Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Staying Put in Aix

Our itinerant days of meandering through the south of France were over. The time to settle down had arrived and a satisfying, stay-put month in Aix-en-Provence, a Provençale paradise if ever there was one was ahead of us.

An amazingly dynamic, livable little town, Aix lies about 20 miles north of Marseille, 40 miles south of the Luberon and 90 miles west of the Riviera. It has been continually inhabited since it was founded in 123 BC by the Romans who luxuriated in the thermal waters that continue to flow and provide modern-day hydrotherapy pleasures and benefits at the Sextuis Baths Spa.

The hub of Aixois activity is the Cours Mirabeau, one of the most beautiful avenues in the world. It starts at the grand Fontaine de la Rotonde and runs to the stone statue of Le Roi René (a favorite leaning post for tourist snapshots). It’s the Champs Elysées of the south but with a small town vibe and none of Paris’ hustle-bustle and conceit. The broad boulevard is bordered by elegant 18th-century hôtels particuliers, shaded by double rows of soaring plane trees, dotted with fountains and lined with chic cafes that spill onto its sidewalks. The most famous eatery along the Cours is the Deux Garçons, built in 1792 and whose most famous patrons were native sons Paul Cézanne and Emile Zola in the late 19th century. The boulevard traces the line of what was the ancient city wall and splits the town in two: the new town, known as the Quartier Mazarin, with its classical grid patterned streets to the south and the old town, its medieval, irregular streets twisting to the north.

The place we called home for our month in Aix was a third-floor walk-up in the Quartier Mazarin just a couple short blocks off the Cours Mirabeau. Our one-bedroom apartment was bright, modern and filled with natural light. While not air-conditioned, it had an industrial strength fan that chased away the heat of the midday sun and allowed for comfortable sleeping. The weather in Aix was consistent: sunny, hot and dry. On occasion, the day dawned with a light cover of clouds, but the relentless sun soon reminded the interlopers of who’s boss and by 9 am, all had cleared to an impossibly blue sky.

Our arrival in Aix coincided with the July 14th Bastille Day weekend. Having missed the Fourth of July at home, we’d looked forward to pretending that the holiday fireworks would be in honor of American's birthday. But much to our chagrin, Bastille Day at the Rotonde Fountain was a great big disappointment. The town elders decided to replace the customary fireworks with an uninspiring ten-minute son et lumière show and unfortunately, the Americans in attendance were more into Bastille Day than the French. Oh, there were some red, white and blue lights on the fountain to honor the French tricolor, but not a note of patriotic music was played – just excerpts from Bolero, the William Tell Overture and La Traviata. We wanted to scream, “La Marseillaise,” as if overtaken by the moment at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. “Where’s your country spirit on your national holiday, France?” The lackluster performance left us a bit depressed, but at least it was the only aspect of our stay in Aix that was a letdown. (The only other frustration during our month was at the trendy rooftop bistro, Le Fromagerie, at which we’d carefully made reservations. After 25 minutes our young waitress had yet to acknowledge our presence. She was definitely a victim of “I’m-so-beautiful-syndrome”: all I care about is looking lovely and acting sultry and I’ll get to you only when I’m good and ready. We dropped our menus and left.)

Every single day in Aix, there is at least one open-air market: on the Place Richelme, on the Place des Prêcheurs and along the Cours Mirabeau. Everything from fresh fruit, cheese and vegetables, to honey, sausage, tapenades and olives, linens, clothing, sandals, lavender soap and hand-crafted jewelry is sold. It was difficult not to slow to check out the offerings, even though we’d walked by the stalls time and time again. The displays deserved fresh ganders just in case some new treasure was being offered and we inevitably came away with a new bag of goodies to stock our fridge.

On one particularly memorable Sunday, local producers of the Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence AOC wines offered tastings all afternoon along the Cours Mirabeau. The vintners showcased and sold their wines with this irresistible proposition: buy your wine glass for three euros (or bring your own) and go from winery to winery tasting nectars from 25 vineyards for free. A heavenly afternoon. And a perfect excuse for midday naps.

It was love at first sight with Aix the moment we arrived and we grew to love her even more as we got to know all her pleasures. There’s a particular brand of the Provençal spirit in the town as affirmed by this sign we saw hanging in a local bus: “Ne soyez pas pressé, ici on se hâtelentement.” "Don't be in a rush, we speed up slowly around here."

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

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