A May 2003 trip
to Aix-en-Provence by artsnletters
Quote: Aix-en-Provence, home of Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, is the leafy, livable capital of Provence. Light on museums, heavy on gracious old-town ambience, friendly Aix will charm you with its intimate squares, splashing fountains, and lively music and café scene.
Aix (pronounced "Ex") was originally named Acquae Sextiae, "Waters of Sextius," after its hot springs and the Roman general Sextius, who founded the city in 124 BC. It's now nicknamed "City of 101 Fountains," many of which you'll see as you walk through the Quartier Mazarin, the old quarter. The narrow pedestrian streets here wind and twist among dignified blond buildings, frequently widening into undersized squares, and nearly every square has a fountain. Aix has a few modest museums, but what I liked best was just wandering down the lovely streets, poking around the daily markets, dawdling for hours over a delicious meal, and partaking of the gracious local life. Aix is simply a delightful place to hang out.
Market Day in Place Richelme
The town is peppered with cafés of every stripe and fancy. The famous one is Café des Deux Garçons on Cours Mirabeau (Aix's answer to the Champs Elysee), a tony old joint which is the place in Aix to see and be seen. If you aren't trying to make the scene, you'll be just as happy at one of the little outdoor places lining each square and tucked alongside each widening of a street in the Quartier Mazarin. Everywhere I stopped, service was warm and friendly. During my entire vacation, it seemed that all the French, at least those in Provence, were very happy to see those Americans willing to visit in 2003, the year of "freedom fries."
Architectural Detail in the Quartier Mazarin
If you want to chase some high culture, here are a few suggestions:
Summer festivals feature chamber and symphonic music, jazz, opera, and dance. If you are interested in attending, check out the tourist office’s information site for details as to dates and tickets.
The tourist information office is conveniently located at 2 place du Général de Gaulle (tel. 04-42-16-11-61), about three blocks from the train station and just outside the pedestrian center. The route from the train station is well marked with signs.
If you arrive by car, follow the signs to "Centre" and "Gare" (train station). If staying for the night, park where you can, arrange for your room, then park where the hotel advises. If just stopping for a few hours, find your way to one of the parking garages near the train station and prepare to shell out.
The old quarter, where you will want to spend most or all of your time, is entirely a pedestrian zone. Of the main sights, only Cezanne's studio is outside the old quarter, a brisk 10-minute walk uphill from the old quarter or accessible by bus.
I won't lie: this hotel is out of my usual price range at 125 euros for a single plus 8 euros extra for parking in the garage. But it was mid-afternoon and this was my last night in France. The heat wave had driven me from the Camargue and I wanted to end my trip in Aix, my favorite French city. I decided, as the tourist office clerk insisted this was the least expensive hotel they could find, that I would take it.
The first room I was given had yet to be cleaned, so after a trip down in the posh modern elevator to the posh modern lobby and another trip back up, I found little ole me all by my lonesome in a huge triple. I really appreciated the space, since I needed to repack three weeks' worth of souvenirs and gifts between carry-ons and suitcase for the flight home. I had acres of room to spread everything out and admire my good taste in purchases.
My favorite type of hotel is small, old, atmospheric, maybe a little funky or rundown. Hotel Aquabella is more like the French version of a Ramada Inn, a 100-room high-rise complete with pool, restaurant, spa, and gym. Service, provided by uniformed staff, is pleasant in a professional rather than personal kind of way. The sparkling room featured a luxurious queen bed plus a twin, with terrific mattresses, covered with tasteful (really!) orange and blue patterned bedspreads. There were reading lights actually bright enough to read by and air conditioning which could be adjusted from lukecool to positively frosty. The TV got two English language stations. The closets could have held my entire wardrobe. There was one room for the toilet and another for the sink and tub/shower. Hotel Aquabella provides the full range of goodies, too: shampoo, shower cap, lotion, even his-and-hers terrycloth bathrobes! I took one good look at that roomy tub and those blazing lights, such a contrast to the 30"x30" showers and 40-watt bulbs one frequently finds in French budget hotels with "character," fetched my bedtime reading book, and climbed in for a nice hot soak before dinner. Ahhhhhh. Maybe sometimes plush and modern is good!
