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Celebrating Forty Years!
The local train left Marseille at
11:35, arriving in Aix-en-Provence at 12:18 at the main
train station. The TGV station is out of town; we
departed for Paris from there at the end of our stay in
It was a pretty walk until we got
to Place du General de Gaulle and our first look at the
Fontaine de la Rotonde and Cours Mirabeau, then "pretty"
La Rotonde was erected in 1860 on
the site of the former Porte Royale, for centuries the
main entrance to the city. The fountain is a symbol of
the entrance of modern-day Aix, with its new avenues
forming a star shape, and its three statues carved in
marble representing the city's essential professions -
law, the arts and agriculture.
The plane trees around the square
continue the length of Cours Mirabeau, forming a majestic
canopy over the busiest street of the city. Cours
Mirabeau was originally designed to allow the passage of
carriages. Lining the way are magnificent private
mansions, noteworthy cafes and lovely fountains. It is
not only the crossroad of town but it's a boulevard that
beckons you to walk up and down to discover all its
Our hotel De France was on 63 rue
Espariat, which runs through the small, active, Place des
Augustins, but unfortunately the grumpy owner has not
seen fit to properly maintain, let alone refurbish, the
property. We stayed away as much as possible, which was
easy to do in this fabulous city.
Aix is a relatively small town
making it easy to stroll and encounter its cultural and
architectural riches. It's a non-stop voyage through time.
Imposing buildings, magnificent stone squares, striking
fountains and gardens and all along the way there are fun
shopping and pedestrian streets and never-ending outdoor
markets of the freshest products and creative handicrafts.
is like a theatrical scene. A vast elaborate rococo-style
mansion surrounds the square with an attractive fountain
in the center. It's a magical sight that stopped us in
When we got to the Place de Verdun
and the imposing Palais de Justice, we found the square
filled with antiques, produce, clothing, shoes, house
wares, etc., and were to find a steady stream of markets
as we meandered through the streets and squares of the
old town. This is a shoppers paradise, wonderful products
in the shops and on the street in a beautiful environment.
It is impossible not to become a buyer. There is a
Provencal expression "radassa", which means
sauntering and lingering, being pleasantly surprised,
coming unexpectedly on something wonderful and so
typically "Aixois". "Radassa" it was!
Place Richelme was
a heart-stopper. It is a symmetrical square, surrounded
by handsome, tall buildings, the most famous being the
corn exchange. The southern facade overlooks the square
with its rich decorative motifs associated with the
purpose of the building - fruits, cereals and olives.
There is a center island filled with plane trees, which
are also around the perimeter. The shiny stone floor of
the square melds the greenery and the architecture,
creating a sense of comfort and pleasure. You can find a
fresh produce market here every morning.
Just behind Place Richelme is La
Place de la Marie dominated by the Town Hall, a classic
seventeenth century design with an Italian facade, paved
inner courtyard, wrought ironwork and twin winding
staircases leading to the Salle des Etats de Provence.
Next to it is the clock tower, marking time with the
chimes of its astronomical clock where personifications
of the four seasons appear in turn.
The old Bourg Saint-Sauveur runs
between the old ramparts and the Tourreluque Watchtower,
the last vestiges of the medieval fortifications. Its
crowning feature is the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral, a unique
example of blended styles of religious architecture -
Roman foundations, Merovingian Baptistery, Romanesque
Nave and Gothic wave. The carved wooden doors from the
sixteenth century, the triptych of the "Burning Bush"
by Nicolas Froment, and the twelfth century cloister add
to the architectural diversity. Nearby is the
Archbishop's Palace with its elegant Regency door.
Opposite the Cathedral is the lovely University Square,
where the old law faculty was replaced by the Institute
of Political Studies.
La Place des Cardeurs was opened in
1963 on the site of the medieval Jewish quarter. It is
now dotted with restaurants and cafe terraces in a sea of
greenery. On this beautiful day, the chairs were filled
with young people enjoying the lovely, peaceful
Rue de la Coronne, across from our
hotel, has many recommended restaurants. The one we
thought of going to no longer exists but the night clerk
at or hotel (he turned out to be the best asset of the
hotel) told us that its replacement had very good food at
fair prices. So it was that we went to Le Bel Air, 7 rue
de la Couronne, Tel: 4-42-93-42-96, to find our man was
right-on. We chose the three-course 17 EUR menu. I had a
killer entree of assorted meats and pate with oodles of
pickles, olives, baby onions and radishes. Linda kept
healthy with a beautiful vegetarian plate of eggplant
with tomato sauce, chick peas with cumin, and assorted
marinated peppers arranged nicely on a bed of lettuce.
