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Just Back from Provence

The sunkissed south of France has always beckoned travelers, but Robert Fisher, editor of Fodor’s Provence & the Côte d’Azur, recently found yet another reason to visit: the 2006 Paul Cézanne Year, a 12-month-long celebration of Provence’s immortal painter.

Why Provence?
Sooner or later, everyone wants to make a pilgrimage to the land that inspired one of modern art’s greatest painters. Blown away by Cézanne in Provence, the blockbuster show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., I decided the time was now. I spent a week wandering through the region, and discovered that Cézanne Country is a great way to get a peek into Provence’s soul.

What was the Highlight of Your Trip?
Aix-en-Provence. The town is packed with ancient alleyways, Baroque palaces, fountains, and picturesque byways where time seems to be holding its breath. One of the 10 richest municipalities in France — residents joke they use their ATMs as slot-machines — the bon chic, bon genre Aixois have made café-squatting, people-watching, and boutique-hopping a way of life. At 11 a.m., you’ll find the streets wall-to-wall with shoppers. Doesn’t anybody work here?

What are the Most Memorable Cézanne Sites?
Open to the public for the first time this year, Jas de Bouffon is the elegant 18th-century manor that Cézanne’s father bought in 1859. While the house is empty, the grounds are hauntingly suffused with the painter’s melancholic spirit — he spent his formative years as an artist here. Set one mile to the south of Aix, the estate can only be toured by minibus from the city tourist office. But all of Aix is a veritable Cézanne theme park: pick up a “Cézanne Circuit” map from the tourist office and follow the copper studs set in sidewalks to find landmarks like Les Deux Gar篮s, his favorite café, and the handsomely renovated Musée Granet.

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A mile north of town is Cézanne’s Les Lauves studio (9 Ave. Paul-Cézanne,, set in a magically overgrown garden overlooking the artist’s beloved mountain, Mont Ste-Victoire. His raincoat and fedora hang in a corner of the atelier, and outside you can sit under the olive tree where the artist often retreated when struggling with his painting. If Cézanne was a pictorial rock-climber, Mont Ste-Victoire was his Mt. Everest and he painted it dozens of times from a nearby look-out point that you can climb — Cézanne used the Mont’s elemental, stripped-down form to dig deep to the bedrock of painting. Fact is, read all the books about him and view all his paintings, but if you don’t actually visit his Provence you won’t truly understand him.

What was the Best Thing You Ate?
While I indulged at some of Aix’s best eateries — L’Amphitryon and Le Passage — my favorite meal was a dawdle-and-dine luncheon at Chez Thomé, an old Cézanne watering hole set in the village of Le Tholonet, next to Mont Ste-Victoire. The tomato farci tasted like garlic ambrosia, the wine was cheap and plentiful, and time became unimportant. You might want to view the nearby landmarks along the Route de Paul Cézanne before those four glasses of wine, not after!

What was the Biggest Surprise of Your Trip?
Les Calanques, reached by boat from Cassis. A castaway Robinson Crusoe landscape, the Calanques are unique, fjord-like creeks whose sides are formed by soaring limestone cliffs. Since the rock formations are so high, the blue water is exposed only to the light of the sky directly above and takes on an intense aqua color that conjures up the movie The Blue Lagoon. Cézanne would agree — this part of Provence really rocks!

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