Sabbatical 2022: Provence

Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur is my favourite region of France. It is located in the southeastern quadrant of the country, bordering Italy and the Mediterranean Sea. It is known for its diverse landscapes, ranging from the Southern Alps to the Camargue plains: it features rolling hills and valleys, vineyards, olive groves, pine forests and lavender fields. Provence has mild winters, dry and hot summers, and more than three hundred days of sunshine every year. The average annual high temperature hovers around 65 degrees, and the annual low temperature average is about 46 degrees. The rhythmic sound of cicadas that can be heard throughout the landscape in the summer months.

When I started planning for my sabbatical trip, I knew that I wanted to live in this region of France for two months, but I had no real idea of how to make it happen. I started off by looking at entry requirements for the European Union; and it turns out that Canadians do not need a visa to travel to countries within the Schengen area for stays of up to 90 days in any 180-day period. I joined various online expat groups to ask questions about life in France and I researched potential schools for my daughter to attend. After some digging, I was fortunate enough to locate a specialized program in Aix-en-Provence (referred to by the locals as “Aix”) that agreed to accept her as a student. Using AirBnB, I found us a centrally located apartment to act as our home base throughout our stay, and before I knew it, we were booked to live in Aix!

Aix (Aquae Sextiae) was founded in 123 BC by the Roman consul Sextius Calvinus, who gave his name to its thermal springs. It is now known best as a university city, featuring a lovely historic centre, which dates back to the 17th-century. Aix is the perfect size (143,000 population). It is a vibrant city, offering a wonderful range of cafés, restaurants and boutiques, and it hosts a wide variety of festivals and events throughout the year. It was the birthplace of Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne and it is often referred to as the city of a thousand fountains. 

Among the most notable are the 17th-century Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins (Fountain of the Four Dolphins) in the Quartier Mazarin, designed by Jean-Claude Rambot, and three of the fountains that run along the central Cours Mirabeau: at the top, a 19th-century fountain depicts the “good king” René holding the Muscat grapes that he introduced to Provence in the 15th century; halfway down is a natural hot water fountain (34 °C), covered in moss, dating back to the Romans; and at the bottom, at la Rotonde, the hub of modern Aix, stands a monumental fountain from 1860 beneath three giant statues representing art, justice and agriculture. 

During our first month in town, we hosted a range of friends and family. It was wonderful to have so many loved ones join us to explore both the city and the region. It really helped us to settle in and feel at home. Some highlights included visiting Cézanne’s studio, as well as the Musée Granet, and the Hôtel de Caumont. I also enjoyed the historical walking city tours offered through the Tourism Centre. If you have a car, I highly recommend that you take the half an hour drive out to the Château La Coste. It has an amazing art and architecture tour, as well as a vineyard and spa. They boast an extraordinary collection of public art installed throughout the property, featuring works by globally recognized artists, such as Richard Serra, Louise Bourgeois and Sophie Calle, as well as rotating temporary exhibitions.

Thanks to the use of a rental car, we were also able to venture further afield in the region. We visited the fishing and shipping port of Marseille to try the famous fish-stew, Bouillabaisse. We spent a couple of weekends staying along the coast, enjoying the beauty of the Mediterranean in the seaside villages of Cassis and Saint Cyr Sur Mer; and we explored the beautiful Vaucluse valley with its lovely array of picturesque villages, including Goult, Gordes, Bonnieux and Rousillion. A highlight was visiting the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque.

In our second month in Aix, my daughter and I settled into the slow rhythm of a quieter life together, just the two of us. She really enjoyed her school in France and she made a wonderful group of friends. After dropping her off first thing in the morning, I would make my way to the daily market to pick up fresh produce for the day. Aix hosts a market every day of the week, with the larger ones taking place on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. I loved being able to shop for seasonal food and build relationships with the local vendors. The flower market was also spectacular.

I spent a lot of my day writing and reading. In the morning, I would work by the large window in my apartment, with the sun streaming through, and listen to the swallows cry out to one another. In the afternoons, I would venture out and find a terrace, order a coffee, and work until it was time to pick up my daughter. It was a lovely way to spend the day.

It was just as we came to the end of our time in Aix that a real shift took place in both our sense of belonging and grasp of the language. As we got close to the end of our stay, we both deepened friendships, and started to establish community. I found people who enjoyed hiking, ocean swimming and practicing yoga. My daughter’s relationships with her school friends solidified and she started to be regularly invited over for sleep-overs and birthday parties. It was a gift to have a daily opportunity to speak French and I found the locals to be very kind and encouraging.

It was a dream come true to be able to live in Provence for two-months. The time in Aix was everything that I could have hoped for and more. I would love to return to the city and stay for another prolonged visit. It is an incredibly special place and it will always live on in my heart.