She continued her smart dining with heaps of mushroom
ravioli in tomato sauce and I didn't do too badly with a
cassoulet de fruits de mer, a good size pot filled with
fresh clams, shrimp, calamari and mussels in a luscious,
natural seafood broth. The side plate of white rice with
steamed carrots, zucchini and mushrooms was an ideal
accompaniment with the cassoulet.
We had started with the house pate
crostini and finished with tart tatin. Le Bel Air is
family-run with excellent, caring service and a pleasant,
pale yellow and soft red environment. This was an
Just up the street at 51 rue
Espariat is Boulangeries Paul with excellent baked goods
and pastries. This is where we enjoyed our breakfasts of
raisin, walnut or olive buns with freshly brewed coffee
Today we would finally meet our
Internet and Ziner friend, Frieda Lekkerkerker, who has
settled in Provence and become an ardent advocate of the
region with her own web site, About Provence,
which is informative, up-to-date and well-written, as one
would expect from a published author! Frieda's first
mystery novel takes place in Provence; it was published
in Dutch in Holland. The title of the book is De laatste
kus (in English The Last Kiss), author: Sophie Clement.
We're waiting for the English translation.
Frieda had suggested she would pick
us up and take us on a tour of her beloved Provence. It
was a wonderful day and when it was over, Frieda wrote a
message to TheTravelzine detailing our time together. She
has given us permission to include her message here.
I've returned from a wonderful
day spent with Don and Linda. I picked them up in Aix-en-Provence,
20 minutes late, because I got completely stuck in the
inner-city traffic. They forgave me, I hope.
I had suggested to them to take
advantage of my car and see the hinterland to which they
agreed. We first drove to St. Maximin, a medium-sized
town (by Provence standards) of 8000 inhabitants,
completely dominated by a Basilique (of the 12th C),
built for the relics of Mary Magdalene, who supposedly
washed ashore with a few friends at Sts Maries-de-la-Mer.
Her skull (most likely someone else's) is ornately
displayed in a crypt. As an aside, relics were vital
business in the Middle Ages, attracting pilgrims as
today's resorts attract tourists. The Basilique also has
one of the best organs in France, saved from demolition
by Napoleon's brother Lucien who spent a year in St.
Maximin. During the Revolution and Napoleon times,
churches were closed and worship forbidden. The Basilique
then was used as an armory, the precious wood and metal
of the organ eyed as great sources for other means.
Lucien, however, recognized the quality of the organ and
had the Marseillaisse played on it every day.
Next to the Basilique is a
Dominican monastery, to house the monks who supervised
the relics of Mary Magdalene, until the 1950's. The
monastery is also of the 12th C with impressive cloisters
and courtyard. Recently, it has been converted to a hotel
and an upscale restaurant. I had eaten there a few times,
when the prices were very reasonable (and the food
extremely good), but today I discovered that the cuisine
must have found its followers and as a consequence
adjusted its prices. Plus, it was closed today.
Later we wandered about the old
quarter, with houses bending over from age, beams rotting
away, even charcoaled with a whiff of smoke. It's called
the Jewish quarter, though there are no direct references.
The only plaque we saw was on a house that told of Lucien
Bonaparte's presence there. At least, he saved the organ.
After St. Maximin we drove to
Le Val, a village I discovered only two weeks ago (there
are hundreds of villages in Provence, I'm discovering new
ones as time goes by). What attracted me was the quiet in
the village, the typical Provence elements of plane
trees, narrow streets, surprising vegetable gardens (the
area is called Provence Verte, because of the abundance
of natural sources), an authentic Norman church. The
village has a Provencal restaurant, where we had lunch.
Don and Linda will certainly comment on that. After a
long and leisurely lunch, we walked the streets of the
village, stumbled on an atelier of a santonnier, maker of
From Le Val we drove to
Barjols, a town renowned of its water sources (water in
Provence is liquid gold) with 32 fountains and lavoirs,
communal wash basins. While inspecting one of the most
impressive lavoirs, we were stopped by a man who asked if
we would like more information. He had a camera in hand
and an impressive camera bag over his shoulder.
Instinctively I thought this was a tourist trap, someone
who takes your picture and charges a fortune. Then he
introduced himself as the director of the local museum.
