As many of you know, I was born in Marseille, France, and many of my childhood summers were spent enjoying Provence, with family and friends, from perches in cherry trees overlooking vineyards, swimming in the turquoise waters of Cassis’ calanques or picknicking in the dappled shade of the plane trees at Le Tholonet.
That time finally came last week– after 7 years of anticipation. We have tried three times since the first over the years, but have been thwarted by weather or threat of forest fires, when the park service closes down the whole mountain.
We set out from Vauvenargues, a peaceful hamlet folded into a valleyside and dominated by Picasso’s castle and its extensive lands. We numbered six: my two children (Nick and Sasha), my husband Stuart, my French nephew Cedric, his father Didier and myself.
The trail was called Chemin des Venturiers and is classified as “easy.” When we had trouble finding it at first, we interrupted the gardening of a lovely elderly lady in a sun hat and shell necklace to ask for directions. In her lilting Provencal accent, she assured us we were very lost and redirected us, informing us warmly that the hike takes only an hour and a half to the top and “you’ll be protected by the shade of the pine trees most of the way.” Lovely!
The merciful shade was short-lived. As we started to ascend, we noticed tracks of forest cleared, evidently for fire management purposes. The smell of hot pinewood perfumed the area, and our temperature rose as we passed through.
The trail was wide (5 to 10 feet) and for the first hour presents a substantial pitch, made all the more challenging by loose gravel and large stones. In three or four places, the slope is actually paved with rough concrete, marking particularly steep areas where ascent (and descent) was perhaps deemed too tricky if one’s footing was not on firmer ground.
The heat was dry and unforgiving. We stopped frequently to rehydrate and catch our breath. Those pines provided only partial shade on such a wide path. The smells of Provence sweetened the air–the pines mixed with rosemary, thyme, yellow broom, thistles, and a few hardy red poppies.
Three quarters of the way up, we lost two of our party. Stuart had broken his toe the day before playing soccer with his nephew and his discomfort had soared, and Didier may have been having bad memories of his time in French military service when a long hike without enough water cost him a kidney. Or he was simply showing solidarity to my injured husband. They decided to wait for us to return.
I gave the rest of the party the option to summit or remain, and was delighted to have all children vote to proceed without hesitation. En avant tous!
Twenty minutes more of a steep ascent on gravelly wide paths, now and then with the pines parting to reveal sweeping views of Vauvenargues and the ridge on its north side. Then a change of pace–the path widens to a clearing with a bench (where someone has written “2 heures de marche!” as if in warning that the widely held claim of an hour and a half is not accurate).
From here we step up into a narrow path through brush and white rocks. The children quicken their pace. Sasha’s spindly legs fly ahead: she’s giddy with the relative ease of the new path. We spy the cross atop Ste Victoire. It seems far and high-but within reach somehow.
Soon we are on easy switchbacks up the mountain, clear from obstruction, with views that make even monosyllabic Nick, a normal teenage boy, stop, stare, and utter quietly “wow.” To the west now we can see the Barrage de Bimont, a large reservoir that serves the area–baby blue water in a parched landscape.
Back and forth across the mountainside we go, gauging our progress by the increasing size of the cross above us. Nick takes shortcuts, scrambling and jumping ahead of Cedric, then Sasha.
We arrive at the old priory, where an ancient olive tree grove casts welcome shade over its stone cool entrance. The place is closed and a hardhat area and piles of stone tell a tale of renovation in progress. Another group of three (French) hikers is resting and sharing some bread and saucisson. They compliment us on our pace–it’s true, we had hit a second wind on those open-air switchbacks! They haven’t been to the cross yet-they tell us they are “restauring” themselves first, as the French say, revealing the origin of the word “restaurant.”
I check in on my young hikers–we have to pace ourselves on water. We are running low. They all vote for not stopping. They want to reach the cross before any “restauration” takes place. Off we go!
Around the priory, the hike becomes a rock scramble. Again, rather than discouraging the troops, we’re invigorated by the challenge and what lies ahead. Large white rocks provide uneven, unintentional “pele mele” high steps to the top platform and its prize: the cross of Sainte Victoire.
Nick is the first to reach it and throws his arms up in victory, singing the “Rocky” theme song, as the wind whips up the sheer rock of the south side and buffets his hair. Sasha gazes in awe over the landscape around us, staying safely away from the precipice. Surprisingly, we have cell phone reception (which we hadn’t for most of the way), and Cedric makes a call to his father and hour away beneath us to pronounce the mission accomplished.
The victory of Sainte Victoire is particularly sweet to me. The mountain has long been a familiar, yet distant, vision in my life, resurrected every time I stood before a Cezanne painting. Now I feel a certain intimacy with this massive rock, a closeness that was not there before. Most importantly, I have shared her beauty, her colors, and her smells with my children. This time we leave France with a little Provence in our pockets.
Academic Travel Abroad