Breakfast was 12 euros, and I'm sure it's very good, but frankly I can't eat 12 euros worth of anything in the morning. Besides, I was leaving literally at the crack of dawn, well before service started, although they did offer to pack up some food to go for me.
The hotel's location offers the best of both worlds, just off a busy main road on the very edge of the pedestrian area. I could duck quickly into the twisting lanes of the old quarter and find myself promptly at Place des Cardeurs just as the candles were being lit on the tables of its restaurants. And the next morning, it was a short and simple drive to the autoroute.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on January 8, 2004
2 rue des Étuves
Place des Cardeurs, near Cathédrale St.-Sauveur, is lined with shady plane trees and packed with outdoor cafés in summer. Chez Laurette is one of these, a very friendly family-run place which makes a great stop for lunch. I was drawn as much by the warm smile of the waitress as the appealing list of salads. While I ate in the shade of a large green market umbrella, my waitress was assisted by a woman who was clearly either her mother or an older sister. A large family arrived, was greeted with kisses and cries of delight by the restaurant staff, and the baby was handed around for oohs and aahs. On my other side, a young couple dined with their utterly charming and cheerful three-year-old girl. I felt as though I had wandered into a large family party.
The salads of Provence make ideal lunches, especially in the heat of summer. Chez Laurette offers a half dozen appealing options. I considered a chicken and parmesan salad but finally decided on the Salade César. Crisp, freshly torn greens were topped with lardons (thick chunks of bacon), crunchy oversized croutons made from slices of baguette, and delicious wedges of perfectly ripe red tomatoes, all tossed with a light and tasty vinaigrette. The effect was rather like the BLT a gourmet chef might prepare.
As I worked my way through my salad, a trio began to play in the square: accordion, string bass and tambourine, striking a very Parisian note. Indeed, when they were playing "My Way," Frank Sinatra’s macho manifesto, it sounded entirely French, putting me instantly in mind of wide boulevards, poodles, and the Eiffel tower. When the band passed the hat, I was happy to toss in a euro or two for the pleasure of their music. I was so enjoying myself, I ordered a medley of sorbets for dessert, and it was likewise fresh and wonderful.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 8, 2004
6 Place des Cardeurs
It was a warm June evening, my last in France, and I wanted my final meal to be characteristic Provençal cuisine. I found myself back in Place des Cardeurs, a square crammed with outdoor bistros and brasseries, and began scouting the menus for the meal of my dreams. I finally chose Mistraou. A candle was already flickering on the gold-draped table when I took my seat. Some two hours later, I rose from the table well satisfied. The service was discreet, gracious, and leisurely in the best French tradition – no snooty servers here.
My appetizer was warm foie gras with thin slices of lightly toasted baguette. Foie gras ("fwah grah"), which is goose liver, is not every one’s cup of tea, and it isn’t low calorie either. But if you’ve never tried it, don't pass up the chance to sample something you might quickly come to love. It's much cheaper in France than at home – and you're more likely to get the really good stuff, too. Some people have issues with how it is produced, since it involves force-feeding the geese. I don't have foie gras at home, where it isn't popular, because I don't want to encourage the industry. But when in France, I eat as the French do, and foie gras is very French.
My entrée was duck breast served with lavender honey on the side. This unusual but delicious combination was a marriage made in heaven. Lavender honey provided sweetness with a strong floral aftertaste which gave an exotic tinge to the tender, juicy duck. But, as so often happens in France, the best thing on my plate was one of the side dishes accompanying the duck, a swooningly sumptuous ratatouille served in puff pastry. Ratatouille, a traditional dish of Provence, is a vegetable stew of tomatoes, zucchini, onions, eggplant, sweet pepper, and garlic. If properly prepared, the vegetables should be just barely tender, never mushy, and the flavors should meld. This version was absolutely perfect. I'd have ordered a plateful of the stuff if it was on offer.
