On any given day in Aix, there were myriad choices for things to do. We took fabulous field trips with classmates on outings organized by school, attended presentations and ventured out on our own in and out of town. Perhaps because the prospect of remaining sedentary in a corner cafe was so appealing, we valiantly fought the urge until we’d been up and on the go and then rewarded ourselves afterwards with some cafe culture relaxation.
Aix is graced with a Relais et Chateaux property on the edge of town secreted behind tall, thick hedges of cypress and oleander and perched on the side of a hill. One afternoon after class, we enjoyed lunch at the Villa Gallici on a sycamore-shaded terrace at a glass-topped table in thick-cushioned patio chairs overlooking a fashionable pool. While enjoying the afternoon through the gentle haze of a bottle of Bandol rose, we were were fascinated by the image of a waiter in a tuxedo delivering perfect chicken salads on a silver tray to a willowy woman in an itsy bitsy burgundy bikini lounging under a matching oversized pool umbrella with her young son. Only in France and only on the terrace of a Relais et Chateux hotel is such a tableau possible.
We went on a weekend school outing to the Mediterranean coastal towns of La Ciotat and Cassis. Our bus was packed with international students ready for a day at the shore. Our first stop was La Ciotat’s Saturday morning market along the harbor where we shopped for fresh provisions for lunch. Market people are happy people and we have yet to meet a surly seller behind an open-air stand. We filled our bags with tapenades, a baguette, chunks of cheese, slices of ham, sun-dried tomatoes and juicy white peaches, our mouths watering for the picnic lunch we soon devoured at our second stop, the local beach. The day was the usual (but never taken for granted) sun and azure skies with scorching heat best avoided in the cool shade of seaside cedars. Post-picnic, we moved on to the charming little town of Cassis where we caught a boat to explore LesCalanques, remarkable steep-walled limestone coves with perfectly clear water that perforate the Mediterranean shoreline east of Marseille.
Sunburned and exhausted from the excursion, we all piled onto the bus for the brief trip back to Aix. Just after we’d all settled in for a quiet ride home, a couple of renegade Cavaillon melons escaped from shopping bags at the rear of the bus and came rolling down the center aisle, much to everyone’s amusement. It was a fitting end to another glorious day in the abundant Eden that is the south of France.
Marseille was a brief 30-minute bus ride directly south of Aix and so we ventured out on our own for an afternoon in the vieux port. Founded in 600 BC and the oldest town in France, it is now the second largest city in the country (although the residents of Lyon often like to challenge this Marseillais claim). We had an early seafood dinner along the lines of yachts and fishing boats and were pleasantly surprised that the wharf area wasn’t half as gritty as we’d imagined. Despite the sea breezes the day was extremely hot, lethargy prevailed and we found ourselves purchasing the most touristy ticket of our year. We took the little baby blue train on wheels that wanders around the city and up to the top of a limestone peak with a panoramic view over the city. As we approached the summit, the electronically generated (and apparently translated) French commentary announced that we were arriving at the Notre Dame de la Garde church, famous for its 30-foot high gilded Madonna and Child atop the steeple. So far, so good except that the English translation that followed suggested that we, "look up to see the golden Virgin and her Kid." We must have been the only English speakers aboard because we were the only ones laughing.
I was so proud of Joe, quite the adventurer when it came to accompanying me and paying close attention to school-sponsored, all-in-French epicurean presentations. As he likes to remind me, when the subject is food and wine, his comprehension is amazingly good. The first was a wine dégustation (tasting) in the IS school building. Our master wine prof brought five wonderful bottles for us to sample after a brilliant lecture about the history of wine and the finer points of drinking it. We’ve been to many wine tastings over the years and at each one we learn something. One of the fascinating new nuggets imparted was that the reason vineyards developed along rivers and the sea was not because grapevines needed irrigating. Rather, it was that most of the ancients traveled by water, communicating with those along the way about the science of viticulture; thus was the word disseminated. It all started in eastern Turkey and spread out from there.
