being shown for the first time at the Art Institute of Chicago. As soon as you’re there, you’ll be okay. Between 1895 and 1899, Cézanne seemed to almost live in the quarries, seeking a sense of their three-dimensional mass and form with his paintings, even renting a nearby chalet to store his materials. For Cézanne, it was this attempt to express the full visual effect of a scene that was key. “Painting from nature is not copying the object, he says, it is becoming aware of its sensations. Spend an hour in the Carrières de Bibémus and you will have the fleeting impression that its sensations are also yours.

This is not the only revelation you will have from Aix. One of the biggest surprises is the size of her father’s house. The Bastide du Jas de Bouffan is currently closed for restoration, and to see it you have to look through its gates on the Route de Galice, just west of the historic town centre. But even from a distance, at the end of an alley of plane trees, the grandeur of this 18th century private mansion is a shock. Cézanne senior was a hatter turned banker, and he bought it for the handsome sum of 65,000 francs (about £900,000 in today’s money) in 1859. By then his son was already 20 years old , so it was not the house in which Paul spent his most formative years. But even so, a glance upsets the image he cultivated – at least when he was in Paris – of raw and ready-made sons from the deep south.

Still, we should all be grateful for his father’s money. This shielded her son from the need to court popularity. He continued on and on, plowing his lonely furrow until the rest of the vanguard caught up with him. At the time of the first Cézanne retrospective, in Paris in 1907 – a year after his death – he was their hero. Later, Picasso will call him “our father to all”.

You will also see family wealth at work in another unmissable stop on the Cézanne circuit in Aix: his last workshop in Lauves, open every day in the summer (cezanne-en-provence.com). He had lost his former studio, on the top floor of the Jas de Bouffan, when the large house was sold in 1899. He therefore built another ex nihilo, on a hill overlooking Aix. Few painters have the means to do that.

The new space was not perfect. Cézanne grumbled that some of the olive and fig trees outside cast a distracting green-tinted light into the room. But for less discerning eyes, it’s a beautiful, tranquil space. It is not difficult to imagine the smell of his linseed oil, the stain of paint from the tube and the intensity of his working methods. Especially since one of the walls is lined with his accessories.

What you won’t see in Aix, however, is a lot of his finished work. In recent years, the city has worked hard to welcome its fans. But in the crucial early days – before his paintings sold in the millions – the director of his main art gallery, the Granet Museum, said there would be no Cézanne hanging on his watch. Even today, his permanent collection has only ten of his works. No one claims they are masterpieces.

Never mind: the lack of groundbreaking art will only whet your appetite for the next Tate Modern show. And if you need to reference any of his works, you can see almost all of them on the online resource cezannecatalogue.com. Ten of his Bibémus oil paintings can be found there. There are 40 from the Montagne Sainte-Victoire. His view, not far from Cézanne’s studio, became one of his last major motifs. The place where he put his easel, known as the Terrain des Peintres, is the last must-see.

The Sainte-Victoire mountain

The Sainte-Victoire mountain

GETTY PICTURES

In the meantime, the historic heart of Aix imposes itself. And if, like me, you like narrow medieval streets and sudden, leafy squares, you’ll love it. In Cézanne’s time, this former capital of Provence was a backwater, eclipsed by booming Marseille. Now it is bubbling with 80,000 students and platoons of amazed tourists. In summer, it is a place where life is lived in the open air. People sit for hours over drinks, having real conversations rather than staring at their phones. The shops are busy. Vivid swifts dive and dive among the rooftops.

What if from time to time the heat gets the better of you? There is always a place to take shelter. In the cafes of the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, the air is regularly sprinkled with a soft watery mist. You will find an even deeper freshness in the baptistery of the cathedral. The air here is so calm that it seems to have hardly moved since the beginning of the 6th century, when it was built.

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Best of all are the restaurant terraces. At the Lodges Sainte Victoire, just south of Bibémus, shade comes from the topped plane trees. It’s the ideal place to share a bottle of delicate rosé and soak up the attentions of the exquisitely polite staff (leslodgessaintevictoire.com). At the more relaxed Chez Thomé, nearby at Tholonet, horse chestnuts do the heavy lifting. In both cases, the desserts are in the spotlight, notably Chez Thomé’s exotic vanilla, made with whipped mascarpone light and fluffy like a cloud (chezthome.fr).

The shaded terrace of the Lodges Sainte Victoire restaurant

The shaded terrace of the Lodges Sainte Victoire restaurant

ANTOINE LANNERETONNE

Everything here seems more intense: the light, the smells, the tastes, the heat, the colors, the contrasts. This is probably what Cézanne meant when he wrote: “When one is born there, it is hopeless, nothing else is good enough. This is probably why he finally settled there, after years of coming and going in Paris, to paint his last years.

If I could, I would bottle this intensity, send it back to London, and then, and when the Tate Modern opens its exhibition doors on October 5, I’ll remove the cork. In particular, I would bottle the sensations that the gaze gives to the south, from the southern edge of Bibémus, at the end of the visit to the quarry. Here, the ground drops sharply, and from a viewing platform you have a 180 degree view of southern Provence. It stretches from the Montagne Sainte-Victoire to the Massif de l’Etoile, north of Marseille. But it’s not the individual elements that are beautiful. It’s all full of sunshine. It is so shiny that it seems to vibrate. In places, the air between you and the hills seems to have reduced to pure Cézanne blue.

Sean Newsom was the guest of the Tate (tate.org.uk) and Aix-en-Provence tourism (aixenprovencetourism.com). Single double room at the Grand Hôtel ROI René from £135 (all.accor.com). Fly to Marseilles.

Three more arty stays in France

Pan's Pipe by Picasso

Pan’s Pipe by Picasso

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Picasso in Antibes
It is a rare pleasure to see a modern masterpiece in the room in which it was painted. In Antibes, on the Côte d’Azur, we have several, thanks to Pablo Picasso’s two-month stay at the Château Grimaldi museum. At the time, in September 1946, Picasso was desperately looking for a space to work. His curator obliged him with a vast room and, equipped with shipyard paintings and asbestos cement panels, the artist rewarded him with an endless stream of monumental works. They have been at the château ever since (£7; antibesjuanlespins.com). Stay at the chic and boutiquey Villa Port d’Antibes & Spa, and you’re just an eight-minute walk from this post-war tour de force.
Details B&B doubles from £88 (villa-port-antibes.com)

Hotel Les Roches Brunes

Matisse and Derain in Collioure
“Our paintings have become sticks of dynamite”, remembers André Derain of his time with Henri Matisse in Collioure. Unfortunately, none of the paintings they made during that incendiary summer of 1905 survive in this pretty little port. But if you follow the reproductions of their work along the Chemin des Fauvisme, you’ll get the picture (£7; visitcollioure.co.uk). It is here that the two Fauves of Fauvism released their colors and captured the power and intensity of the Mediterranean light. Book at the Hotel Les Roches Brunes on the seafront, and you will make the experience even more dazzling.
Details Single double room from £126 (hotel-lesrochesbrunes.com)

The Reserve in Giverny

Monet at Giverny
It is not the water lilies you will notice first. Come to Claude Monet’s house and garden in Normandy, and it is the flowerbeds of Clos Normand, next to his villa, that catch your eye. More than 900 varieties of annuals are planted there throughout the year, to create a blizzard of seasonal colors that are always fresh. By contrast, her water garden is a slower, calmer delight, much like her epic cycle of lily paintings (£10; fondation-monet.com). Whatever the high point, you’ll appreciate the elegant and historic setting of La Réserve, a country guest house perched on the heights of the village.
Details B&B doubles from £126 (giverny-lareserve.com)

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