2. France 2017 Aix-en-Provence – Then and Now

En français

Arrival in France 2017
Thursday November 2, 2017

In 2015, I began to contemplate a trip that would retrace the entire combat tour of my father and the 100th Infantry Division in 1944-1945. I made several earlier trips to Germany and France and have even been to Bitche, France in 2005. To accomplish an accurate retracement I would need to employ different modes of travel along the way: air travel across the Atlantic Ocean instead of sailing, but beyond that, I was as precise as possible in sticking to the actual route. Over the two years I read extensively, including historical non-fiction, firsthand accounts and, most importantly, my father’s volumes of letters to my mother. In retrospect, that was a good start but I went on to learn more than I had ever imagined.

My overnight flight lands at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on time and after clearing customs I am in search of the airport rail station to board the “Train à Grande Vitesse ‘’, the French TGV high speed train. I am fortunate to be early enough to catch an earlier train to Aix-en- Provence, in the South of France, just North of Marseille where the 100th Infantry Division landed in October of 1944.

These trains often exceed a speed of 180 MPH, so my trip to the South of France will last about four hours. I chose Aix-en-Provence as the beginning of my official retracement of Tom’s journey because it is very near to where they landed and camped for about a week before going into battle. The route is exceptionally picturesque, along the Rhone River valley through Lyon, Avignon and Aix.

Castle Near Avignon

A colleague and friend, Alain Piallat, has arranged for a complimentary room for three nights at the Renaissance hotel. My goal is to get oriented and attempt to replicate what Tom saw and felt when he was here. I visited Aix-en Provence a few years earlier but did not have the same understanding and focus that I have on this trip. What a wonderful way to start this trip.

Although deployed for war, Tom had an almost tourist feel in his early letters to Kate. The hotel I am in is located in a newer arts district. In less than 24 hours, I arrived at the beginning of my journey. The 100th Infantry Division travelled for almost two weeks at sea before arriving here. The time has come to follow the footsteps of 13,000 young men.

October 1944
Aix en Provence – A Visit by Tom and Lt. Allen

After the landing in Marseille, the various groups of the 100th Infantry Division got to work in preparation to go to the front. A massive collection of artillery, munitions and motor vehicles have been unloaded and support units are busy assembling the firepower and transport segment of the force. The combat Infantry is camped in Septemes, just south of Aix en Provence and Tom has an opportunity to visit the city of Aix en Provence.

He sends his travel-log to Kate in one of his first letters from France.

“Ax-en-Provence is a provincial French town, partly modernized by the tourist trade. Its original beauty has not been marred too much, however. The true Frenchman lives there with his beret, smock and moustache.

There are many squares with fountains, statues and vegetable markets in each one. There are hundreds of children to tug at your sleeve and say “Chocolat, Bon-Bon, Cigaret?” At one place I was so mobbed I had to reach in my pocket and scatter all the French coins among them just to escape.

Lt. Allen and I ate a meal in a French restaurant in Aix. Cost of 50f each (about $1 each)

Menu – Soup – Thick and rich with starchy vegetables

Potatoes and Beans – with a meat gravy. The beans were a cross between marrow beans and string beans.

Wine – A flagon containing about two glasses.

Bread – Two medium slices of French bread.

One pear each.

Notice there was no meat, butter or sugar included in the meal. All are rationed and are very hard to get.

We visited the Cathedral, bookshops, sidewalk cafes, side street bars and wound up paying 10f to go to a dance in the municipal auditorium run for the benefit of the Free French. The place was crowded by everyone from buck privates to full Colonels. To my amazement the GI’s had taught the gals to do the jitterbug. It might have been the Wheatley Hills Tavern on Saturday night except for the Babel of tongues.

The orchestra was fairly good. It made me so nostalgic by playing “Stardust”, “Green Eyes” and “Begin the Beguine” that I had to leave. I didn’t dance but I certainly enjoyed watching the others.

I’ll tell about more of my travels as soon as I’m permitted to.”

