Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Well, I'm getting a better feel for this elegant and bourgeoise city. I do admit to not knowing it very well before being spurred to do so by clients who wanted a day's tour here.
I'd visited as a teenager with the host family I stayed with in Marseille. From that stay I had memories of gorgeous carved wooden doors... which there are to be sure, but why would that be the main memory in my head? I also was privileged to be snuck in to see an open air production of Mozart's Magic Flute from the spiral stairway up to the balcony section (a friend of the family I was staying with was interning at the Festival Lyric of opera that summer). There's something awsomely magical about watching the most lovely of operas in an ancient Roman outdoor theater setting in the warmth of a summer's night... Yes, that is a precious memory in my stash.
And since? Some brief visits with Erick and clients to see the Cézanne exhibit in 2006. A night of opera when pregnant with Jonas, a gift of seats from a friend who works for Vauzel, the president of the region PACA (Provence Alpes, Côtes d'Azur). What did we see? I'm not even sure. Perhaps Mozart again? I was rather distracted, yet quite delighted by the cultural outing.
Yes, Aix is de rigueur, a center of Provence and one example of Provençale culture. In fact, it did used to be the seat of power of the Provence royal family. And so I've been doing my research in books and on the web, and making excursions alone and with friends, absorbing what I might.
The key things to remember? Fountains and Cézanne, lovely tiny streets, great boutiques (buy a dress here for your friend's next wedding), interesting dining options, squares filled with markets, and more fountains.
If you can do so, avoid driving. Park immediately when you see a parking spot, have lots of change (it is far more expensive here than in either Avignon or Arles) and just leave your car for the day. Don't wear high heels -- the prettiest sections of the city are riddled with cobble-stone streets. Note that you can pick up some English reading material (on rue Cabbersol in the Mazarin district, down the street from the second fountain on the Cours Mirabeau).
The Cézanne sites are sweet: his last studio and home (basically a very small bachelor's pad with a large second floor room with a wall of windows), complete with over grown garden, tree-shaded spots to sit and rest -- all is just as he left it, or very nearly. He is said to have been a rather poor house-keeper, so the dust is quite normal, and with still lives being one of his favorite subjects, numerous apples in various states of decay are set up about the room; and the house of his parents to which he was much attached and in which he painted a number of walls on the theme of the Seasons. This house was sold by his sisters and himself when his mother died, the Jas de Bouffan. Neither site has easy parking, and the latter is a bit of a hike from the center of town, though doable. Basically, if you can grab it, try to park in the lots of the apartment complexes nearby. Then don't get run over as you cross the street to the entrances.
But then, get back to the little streets of the old section of town. And, here, I'll give you my new favorite address, Toute une Histoire, a vegetarian buffet style restaurant on the Place des Tanneurs. Oh but the food is good, fresh, inventive, and very reasonable. Go by early to reserve your table outdoors, and enjoy the teas, the friendly service, and the possibility of simply hanging out in the afternoon working on your computer, sipping coffee, and enjoying the relaxed and funky space.
And, do not forget the Mont Ste. Victoire. Majestic, just outside town, (direction le Tholonet) no longer as easy to spot from the top of the hill above Cézanne's studio (the trees are far higher and denser in spots now than they were 100 years ago), but a lovely 10 kilometer drive out of town, away from the crowds, away from the traffic (though on a road with occasional small and steep sections where you may run into cars and buses that share with difficulty, the narrow paved sections, lined with deep drop-offs...).
If you're feeling energetic, go for a walk/climb. There are a number of paths that go up the south face of the mountain, and the nicest ones begin before you get to the visitor's center (Maison Ste. Victoire). You could also go to the north side (the next option on the circle road around Aix that takes you east), where your hike would be shaded by the trees in the morning.
In either case, it is a steep and strenuous climb, though not too long (two hours or so). Bring water, trail mix, oranges, a sun hat... And enjoy!