July 1st, 2015
After our scenic paddleboat adventure at Gorges du Verdon earlier in the day, Dan and I set our sights and our GPS on the birthplace of Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, the city of Aix-en-Provence in the Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.
Home to numerous gardens, lovely tree lined streets, grand squares, and sparkling fountains, Aix reminded me of the Southern gem cities of Charleston and Savannah in the States. Before Dan and I explored the beautiful genteel side of the city, we first spent a few hours learning about the more darker moments of the city’s history.
While I was researching things to see and do in the area before we left for our trip, I discovered that just outside of Aix-en-Provence in the suburb of Les Milles lies Camp des Milles, an ex-tile works factory that was southern France’s major internment and deportation center during the last world war and the largest one still intact and open to the public. In 2012 the site was converted from a long closed tile factory to a thought-provoking museum and WWII memorial.
In the earlier years of the war, mostly political dissidents, artists and intellectuals deemed dangerous to the ideology of the time were detained there along with male Jews as they awaited emigration visas and authorizations. As the war progressed and emigration channels were closed, the camp transitioned to a deportation camp of men, women, and children to Auschwitz-Birkenau via Drancy Internment Camp.
Dan and I are both history nuts and WWII/Holocaust studies are a particular interest of mine so we appreciated the opportunity to view the collection of displays, audiovisual pieces and illustrations that recount the camp’s complex history, tour the old tile factory and see firsthand the preserved internment areas where those in the camp slept, ate, entertained themselves, and for some, survived by hiding. The site also houses a replica railroad car memorial on the tracks in front of the factory where visitors can follow the “path of the deported” once taken by Jewish internees to join the deportation convoys traveling from Des Milles to Auschwitz. The museum is a must-see if you are an avid history enthusiast.
After a sobering and reflective afternoon, we were pleased to get out and explore the lively center of the city and wander along the picturesque boulevard of Cours Mirabeau. As we strolled down the leafy covered cobblestoned sidewalks, we passed dozens of stalls lining the sidewalk selling everything from leather purses to spices to lavender to the region’s famous soap, Savon de Marseille. I made sure to pick up a few bars of the good suds myself. Its a nostalgic memory of France every time I lather up!
Once 8pm rolled around and the heat of the day dissipated, everyone came out to pack the cafes and bars, filling up all the tables outside and spilling out onto the streets to enjoy the cooler air slowly moving around.