mercredi 23 septembre 2009

Venelles, and smells

Last weekend we decided to do some exploring. My teaching post for this school year is in a town called Venelles, which is only 11 minutes away by car, according to google maps. So we figured, why not see if we can bike it?

Me + biking is, I should note, a somewhat surprising combination. I am extremely maladroite and shun most physical activity. Josh convinced me to get a bike. . . and now he's trying to convince me to ride it instead of walk alongside it. Which I did, for about half of our trip to Venelles. It turns out that to get from Aix to pretty much anywhere north of the city, you have to go up a huge hill. The local Gauls (pre-Roman inhabitants of France) lived at the top of the hill (the Plateau d'Entremont) and they definitely had a great view:

But they weren't trying to ride a bike up the hill, in traffic. You see, it turns out that all the roads between here and Venelles are pretty major thoroughfares. They're also lined with the plane trees that Napoleon planted to keep his troops marching in the shade as they moved around the country. This basically means that as I wobble along the shoulder of the road, I could either fall to the left and get hit by a car, or fall to the right and run into a tree. Strangely I find the trees comforting. The idea of crashing into one of these beautiful old trunks has a nice earthy warmth to it.

Well, we finally made it to Venelles, and it's a cute town.
There's a sign just outside town that marks Venelles as a "ville fleurie," which I guess means they have a lot of flowers. We didn't see many flowers, but we did spot grape vines hanging over fences:
These days I keep catching whiffs of a smell that's like a cross between wine, vinegar, and grape juice. And here's the cuplrit:

Crushed grapes rotting underfoot.

"Pardonez-moi, Monsieur le chien, savez-vous ou est le centre ville?"

lundi 21 septembre 2009

Happy Birthday, Roi René!

Aix-en-Provence has two favorite sons: Paul Cezanne and Roi René, known as "Good King René." They've been immortalized in bronze and stone and anchor either end of the Cours Mirabeau. Here's Cezanne (and Josh's grandmother--Hi, Mom-mom!):
. . . and here's Roi René:
This year marks the 600th anniversary of Roi René's birth, and even though his birthday is long past (it was in January), our annual culture weekend focused on him this year. 600 years is a big deal.

Roi René did all kinds of great things for Aix, back in the day when Provence was an independent and autonomous "county"-- land ruled by a count. Roi René wasn't actually king of Provence, though he hung out here quite a bit. His title of King came because he was King of Naples (including Sicily), Jerusalem, and somewhere else that I can't remember. This was a time when the European nobility passed around territories like they were Pokemon cards. René had lands all around the Mediterranean and brought the Italian Renaissa
nce to the south of France, along with either A) a special kind of grape or B) all grapes. Sorry I can't be more specific, it's hard to know what's going on when it's all happening in French.
But you'll see that Roi René is holding a bunch of grapes in his sculpture.

This weekend the town celebrated his birthday. You could pay two euros for a piece of birthday gallette down on the Cours Mirabeau:
The women serving the cake were decked out in traditional provençal fabrics.
They weren't the only ones dressed up. (The building in the background of this picture is where I went to school last year.)

The streets were full of booths with information about Aix during the time of Roi René. A sculptor was exhibiting some of his work, including this in-progress bust of Roi René's wife Jeanne.

One presentation showed old maps of Aix. I like this one from the 1400s; you can see the cathedral just inside the north gate. The area outlined in yellow is the oldest part of the town; that's where we live!

Big chunks of the town wall are still intact today, and they've been incorporated into houses and buildings like the one housing the authorized mac dealership. I like knowing that we live just inside the walls; it makes me feel connected to the town's history. And here's a great connection: turns out that the door across the alley from us is the oldest door in Aix!

We came home before all the culture-day festivities were over, and as we were sitting on the couch checking facebook, we heard the amplified voice of a tour guide in our alley.

She was telling a group that this door dates from 1480 and was part of a mansion that once stood here. I guess she means it's the original wooden door that's the oldest, because in a town this old, there must be a doorframe still around that comes from an earlier date . . . I'll have to do some research.

I'm glad we didn't sleep through culture weekend again this year (we were still really, REALLY jet lagged last year). The town looked beautiful in the post-rain afternoon sunlight, and it was fun to stroll around and enjoy it like a tourist instead of a commuter on the way to the bus station.

lundi 14 septembre 2009

Twilight Nerd Moment Here

So, I apologize, but I’m about to have a nerd moment here. Or would you consider this a geek moment? Anyway, if you’re judgmental, stop reading and just look at the pictures.

A week before we left the US I took a box of books to the Paperback Exchange on Jonestown Road in Harrisburg to pick up some picture books for teaching here in France. I had a bit of extra store credit so I decided to treat myself to something for the plane ride. Well, I’d been wondering about this Twilight series . . . 24 hours later I was hooked. A huge chunk of the second book takes place in a town in Italy called Volterra. I assumed it was fictitious until I started thinking, boy, that name sounds familiar. . . and then I realized I’ve been there!

That's my brother taking a picture of Volterra. (Many of these are actually shots he took . . . thanks, Steve.) We stopped there on our family trip to Italy last April. This is pretty much the iconic shot of Volterra, so I'm thinking that round tower just might be the round tower referenced in the book. I suppose I could do some research but I'm not going to be that nerdy today.
I don't have many pictures of Volterra because A) I was chasing Steve, who decided to take off on his own and didn't have a cell phone, and B) I didn't know that Volterra was the vampire "royal city." Why wasn't that in my guidebook somewhere?!?!

Not only did Steve lose my family in Volterra, but he then lost me. Or rather, I lost him. And then I was just lost. Lost in a city of vampires. I ended up alone, at dusk, in a park. . .

At the bottom of the park was this old fountain. . . very vampire-y, isn't it?

The name and history of Volterra fit the story well, but San Gimignano had much more of the feeling I would imagine for the town (could just be because a lot more of the medieval architecture there is preserved). The picture in the front of New Moon (and the first picture of this blog post) is actually one of the gates of San Gimignano. This is the inside of that gate:

Here's the town square of San Gimignano--exactly what I'd imagine for the Volterra in the book:
But to be fair, the piazza in Volterra looked a lot like this, too (I had to check to see which town this picture was taken in). In fact, most towns in this part of Tuscany look pretty much the same. Here's the only shot I have of the main Piazza in Volterra:
And just as important to Twilight readers as the piazza is that tiny, shadowy side street. . . here's one in S.G.:
It might as well be Siena or another city from the same period. . . they all look a lot alike!

This is in a museum in S.G. that I was too cheap to pay for. Steve took the picture on his way up one of the towers. S.G. is famous for its medieval towers. But back to Volterra.

I think this is a distance shot of the town square of Volterra (the place where that pivotal scene takes place) but I'm not sure because I was so hopelessly lost wandering around the town. I ended up at another round tower . . . this one part of a prison still in use today:

Now that I think about being lost and wandering around outside a prison, alone, as it was getting dark, I realize that Volterra was suitably spooky, even without any vampires.

samedi 12 septembre 2009

. . . And We're Back!

We're back in Aix after a summer of visiting our friends and families in the US. We left PA on Thursday. . .clearly the dog didn't want us to go:

Oh, and yup, that's a folding bike in the picture. Our new plan for around-town (and close outside town) transport. We got folding ones since they'll fit in the apartment and on airplanes better. And, of course, they're both orange.