Saturday, December 1, 2012

Aix Marks The Spot

“I do not like living alone in a hotel…It is too impersonal. I miss my children. I hate the sounds of the Vespas revving up on the Place des Augustins.”

-      M.F.K. Fisher, Map of Another Town
Cours Mirabeau at Night
We had flown to Marseille through Heathrow on British Airways. We were tired after a long airplane journey, and I was driving our rented Peugeot diesel north up the D9 to Aix en Provence, already worried about having declined insurance as I maneuvered to avoid French commuter traffic. No matter where I travel, it seems that I must adopt some local worry or other. It is my way of assimilating.

My wife the DG (Darling Girl) and I arrived in Aix, the ancient Roman and Provencal city of water androtundes or roundabouts, exactly at rush hour. Round and round we went as if we riding the real carrousel we kept passing, but we were losing patience and were not so amused. On one of those revolutions it occurred to me that there are only two kinds of people in the world: drivers and navigators. For anyone contemplating a long marriage, in addition to promising to honor through richer and poorer, I advise adding a vow to love through lostand found. I also realized that I was born a navigator.

Eventually, I suggested the unthinkable; that we, meaning the DG, humbly ask for directions. Et Voila! We were within meters of the entrance to Parc Rotunde, near Aix’s famous central fountain and a very short walk from our hotel. And thus our wonderful week began.

Those Vespas, which M.F.K. Fisher mentioned above, are still revving on the small Place des Augustins, but we didn’t mind. Unlike Fisher, we had chosen a small stylish room in back on a quiet courtyard in the same Hotel De France for an affordable 90 euros. Plus, the point of our trip was to be near one of our children, Ginny, who was “studying” in Aix for a term.

What did we do first? Look for that memorable meal in a special restaurant, or a seat at a café on the Cours Mirabeau from where we could people - watch during France’s Toussaint holiday?

Non! Whenever we arrive in France we quickly go to Monoprix, which in this case was just around the corner from the hotel. It was there in Fisher’s day too, except she called it the “dime store.” So hier!

There is nothing quite like Monoprix in the U.S. CVS? Please. Seven-Eleven? Gosh – a - mighty – no! It’s kind of like a department store attached to a drug store, attached to a grocery. It’s...ah, forget about it; let’s agree that there’s a lot of good, affordable stuff there, and it’s a great way to throw yourselves into everyday French life.

I bought two merino sweaters for 88 euros. I purchased water, Perrier, organic yogurt, and cranberry juice for our hotel room. Monoprix makes the best travel size shave cream with a hint of lemon for 2 Euros; I got three. DG bought cosmetics and her own sweater. We did early Christmas shopping there too.

No sooner had I quit worrying about the car insurance than I commenced worrying if my debit card would work at the parking garage. It did not, since it didn’t have the all-important chip. Not to worry, a nice madame walked me through how to pay with cash. Soon, we were orbiting the garage and the first of many rotundes of the day, headed for the famous road, N7, northwest in the direction of Avignon and a few pretty towns of the Provencal countryside.

I was finally “reconnoitering” in “Gaul,” as I had learned reading Caesar’s commentaries in high school. Now I could see why the Romans had liked hanging out there. The N7 was lined with plane trees and cut through fertile vineyards and farms in a dozen small villages on our way to St. Remy de Provence, about an hour’s drive from Aix.

Les Baux, About Ousteau
Since it was off-season, St. Remy was quiet, but in summer it’s bustling with British and American tourists. We had a quick lunch and encountered the only disagreeable waiter on our trip, a rank – amateur, judging by past experiences. Then we headed south. DG, a born driver, negotiated the steep, winding road to Les Baux very nicely, then we descended to take a close look at perhaps the best hotel and restaurant in the area, Oustau De Baumaniere. Lucky for me that its highly-rated and even more highly priced restaurant, a haunt of several generations in DG’s family, was closed during on weekdays in November.

On the way back to Aix, we stopped at another charming small village, Eygalieres, perched on a low bluff overlooking the D24 road. We did not have time to stop, but marked this as a place to which we should return.

We spent a day and night wandering, eating and shopping back in Aix, which was crowded with students and Toussaint visitors. Aix is a walking town like Paris, except that one can see the entire old town in a couple of days and it is nearly impossible to run into a native who a) is not extremely polite and b) will not gladly speak some English. It is also possible, as in Paris, to acclimate quickly and find your own small teashop with perfect pastries and a pharmacie, providing cures only French hypochondriacs could know about.

Then it was back on the road southwest on A8 for the quick tour of the Riviera, where: 1) We missed the turn to the famous St. Paul de Vence, in the hills between Antibes and Nice; 2) Went to Vence  instead and were cornered in Le Pecheur De Soleil by its owner and had an unplanned lunch; 3) Dented the uninsured Peugot while parking; 4) dashed around Nice, Cap d’Antibes, and Juan les Pins  and; 5) negotiated dozens of rotundes at dusk and headed home to Aix. All in about seven hours!

My recommendation would be to stay on the coast for a couple of days and take your time. Not to mention, closely check your auto insurance policy before leaving home for foreign coverage.

How can we visit Provence and not rave about the food? The easy answer is that we had very good, affordable food everywhere we ate (see list) in Aix, but it wasn’t our main aim. Aix is a busy university town and many of its restaurants, bistros and open - to -street vendors cater to hungry students on the go. We had some fun dinners with Ginny’s (Hobart & William $mith) roommate, Maddie & friends from Colgate University.

Our favorite meal in Aix was one that we cooked ourselves. Vraiment! Ginny arranged a cooking class at L’atelier des Chefs near her school. Yes, it was in French, and the chicken curry was simple to make and even better to have for our lunch. Highly recommended!

We also enjoyed hors d’oeurves and champagne served by Ginny’s very kind host “parents,” Fred and Clair in their charming house in town.

Le Band/Cours Mirabeau
A fun band, similar to a small college marching band played on the Cours one market day, on another night the Christmas lights came on, and there were fountains and the sound of water running everywhere we turned. The weather was like October here in the east, and it rained only one day.

Aix marks the spot, where we will return for more treasure someday soon.

Recommended hotels and restaurants:

Hotel de France, 63 Rue Espariat,
Hotel Cardinal, 24 Rue Cardinale,
Hotel de Gantes, 1 Rue Fabrot,

Restaurants in Aix en Provence:
La Caleche (traditional/pizza), Le Four Sous le Platane (pizzeria etc), Coquillages (oysters etc), La Mado, La Patacrepe, Pasta Cozy, Petit Bistrot, Simply (road-trip sandwiches/salads) 

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