Two hours into our hike up Mount Sainte Victoire, my two other travel companions and I came across a chain bolted into a 30 foot wall of rock. Looking to the right and to the left of the wall we found no alternate route, certainly no path. There was a ledge of scrub brush to the left of the wall with enough space to walk one foot in front of the other while clinging to any hint of a finger grip in the wall of rock beside us.
That was one of our first warnings that we'd gone up the wrong route to reach the apex of the mountain. We should have known better a few meters down the mountain when we came across a bolder with the word "difficile" scribbled on it. When the French write "difficile" on a hiking route, they're not kidding. Find the "facile" or "moyen" routes and still prepare to feel every muscle in your body the next day.
Despite some of the scarrier moments during the first leg of our hike, the seven hours we spent climbing Mount Sainte Victoire have remained the happiest that I've spent in France so far. Aix-en-Provence is a lovely, whimsical Provençal town famed for it's brilliant markets and it's fountains. The town's charms are as unending as the ever bubbling fountains that dot the squares and corners of Aix's street. But for me, at least, the most charming aspect about the town is the mountain, at the same time bold and elusive in the way it rises up over the red-tiled roofs and bell-stocked church steeples and plays peek-a-boo as you walk in and out of the cobble-stoned streets. Sainte Victoire is a behemoth of solid granite that is altogether shocking and delightful in the way it juts out of the otherwise green countryside. A typical grey lump of a mountain during the day (though still lovely, it must be said), Sainte Victoire is transformed into a blaze of corrals, pinks, blues and roses when the sun reflects off of her southern face at sunrise and sunset. During my first week St. Victoire had been taunting me to come and share her view of Provence from the summit. I was sure I'd receive no rest until I got a closer of the landmark which had enchanted Paul Cézanne for so long and now had me under her spell.
I've never felt so much relief and calm from being out in the countryside or on a mountain as when I was finally standing under the Croix de Provence, which marks the summit of Sainte Victoire. Perhaps it's because Aix, like any European city, gives you those same lovely black boogers from breathing in car exhausts and les fumeurs's second hand smoke. Or maybe it's the sense of accomplishment one gets from reaching the top after those few scary hours of having to practically rock climb up the side of the mountain without any proper equipement. I'm sure it also has something to do with the calm, the absolute peace of being too high up for the sounds of industry and transportation to reach you. From the Croix we could see every olive grove, every spot of open country, every village, every nearby body of water, every vineyard and, unfortunately, even every unpleasant landmark, like the constantly puffing coal plant directly in line of the southern view.
But even with the few other randoneurs (hikers) who'd made it up to the top with us, we were struck by how loud even their sporadic conversation seemed. Up there where clouds roll directly over head and only the hardiest birds of prey entertain you with their calls, human noise seems futile and intrusive.
We ate our lunch under the Croix and admirred the view.
Lake Bimont and the dam was clearly visible from our perch. As our water dwindled and our bodies started to send our brains little messages hinting at dehydration, we found ourselves fantasizing outloud about how nice it would be to jump in at that moment. It was obvious to us that we'd have to make the trek along the ridge of Mount Sainte Victoire and see if the crystal blue waters of Lake Bimont felt as cool and delicious as they looked.
They did. I should probably have mentioned before now that we actually lost a member of our party after those first 2 scary hours. No, we didn't "lose" her in that sense; but by the time we finally turned around and struggled coming back down the rock wall that we'd labored so hard to climb, Amanda was understandably shaken by the affair and decided to had back the Aix once we made it back to the "safe" part of our route. While she scurried back down the mountain, Frances and I found the proper trail and had a lovely hike up to the Croix. It was a proper hike this time without any spontaneous rock climbing and we were able to concentrate more on the scenery and less on our unsettled footing.
Anyways, returning to Lake Bimont. The downward slope of the ridge from the Croix de Provence to the lake took about another hour.5 though we were just so keen to get down to the water that it seemed like we ran it. It was a good walk and a lovely opportunity to get to know Frances, an Austrailian. She's a proper outdoorsy Aussie who likes her trekking, environmentalism and isn't bothered at all by the vast number of deathly snakes and other beasts she's run into on her hikes. I didn't realize that there are no bears in Australia so was able to impress her by the fact that when you hike in north carolina there is always the chance that you'll be mauled by a blood-thristy black bear. Hmmm, or something like that.
We made it down to the lake and after having a snack of delicious wild blackberris that dot the provençal landscape we dove into the crystal clear water of lake bimont without a second thought. I've never seen a lake so blue and yet so clear. Noticing some guys on the other side of the lake who looked like they'd just gone for a swim, we didn't think for a second that swimming might not be allowed. It wasn't until we reluctantly got out of the water, dried off and began the walk up to the dam that we noticed the sign. "Baignent Interdit!" Well, turns out the reason why the water seemed so clear and clean was because Lac Bimont provides all the drinking water for the region around Aix. Ah well!
This is a long post, I know, but since that day remains my favorite while in France I felt in important to give a full account. Since that day last week I've gone back to the first village under Sainte Victoire, Le Tholonet, and I've hiked to the ruins of the Roman auqeduct, though I think it was actually a dam. I love the area, everything is beautiful and the perfect refresher after a few days of drudgery in the city. Hehe, if you want to call a student's life in Provence drudgery!