For dessert I unimaginatively chose chocolate mousse. I have no excuses for my lack of adventure. Sometimes the chocolate urge conquers all!
38 Place des Cardeurs
Attraction | "The Farmers' Markets of Aix"
Farmers' markets are a tradition of Provence, providing locals access to the finest and freshest produce in the region. In small towns, market day comes but once a week and can take on the air of festival. In Aix, a very traditional city, the farmers' market is part of the daily fabric of city life. The "big" market days are Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays on Place des Precheurs, and on occasion Cours Mirabeau, a wide boulevard shaded by enormous plane trees, will be closed off for an up-scale flea and crafts market. But in Aix, every day is market day between 9am and noon, as the greengrocers set up their wares under the plane trees in Place Richelme and the flower market sets up in adjoining Place de l'Hotel de Ville, both located on the main axis between Place du Général de Gaulle, where the tourist information office is located and Cathédrale St.-Sauveur on the opposite side of the pedestrian quarter, convenient to your sightseeing activities.
The variety of lettuces can be pretty amazing. Inevitably you'll see huge artistically arranged piles of frilly leaf lettuce in green and red varieties, romaine, and butter lettuce holding court alongside familiar old iceberg, with nary a brown spot or blemish in sight. Here, the price is usually the same no matter which kind you choose. Other tables will offer fava beans (looking like green beans on steroids), eggplant, ruby red tomatoes, enormous heads of garlic, sparkling white onions (usually peeled but on their stems), and peppers in a range of colors. Still others will have whatever fruit is currently in season, certain to be exquisite – during my visit in late May, strawberries and cherries were prominently on offer.
The flower market is a riot of color shaded under maroon awnings. Options range from posies for a little nosegay to tall, dramatic lilies and irises. Many Americans think of flowers as something for a special occasion or a gift, but here you see many a middle-aged woman in simple sleeveless dress and flip-flops carrying away a nice bouquet in a twist of paper.
If you enjoy the markets of Aix, consider fitting the Sunday market in Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, near Avignon, into your travel plans. This is one of the largest markets in the region.
The Aix Farmers' Markets
Attraction | "Atelier Paul Cezanne - an Artist's Studio"
I don't generally get enthused about visiting houses where famous people once lived or cafés where they once dined. The people aren’t there any more – what's the point? But if, as I did, you pass up the walking tour of Cezanne landmarks, I'd still encourage you not to pass up Cezanne's former studio. It's more than a pilgrimage for the faithful. It's a glimpse into the creative world of a painter.
Cezanne, for those unfamiliar with him, painted after the gauzy Impressionists. His work is stronger and more colorful, similar to Van Gogh's but with lighter lines. The blocky use of color in his later work prefigures Cubism, soon to follow. He is best known for his still lifes. A slow though diligent worker, it was probably easiest for him to paint assortments of objects which wouldn't move during the weeks he would need to render them on canvas. In fact, he used wax fruits and tissue flowers since the real items would spoil.
The studio occupies the second floor of a small building in a woodsy setting. The square, high-ceilinged, wood-floored room features an enormous multi-paned window facing north. Through its panes, puddled with age, light passes through the blurred, bright leaves of an airy tree. The center of the room is mostly empty. The east wall of the room features a shelf at about shoulder height on which are displayed the many objects Cezanne used as subjects for his still lifes: ceramic pitchers, plates and vases, metal jugs, wine bottles and glasses. Underneath are an assortment of chairs, tables, and bureaus likewise used as models. On a wooden table recognizable to those familiar with his paintings, an arrangement is set up as if ready for the artist: a casually dropped white kitchen towel with a red stripe, a bowl of wax fruit, a wine bottle. Also in the room are the artist’s easel and his palette still daubed with paint, and his beret hangs on the wall.
My grandfather was a painter, and I remember as a child visiting his studio, which had this same austere, empty, airy feel. In this somewhat rarefied atmosphere, even casual objects take on an intensity difficult to imagine if you have not experienced it firsthand. This same intensity lingers in Cezanne’s studio. The paint and chalk smells are gone, but then an artist has not worked here in nearly a century. If you are fortunate, you will find yourself alone in the studio for at least a few moments, allowing you to conjure up the quiet in which the artist would have worked.