He gave a wonderful exposé of the waters in Barjols.
While I did my best to translate, Don took notes. It's
one of my regrets that we didn't take pictures of that
scene. In town we visited the church with, again,
historic relics, saw more of the fountains, some of which
are quite impressive.
From Barjols we drove farther
into Provence Verte, to Tavernes and Varages to visit a
factory of Faience, Provencal pottery. Though Don and
Linda would have loved to buy the lot, there was no way
to cram even a large plate into their luggage.
In all, it was a great day to
enjoy the presence of this wonderful couple.
Frieda, of course you are forgiven
for being late! Let me tell all of you about the lunch we
had with Frieda, who knows how much I love to relive
these pleasures. As she pointed out, Frieda had only
recently discovered the village of Le Val and at the same
time she had found La Cremaillere, 23 rue Nationale, Tel:
4-94-86-40-00. The restaurant is as lovely as the
village, with typical Provence ambiance, thick, yellow
stucco walls, wooden ceiling, colorful Provence paintings
and print tablecloths.
Linda said her fish soup to start
was the best yet. Frieda's seafood salad looked awesome
and she confirmed that it tasted every bit as good as it
looked. My salad greens and assorted vegetable plate were
garden fresh and delicious. All of us were delighted with
our mains. Linda had a fluffy mushroom omelet but Frieda
and I opted for fresh fish; salmon filet for her and
filleted, grilled loup for me, both served with wild rice
and mushrooms. Of course we had enough room left to do
justice to a lovely presentation of chocolate cake,
orange sorbet, custard and fruit tarts. The service was
superb, which made our lunch a delightfully leisurely
experience, just as one would dream about in the heart of
Frieda's knowledge and passion gave
us insights and perspective that we probably would not
have found on our own, even if we did have a car.
Besides, she was a joy to be with and to get to know
On the south side of Cours Mirabeau
is the Mazarin Quarter. It's a complete contrast to the
old town in that it was conceived in a grid pattern in
the seventeenth century by the Archbishop Mazarin,
brother of the Cardinal. It was here that luxurious
mansions were built, with secluded gardens, for the
aristocracy of Aix.
The Quarter is organized around two
principal axes, rue Cardinale and rue du 4 Septembre. At
the junction of the two is Place des Quatre Dauphins,
shaded by huge chestnut trees in the middle of which is a
fountain decorated with four dolphins. There are
sumptuous mansions on all sides.
The Hotel de Caumont on rue Joseph
Cabassol is quite impressive outside and in. It was built
between 1715 and 1742 as a private home. Today it is the
Darius Milhano Conservatory of Music and Dance.
The Granet Museum is situated in
the former Palace of Mazia and named after the Provincial
painter Granet, who was its main donor. Besides a nice
collection of vestiges of Roman Aix and works by Cezanne,
there is a portrait of Granet by Ingres that is very
special. The museum will be closed for three years for
extensive renovation and enlargement. Next door to the
Granet is the fortified Gothic church of Saint-Jean of
Malta, which was built at the end of the twelfth century.
Back in the old town on our way to
Vendome Pavillion, we stopped at 19 rue Gaston de
Saporta, the Hotel de Chateaurenard from 1654, which
contains a brilliant staircase painted in trompe-l'oeil
The handsome Vendome Pavillion
dates back to 1665 and was the first home built just
outside the city. It is preceded by a splendid French
garden. The two telamons adorning the facade are a
masterpiece by Rombot. The pavilion museum houses
furniture and paintings from the seventeenth and
Nearby is Les Thermes Sextius, The present
building stands on the site of the Roman baths of Sextius.
Excavations have revealed a Roman thermal bath, which you
can see as you enter the new spa complex.
In our wanderings we came across La
Table Marocaine, 10 rue Constantin, Tel: 4-42-96-05-54,
which featured tagine as well as couscous and looked like
a neat spot to enjoy this comfort food. What a marvelous
choice - they work wonders with their spices. The lamb
was tender, the fresh vegetables cooked to perfect
doneness and the couscous just the right texture. Linda
had lamb and vegetables (lots and lots of veggies, which
she shared with me) and I had the lamb with prunes and
almonds. In fact, there was lots of everything including
excellent service. A local Domaine de Glauges was light
and fruity. This is wonderful Moroccan dining at
extremely reasonable prices.
Until next time, au revoir Aix-en-Provence!
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