Friday November 3, 2017

After reading Tom’s letters from his first days in France, I could sense his many feelings: longing for his wife Kate and daughter Kathy, wonderment that he was in France and experiencing a new adventure before the imminent danger of battle had begun. I decided to devote three days to explore the streets and visit some of the places that Tom mentioned. Aix is a youthful, spirited town, a regional and international tourist destination and very charming. Most of the streets are narrow, lined with shops with few if any vehicles during prime tourist hours. The main grand boulevard is Cours Mirabeau and the landmark restaurant on this boulevard is Brasserie Les Deux Garcons, a favorite of many notables including Paul Cezanne.

Paul Cézanne – as he wrote in a letter to his son in 1906 – came here on occasion to enjoy a very leisurely three-hour apéritif between 4pm and 7pm with his friend, the novelist Emile Zola, or with other artists or local businessmen. Cézanne (pictured: Self-Portrait with Bowler Hat, 1885) was also partial to a meal here of the simple peasant dish aïoli.

Post-impressionist artist Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), is the most famous resident in the history of the town; he is a bit of an industry unto himself.

My hotel is on the opposite side of town from the Cathedral of the Holy Savior, which is perfect because I want to go to the cathedral and meander along the way, roam, and have Aix-en-Provence unfurl before me just as it did for Tom. The cathedral has a very high tower that can be seen from a distance but actually getting there is another challenge altogether. After many wrong turns, I finally saw a clear path to this landmark.

The Cathedral is an important moment because I am about to go to an exact location that Tom refers to in one of his letters. It is not hard to imagine that he arrived at the cathedral along this same little street that I am on right now. I am truly feeling his presence.

The cathedral is located on the route of the old Roman Road, Via Aurelia, and there are four Roman columns in the Baptistery from a temple built in the first century. The first chapel was built in the sixth century and the cathedral was built and rebuilt from the twelfth through the nineteenth centuries. Tom would have deeply appreciated the rich history, architecture and religiosity during his brief visit. It is a small step to connect with Tom while I am here.

Now that I have my bearings, I am relaxing on one of the many benches along the way. People watching in the warmth of Provence is perfect, even in November. The afternoon sun on the Cours Mirabeau shines beautifully on all of the cafes and bistros along the broad sidewalk. I can see why this was Paul Cezanne’s cherished spot. Aix has an attractive blend of sights and visitor experiences, integrated with a thriving local community. My hotel is in the arts district and there are young arts students enjoying the talents of musicians in their group. Friday night has a universal appeal.

Saturday November 4, 2017

Today is market day in Aix, which means that the locals will be out in force. Regardless of country or city, going to the open market is a reflection of the people who live there. France is no exception, market day is a cultural tradition that locals plan for and participate. The market is located in one of the town squares near “Centerville”. There are many shops along the way.

There are shops with flowers, chocolates, teas, cheeses, tobacco, clothing and wine, and throw in a French bakery or two. Leave it to the French to make a cheese shop look chic.

The “Marche aux Fruits et Legumes” or produce market is near the town hall. The setting is quite memorable.

You can smell the market a block away. The square is overflowing with vendors, locals and tourists.

One product that flourishes in Provence is lavender. There are stalls that only sell lavender…everything lavender.

Saturday is a lively day in Aix-en-Provence and Tom’s brief visit to this town is at the top of my mind during my day. His visit was just a few months after years of German occupation, economic collapse, rationing and extreme conditions. He sensed, however, an underlying resolve and perseverance in the French people. Today, Aix-en-Provence is alive, well and prospering. The walk back to the hotel along new and different streets reveals some odd and offbeat places that bear no resemblance to a souvenir shop. Approaching the huge landmark fountain, I have returned to the mainstream. Paul Cezanne pops up in the most unusual places.

It is my final night in Aix-en-Provence, I am now acclimated and excited about the adventure ahead. Tomorrow I will board the train for my trip up the Rhone River, below the Vosges Mountains and into Alsace-Lorraine, part of a recently defined region of France called Grand Est.