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Active Learning in Aix-en-Provence: An Excursion to La Montaigne Sainte-Victoire

Many of the most valuable lessons we learn are not products of the classroom but, in fact, are acquired in a much more organic manner.  The formal classroom environment has given me the necessary grammatical and linguistic background to communicate effectively in French but much of what I have learned about French language and culture has been in an array of different settings.  Active learning is especially important for me here in France.  I have never been so engaged in my environment than I have been here in Aix-en-Provence.  Aix is a wonderful city because it offers much of what a city has to offer while remaining small, quiet and aesthetically pleasing.  This city is much more than simply beautiful.  While it is picturesque, quaint and charming, its’ history is well preserved in the cobblestone roads and Baroque churches.    

Aix is full of incredibly accessible and affordable cultural excursions that have added substantially to my understanding and knowledge of southern French culture.  One of the CEA excursions that I found to be incredibly educational was a trip to La Montagne Sainte-Victoire.  Our program director, Vivienne, lead me and several of my CEA colleagues on a trip to the famous mountain Paul Cezanne painted.  Me and several of my companions from the program met up with Vivienne at the bus station.  There, Vivienne informed us of when and where to catch the bus.  This is important because this specific type of bus needs to be waved down.  Unlike normal city buses in Aix, it does not stop unless there is someone waving it down.  Learning how to use public transportation is necessary knowledge here in Aix because, although I live in walking distance to my school, grocery store and friends, there are some occasions in which travel outside of the centre ville (center city) is necessary. 

Although, I have a clear view of the mountain directly from my apartment, upon walking up to the base, I discovered many interesting facts.  For one, there is large lake that sits at the bottom of the mountain behind a large dam that controls the flow of water into the city of Aix.  Much of the cities water is derived from the lake.  However, our program director, Vivienne, told us as we were walking over the dam that it sits on a fault line.  It is possible that one day an earthquake will cause the dam to break and subsequently flood part of the country side and the centre ville.  

As we continued to hike up the base of the mountain, I was continuously discovering new and interesting facts about the history of Provence.  For instance, there is a large plain in the valley of Sainte-Victoire that is home to some of the oldest dinosaur fossils in the world.  Archaeologists continue to excavate this landscape today.  Another interesting fact that we discovered on our hike was that the mountain produced a type of granite that Aixois would have polished to be placed in their homes several decades ago.  The unique salmon colored granite speckled with dark and light traces was the staple piece of wealthy Aixois homes during the belle epoque and still exist today.

This trip proved to be an incredibly rich cultural as well as educational experience for me and my colleagues.  I learned much more about Provence and French culture than I would have expected to on a hike.  Leaning is most interesting and remembered in the least expected places.
Maxine Gordon is the Spring 2013 CEA MOJO in Aix-en-Provence, France 

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