|Note the wheel on the left!|
Though the hostel was in a rather inconvenient location pretty far out of town, it did offer a view of the quintessential landmark of the Aix countryside:
But even aside from Mont Sainte-Victoire, the countryside around the hostel was pretty spectacular:
It was late enough when we finally arrived at the hostel that we opted for a quiet night in, especially as we had to be up bright and early the next morning.
August 8, 2010
Justine had a 7:40 am train to Paris, so we got up a little before 7:00 to have time to get everything ready to go and have a quick bite of breakfast (free from the hostel - your standard tartine: bread, butter, and jam, as well as coffee and orange juice) before she was on her way. After she left, I definitely felt a little overwhelmed and lonely again like I did my first night in Avignon. But there was too much to be done to sit and mope for long! I decided to spend the afternoon in Marseille, but before I went there, I wanted to spend just a little time walking around Aix. On my way into town on Avenue de l'Europe, I passed a market set up in a parking lot that had a nice selection from a few stands replete with perfectly ripe fruits and vegetables.
|Can you say "ratatouille season?"|
|Apricots and tomatoes and plums, oh my!|
I bought myself a perfect nectarine and two succulent, flavorful apricots. Doesn't get much better than that.
Aix is a very pretty town. The center of the city is called la Rotonde (literally, the Rotunda) due to the big traffic round-about, which circles around this fountain:
|La Fontaine des Neuf Canons|
|Le Cours Mirabeau|
|La Place de la Mairie|
9 August, 2010
On my way into town, I noticed a hypermarché - the closest thing in France to a WalMart. Most shops in France are entirely distinct by product: groceries sell basic food products, pharmacies sell medicine and vitamins, pastry shops sell pastries, clothing boutiques sell, you guessed it, clothes. There aren't really any big all-in-one stores like our Targets or WalMarts. But sometimes on the outskirts of towns you can find a hypermarché like the Super U I stumbled across that has a much larger variety of wares for sale. Given the distance of my hostel from the center of Aix (and therefore, from anywhere I might be able to find new luggage), I decided to try my luck at looking for duct tape to attempt a make-shift fix for my luggage, just to get me to Lyon where I could buy a new bag. I did not find any duct tape, but I did find some tape that claimed to be strong and flexible and a good choice for reparations of household wares, so I bought some of that and crossed my fingers.
When exiting the Super U, I realized that its parking lot was the site for the market I had passed the day before on my way into town. Apparently the Sunday market was just a shadow of the regular market, as this one had many more vendors, including lots of clothing stands. I looked around for a few minutes, but didn't buy anything - I wanted to hit up the market I had briefly seen the day before in Place Richelme instead.
I'm not sorry I waited; the selection at this market was wonderful.
I picked up some dinner at the market: some saucisson d'Arles (a local air-dried sausage), a small round of three-week aged goat cheese, a perfectly ripe tomato, and a couple of apricots and nectarines. I picked up a baguette from a nearby bakery, too. Perfect.
After picking up my food, I decided to head up to visit Cézanne's studio. A number of sites around town with some significance to Cézanne's life are open for visit; in fact, the tourist office provides both a map of town and a map of Cézanne-related sites. Major attractions include the Bibémus quarries (the subject of many paintings), various sites from which he painted Mont Sainte-Victoire, his family home at le Jas de Bouffan, and the studio he had built around 1900 where he worked for the last five years of his life. Even walking around town, you'll notice plaques marking, for example, cafés he frequented, the house where he was born, and the church where he died. His statue looks over la Rotonde. Everywhere you go, you can feel how proud the city is of their most famous resident.
But perhaps is presence is felt most acutely in his atelier, the studio he worked in for the last five years of his life. It is located about a 20-minutes walk North of town. Today the atelier has been set up as a sort of "museum," but not in the traditional sense of the word. The atelier does not show paintings by Cézanne, but rather it is an homage to the space in which he worked. The walls, floors, and huge windows all remain as they did when Cézanne worked here, and displayed throughout the room are many of the props and motifs that appear in his still lifes:
|Plaster cupid, apples, and jugs from Cézanne's studio|
Sadly, just after taking the above photo, I was informed I wasn't supposed to be taking pictures. Oops! So you'll just have to go and see the atelier for yourself - and I highly recommend that you do.
