Aix en Provence – here
Marseille – here
It’s almost a relief to come to Aix en Provence. My Bin and I have been traveling for almost a week and a half, and our senses are close to short-circuiting on the constant stimulus. The books that I’ve read on Provence, notably those by Peter Mayle and Patricia Wells, speak of this southern part of France as if they’re under a spell of enchantment and wonder.
It’s all true.
First, there’s the light: sometimes scintillating, other times darkly dramatic. Objects appear multi-textural and make for breathtaking photos, even with my simple point-and-shoot. No wonder Aix’s most famous son, painter Paul Cézanne, produced his most spectacular works here.
Aix, regarded by many as Provence’s most graceful city, is also idyllic, a merging of modern and historical. An easily navigable city in Provence’s heart, artisanal shops, big brand boutiques, and cafés sit side by side with hôtel particuliers (mansions, above).
The Cours Mirabeau is an historic quarter, an avenue landscaped with plane trees that are currently bare in the winter’s chill.
Les Deux Garçons on Cours Mirabeau, the city’s legendary brasserie also known as the 2Gs. The elaborate gilded interiors have witnessed several famous people within its walls such as Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hugh Grant, George Clooney, and of course Cézanne, who used to come almost daily for a cup.
Ah, fountains. While it really only has about 20+, Aix is called the City of a Thousand Fountains. Originally made for practical purposes (feeding of cattle, etc.) in the late 19th century, the fountains eventually became ornamental. We encounter several of the distinctive ones while wending our way through the picturesque streets.
Undoubtedly the most magnificent one is the La Rotonde fountain (above), built in 1860. Situated regally in the middle of a roundabout, the plumes of water shoot through a trio of statues depicting Aix’s main activities: Justice, Agriculture and Fine Arts.
The Fountain of the Four Dolphins is the star of the Mazarin quarter. Constructed in 1667, the four dolphins support an obelisk, a baroque style suggestive of the Italian design influence on the Aix nobility during that time.
At the end of Cours Mirabeau is the 19th century Fountain of Roi René. King René is credited with introducing Muscat grapes to Provence, used in plenty of the region’s wines, and he’s thus depicted here holding a bunch of grapes in his left hand.
Life in Aix revolves around the various places or squares. This is the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville, one of Provence’s most famous squares. It boasts an array of differing architectural styles, from simple to baroque. Historically significant monuments border the square: the Town-Hall, the Corn Exchange Hall and the Clock Tower. On various days of the week, a food and flower market takes place here.
Some of Aix’s residential houses have colorful stone façades.
And in the middle of it all, a Place For (my) Bin.
See what I mean again about the amazing light here?
In Aix, it’s like walking through an open-air history book complete with equally ravishing blue skies and heart-stopping sights. This is the Pavillon de Vendôme, a 17th century French palace.
Provence is France’s largest supplier of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. In addition, the region produces exemplary…
Olives, and naturally, olive oil too.
The Provençal people have a predilection for sweets. Their exceptional honey is used to make all manner of sweet things such as these jaw-dropping (and imaginably, jaw-breaking!) nougats.
Calissons d’Aix, the city’s specialty sweet. These almond boats have three parts: a rice paper base, a paste made from crushed almonds and candied fruits, and frosting on top. These sweets taste like a very dense macaron.
Pommes. Apples. No other region in France has such a diverse selection.
Herbs, specifically herbes de Provence, an assortment of dried herbs specific to the region. It commonly contains dried fennel, basil, marjoram, rosemary, and of course lavender. The blend makes meat and poultry dishes shine.
Even if it may be untrue, any Provençal native regards aïoli as a local invention, and that goes too for pistou (basic-garlic paste). The two, in addition to various tapenades, make for a veritably Provençal feast together with bread, crudités, and air-dried sausages. Don’t forget the cheese and red wine!
Some food experiences I have in Aix that I won’t forget
Yes, just like in Paris, people in Provence want their meat in patty form. Burger Bar is super popular especially at night. The French eat their burgers with a fork and knife, and prefer to eat their fries with mayo if at all, not ketchup.
I have a duck burger, perhaps the only time in my life where my patty is more like a steak that yes, I have to eat with a fork and knife, as the meat is too thick to bite straight into. Quite an experience, eating a burger in France.
For lunch on most days, my Bin and I buy various food from the market and make a meal out of them, usually while sitting on the steps of the square. Here’s one meal of ours: torn baguettes smeared with tapenade, two cheeses: Morbier (cow) and Crottin de Chavignol (goat). Sips of Schweppes for my Bin, and for me, a rosé that I buy specifically because it’s from the region; I glug it down straight from the bottle. Our utensils are plastic, and we’re freezing, but there’s nothing like sharing a meal, no matter how rustic, with someone I’m madly in love with, and he with me. Ah, la vraie Provence!
Later this week, the conclusion to my France series: Marseilles.