Monday, September 20, 2010

Aix-en-Provence

I arrived in Aix-en-Provence the evening of August 7.  Justine and I had taken the train together from Avignon with a stopover in Marseille; however, our first train was delayed about an hour and a half, so we didn't get in to Aix until pretty late.  We then had a mile-long hike to the hostel.  On our way there, just before the last hill, the wheel on my duffel broke - it basically ripped in half from overuse.  So lame!  I was able to drag it along the rest of the way to the hostel, but this was a serious issue as I had over a month left to go of moving every 2-3 days to a new location.  If you are planning a trip with luggage that will spend a lot of time rolling over cobblestones... Make sure you've got extra wheels.

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:

Mont Sainte-Victoire
I got super excited when I saw Mont Sainte-Victoire looming in the distance - though I'm pretty sure Justine thought I was a little crazy.  I suppose I should back up and say that one of my majors in college was art history, and one of my absolute favorite painters is Paul Cézanne, considered by many (including, for example, Picasso and Matisse) to be the father of modern art.  Cézanne lived most of his life in Aix; in fact, on the way to the hostel, we passed by the home he lived in with his family from 1860-1899, le Jas de Bouffan.  Mont Sainte-Victoire was one of the subjects he depicted most often, and seeing it in person was a jaw-dropping moment for me.

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 love the smell of fresh produce in the morning.

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
Just off of la Rotonde to the East is the "main street" of Aix, le Cours Mirabeau:

It's a beautiful shady street, perfect for a summer stroll.  Actually most of Aix is pretty wonderful for wandering and exploring - it's full of Places (essentially open squares filled with cafes and lined with shops) and lots of cute little boutiques.

Le Cours Mirabeau
La Place de la Mairie
But of course what I love best about Aix are the fabulous markets.  Beyond the small roadside market I passed on my way into town, I also made a brief stop by the main market at Place Richelme.  I saw just enough of Aix to whet my palate (figuratively and literally, given the abundance of produce and pastries!), but I decided it was time to head to Marseille for the afternoon, so further exploring would have to wait until the following day.

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
 Seeing that  plaster cupid was a pretty spectacular moment for me.  The had a nice collection of prints of several paintings to show that at the atelier, you could see this particular table cloth as seen in one painting, or this table leg from another, or this railing along the wall in a third.  Hanging on a peg on the wall, they even had his overcoat and bowler hat.  WOW.  I was pretty blown away by all of the familiar items I got to see!

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
Gigot d'agneau is leg of lamb; haricots verts are green beans; and ratatouille is a simple Provençal dish of cooked vegetables including onion, eggplant, bell pepper, zucchini, tomato, and flavored with garlic and herbs such as oregano, thyme, and savory.  I had my first ratatouille in Paris in 2008, made by my host mom for my birthday dinner.  Before coming to Provence, it was one of the dishes I knew I wanted to eat while I was here, to taste an authentic version.  The ratatouille was excellent - the flavors of all of the ingredients had begun to meld together, but each vegetable retained some of its individual texture and integrity - homey, simple, flavorful, excellent.  The lamb was a little overcooked, but it had a nice gamey lamb flavor and was served in a nice sauce that was just a little spicy and peppery.  To go with my meal, I drank a glass of rosé AOC Aix-en-Provence.  AOC stands for Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée, which is a standard for French products to ensure that they are produced in a particular region; in this case, it means that the wine was grown and produced in the region immediately surrounding Aix-en-Provence.  This is really a little too far south in France for well-renowned wine production, and if you want to order a local wine a rosé is your best bet.  This one was a pleasant, light, refreshing wine with orangy citrus notes.

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

...it was getting on for time, so I headed back towards the hostel.  I had noticed a park across the street from the hostel on my way into town that morning, so I decided to stop there for a picnic dinner of the items I had picked up at the market that morning.

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
Dinner was an excellent simple meal - water, baguette, tomato, aged goat cheese, sausage:

Pique-nique, please?

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:

Nougat caramel
The nougat is made of honey and egg white, and dotted with pieces of almonds.  It has a texture somewhat akin to a guimauve - a French marshmallow, very light and airy and a little sticky.  The nougat was super sweet, with just a little crunch from the almonds.  The caramel stripe was much stickier and gummier than the nougat - a much heavier texture.  It had an excellent salty caramel-y taste.  The caramel added an extra dimension to the nougat making the candy much more interesting and delicious.  Very good!


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.
As I was taking pictures in the market, this mother and baby duo walked right into my frame.  I love their bright colors - so Provençal!

Coming soon: Lyon and six courses of heaven at the Machonnerie

A bientôt,

1 comment:

I need orange said...

Another day I'd love to have shared..... Mmmmmmm.