When there’s wine, cheese is sure to follow, so our next dégustation was of the dairy variety at the home of a local Aixois woman – a lovely hostess who delighted in opening her doors to international students. We sampled almost all the cheeses presented -- at least 30 local varieties -- all sheep and goat cheeses since there are no cows in Provence (it's much too hot to grow grass for them to eat). We tried everything from the bland, watery fromage frais to the buttery, runny, stinky sort. Each taste was enjoyed with a slice of French bread and either a spoonful of homemade olive, pesto and sundried tomato spreads or a touch of thick homemade jams – and of course, a healthy swig of full-bodied red wine. Every bite was delicious and further convinced us we were indeed in heaven.
Next up on our dégustation circuit was a tasting of olive oils from France, Spain and Greece. As olive lovers, we’ve always enjoyed the rich, unctuous quality of the fruit’s oil -- fish and vegetables cooked in it and pasta and bread dripping with it – but we never knew much about where it came from or how it was produced. Thanks to our sympa, knowledgeable prof, a passionate olive oil aficionado, we are now much wiser. He was a delightful man who pulled Joe and me aside after class to make sure we knew just how much he loves welcoming foreigners (and Americans in particular) to France and hearing them speak French. He was fascinated by our love for his country and his language and we did our best to be worthy diplomats and gracious students while expounding on our Francophilia.
A few factoids we learned: Spain Italy and Greece produce 75% of the world’s olive oil while France’s miniscule production level drops it towards the bottom of the list; there’s an International Olive Council (the IOC) based in Madrid, which defines and regulates the standards for olive oil production, much as the AOC body watches over French wine; olives, pits and all, are pressed to extract the oil; extra virgin olive oil is unrefined with no heat or chemicals added in the production process and has the highest levels of antioxidants; an olive oil marked “first cold press” means that the fruit was processed just once and at appropriately low temperatures since heat, while making extraction easier, actually degrades an oil’s quality. Our lovely, tasty late afternoon program turned into our dinner as we sampled the oils unaccompanied on a teeny spoon as well as coating a variety of breads, fruits and cheeses.
On our last full day in Aix, we signed on for a final Saturday field trip with a couple dozen fellow French students. We first stopped at Riez, a bustling little market town and former Roman community, for lunch supplies. Our bus then took us to the striking Gorges du Verdon, a deep, compact chasm at the bottom of which rushes beautiful, chalky turquoise water headed for the man-made Lac Sainte-Croix. The time available didn’t allow for more than an hour’s walk beside the lake, but we made a mental note to return someday for a substantial hike in the Gorges. A visit to the pilgrimage town of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie built into a rocky cliff and famous for its faïenceceramics topped off the daytrip. Despite its beautiful vistas and charming character, it left me feeling terribly triste. After ascending and then coming back down the dramatic cliff stairway to its Notre Dame church, we said goodbye to the medieval village, as we would reluctantly say goodbye to Aix the following day.
The two-hour bus ride back home was a tough one. We’d been out in the sun all day, were parched and tired and with the physically and emotionally difficult task of packing up our month in Aix ahead of us that evening, we had little energy for levity. I’d been feeling somewhat melancholy since I’d closed the door on my last French class the day before and had to say goodbye to the school and teachers I so adored. Bidding farewell to Aix was going to take further toll on my already wistful state.
My forehead against the sun-warmed bus window, I watched the parallel rows of dull lavender along the back roads of Provence pass one after the other with none of their luster left. The sun-soaked plants, those that hadn’t yet been harvested, had completely lost their royal purple hues, their tiny blooms faded to a tired gray. I related to their end of season torpor and felt a sadness rise from deep within. Less than two weeks of our Gap Year remained and I wondered, what comes next once you’ve been lucky enough to live out your dream? How do you manage to take the subsequent step? To find the energy to move towards whatever might ensue? I resolved on that long, hot bus ride back to Aix to simply focus on coming back to the lavender. Provence will always be there and yes, I will always come back. For more field trips. For more wine, more cheese, more olive oil. And certainly for more of the lavender.
Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com