Not quite a year in Provence, but 24 hours is still pretty good I think...
AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France - Walking into town from my hotel it didn’t look like much.
But once I got past the garish kiddie rides that have taken over the main square here for Christmas (they did the same thing in Paris at the Bastille, which is another matter entirely) I was suddenly in a charming, ancient city.
Aix was founded by the Romans back in 122 B.C. after a convincing military victory over local Ligurian tribes, and it’s filled with lovely squares and limestone buildings in various Provencal shades of yellow, pale white and various hues of ochre.
The Hotel de Ville is on a beautiful square (see left side of photo) with a tall tower that features a “window” with changing displays. There’s a revolving mechanism and the scene changes with the seasons, moving four times a year.
It’s still set on fall, this technically being autumn. But the rest of the city clearly is gearing up for Christmas, with small, chalet-like buildings lining Cour Mirabeau, known around here as the Aix version of the Champs Elysees. They sell lovely lavender soaps, churros dipped in chocolate, lovely candles, warm Alsatian wine (handy given the temperatures in France of late) and other local specialties. Off to one side is a market that specializes in tiny clay figures painted to look like everything from the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus to the wise men, as well as camels, local farmers, breadmakers and other village folks (my tour guide said they looked like the village people but I don’t think she meant it in a “YMCA” kinda way).
The story goes that local religious types were worried about having their Christmas figures destroyed by French revolution activists, so they created small figurines made out of clay that could be easily hidden or destroyed. The tradition carried on and now you can buy an entire population of small figures. They’re pretty cool mementoes and cost only about $10 to $15 each.
There are tons of nice-looking shops all around town, everything from Apple and Bang and Olufsen to fine lingerie shops, of which there is no shortage anywhere in France I can see.
There’s an old cathedral with stones taken from the edge of the Roman Forum and fifth century mosaics, as well as medieval paintings, Romaneseque and Gothic influences and a soon-to-be-restored cloister.
I got a quick glimpse of the cloister but it was nearly dark and the construction work prevented a good picture. But it looks lovely and well worth a look if you ever come this way. Be warned, however, that it’s not part of the regular tours so if you’re interested, just stop at the main desk on your way in and say you’d like a peek.
I stopped for an al fresco lunch of pizza and green salad with garlic at a sidewalk spot called Il Palatino. Quite good, but when they say salad with garlic they mean it; there had to be two tablespoons of chopped garlic on a small serving of mixed lettuce.
The town is home to painter Paul Cezanne, and you simply can’t get away from the guy even if you wanted to. They have small, metallic markers in the sidewalks for people to follow the Cezanne route, which takes you past his school, a couple of his houses, his favourite pub (see photo of Les Deux Garcons, a lovely spot), the church where he got married, a fountain named for him, and more.
Maybe we could do the same for Mike Myers in Scarborough, I dunno…
Off today to check out some surrounding villages and maybe sneak a peek at the Mediterranean….