By the time I left the atelier, it was about 12:30, and I was ready for some lunch. I decided to eat at a restaurant on Place de l'Archevêché called, creatively, l'Archevêché. It was a pleasant spot with plenty of shady outdoor seating, but what caught my attention was the mention of ratatouille as a side to the Plat du Jour - Gigot d'agneau, haricots verts, et ratatouille:
|Gigot d'agneau, haricots verts, ratatouille, pain, verre de rosé|
After lunch, it was time to hit up the pâtisseries (pastry shops) for a little something sweet. Aix has a lot of pâtisseries, and I would have been glad to spend a few more days exploring them. As it was, I only made one stop to a shop called La Cure Gourmande. It is a chain store, which I would normally avoid because I prefer to support local businesses and I believe that you will generally find more authentic products at local shops rather than chains, but in this case I'm glad I decided to stop in. As soon as I walked through the door, I was offered a taste of some kind of raspberry-stuffed cookie. I had made up my mind that I would buy some calissons d'Aix, a local specialty cookie, and when I asked whether they were sold individually or only in boxes (answer: only in boxes. Okay, fine, twist my arm...), I was offered a calisson to taste. When I made my way back to the cash register to pay, a different vendeuse (literally, seller-girl - one of the women who worked in the shop) asked me if I'd like to try a calisson. Finally, when after making my purchases, the woman behind the cash register insisted I try their chocolate "olives:" almonds covered in chocolate and a hard candy shell painted to look like olives. Offering free samples is not that common in France, so visitng La Cure Gourmande, which not only offers samples but encourages you to take them, was a wonderful suprise. It helps, too, that everything I tasted was good!
Calissons, the quintessential pastry of Aix, are small cookies about one inch long by a half-inch wide, and a half inch tall. They are made from almond flour, egg whites, and sugar, but unlike macarons (which use the same 3 basic ingredients), these are dense and chewy. They are flavored with orange and melon, which gives some fruity sweetness, some citrusy tartness, and a hint of bitterness from the orange zest. It's a nice cookie, but the flavors could be bolder.
After getting my pastries, I would have visited the Musée Granet, a museum with a nice collection of a few Cézanne's in town, but it was closed on Mondays. So instead I just had to wander around and buy myself a scarf. I also stopped in an internet café for a while. Not bringing a laptop with me was a big mistake - especially when there's free wifi everywhere, and I needed to spend a fair amount of time looking at train schedules and booking lodgings... Live and learn!
After a little more exploring to see the remnants of the Roman walls and baths...
|Remarkable remnants of Roman ramparts|
Like the hostel, Parc Berlioz is situated on a hill; it offers a great panoramic view over the town and the countryside. Here's the view I had during dinner:
|View over Aix from Parc Berlioz|
The saucisson d'Arles (bought by the slice at the market that morning) was excellent - dense, meaty with just a little spice for a strong, punchy flavor. The three-week old goat cheese was tangy and fine, but nothing special. The baguette was excellent - thick, crunchy crust that at first resists ripping, and then crackles and leaves a mess of crumbs when a piece is torn off, with a soft crumb on the interior and a nice wheaty flavor. I didn't have anything to cut the tomato, so I had to settle for making a "sandwich" in my mouth by putting together the perfect bite piece by piece. It's a tough life, but someone's gotta live it.
I finished my meal with a piece of nougat-caramel from La Cure Gourmande:
After dinner, I headed back to the hostel to pack up before leaving for Lyon the next day, and to try to repair the wheel on my luggage so that it might last through the trip. Lyon will have to wait for another post (or two...), so for now I'll leave you with one of my favorite photos from Aix:
|Just look at those big blue eyes and tell me you're not in love.|
Coming soon: Lyon and six courses of heaven at the Machonnerie