The reasonably priced gift shop on the first floor sells prints of some of Cezanne's work, along with mailing tubes for packing them home with you. You can also buy Cezanne bookmarks and other small souvenirs related to the artist.
The studio is a 10-minute walk uphill from the old quarter, also served by bus.
Atelier Paul Cézanne
9, avenue Paul-Cézanne
Aix-en-Provence, France 13100
+33 4 42 21 06 53
Attraction | "Musee des Tapisseries"
If tapestries intrigue you, this is the place to come. We're not talking little 3'x5' tapestries here, folks. We're talking tapestries that would carpet a suburban front yard. Under-appreciated as an art form, tapestries can rival paintings in subtlety and expressiveness. Perhaps it's their functionality that leads people to shrug. Provence can be bitterly cold in the winter, and tapestries have been expensive insulation since the Middle Ages in all those drafty old castles and palaces. But of course, if you could afford a palace and a tapestry to hold a little heat in it, you expected some decorative value from it as well.
It's easy not to notice the size of these works of art because the museum is located in a former archbishop's palace, and in the cavernous rooms in which the tapestries are displayed, they don't look all that large. Pace them off and you'll be surprised! The tapestries here are 17th and 18th century products. There is a 1689 "Grotesque" series, but the real draw here is the only Don Quixote series in the world, made in 1735. You can follow the course of the gaunt cavalier's career as he rides his decrepit charger, Rosinante, through a gorgeously detailed countryside, with plump Sancho Panza following on his donkey. Perhaps due to their age (nearly 300 years!), the lighter colors of the tapestries have a silvery sheen, but the maroons and blues remain vivid after all this time.
There is also a gallery used for temporary exhibits. During my visit, this was inexplicably devoted to some rather experimental photography, which somehow seemed quite out of keeping with the historic tapestries. Who knows what you'll find when you visit?
The museum is a little tricky to find. Starting facing the entrance of Cathédrale St.-Sauveur, turn into the little square to the right of the church (that's Place des Martyrs de la Résistance) and walk down to the end. The museum entrance is on your left through the archway at the end of the square.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on January 9, 2004
Musée des Tapisseries
Place des Martyrs-de-la-Résistance
Aix-en-Provence, France 13100
+33 4 42 23 09 91
Attraction | "Cathédrale de St.-Sauveur"
Cathédrale de St.-Sauveur, or St. Savior's Cathedral, stands most conventions of European cathedrals on their ears. Typically, cathedrals are located on a main square in the center of a historic city's old quarter. In Aix, the main squares in the old town, the adjoining Place Richelme and Place de l'Hotel de Ville, are adjacent to the Town Hall. Cathédrale St.-Sauveur is located on a positively tiny square on a small pedestrian street almost on the edge of the pedestrian quarter. In those narrow streets, you can find yourself standing under the bell tower almost before you know the church is there. Over the gothic arch above the doors, the statue of a martial St. Savior clad in armor stands guard over the church and little place de l'Université.
If you know the language of architecture, you can read much of Aix's history in the blond stones of this cathedral. This unusual church is a mélange of architectural styles built on a site that has had religious significance for over 2000 years. Once the site of a pagan temple, it was co-opted by the Romans for one of their temples. Materials from the Roman temple were later incorporated into the construction of the Christian church.
Construction of the church proceeded by fits and starts over a millennium, interrupted by war, plague, and political disruptions. The oldest part of the church is the Merovingian baptistery, which dates to 500AD, followed by the Romanesque cloisters. The church features three naves, each in a different style: Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque. The bell tower (1411) and carved walnut doors (1504) are from the Renaissance era.
The church you'll see today is a little less than the sum of these diverse parts. During the Revolution, the sculptural panel above the doors was destroyed and thus is now a blank space. The statues on the face of the church were decapitated and the heads were subsequently lost. The current heads are replacements.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on January 9, 2004
Place de l'Université
Aix-en-Provence, France 13100
+33 4 42 63 11 78