I returned to Aix-en-Provence after many years of being away and rarely thinking of the days when I was young, married and stuck in this idyllic paradise of history, culture, cuisine and water. I could not wait to get out. Home to American air-conditioning, diet soda and microwave popcorn. Ah, youthful idiot!
I have a college age daughter, Charlotte. I thought this might be a good time for Charlotte to put her high school and college French to the test and for me to get some of my language back. College kids get four weeks at Christmas break so why not France?
The Euro is at its lowest ever against the dollar, there is no time like now to visit Europe. Airfares are fantastic, hotels are reasonable, Airbnbs are plenty and it may be a great time to “de-branch” from all that is going on in the U.S.
Getting to Aix: the plan is in the details
I knew Aix-en-Provence (Aix) to some extent so just chose the town as a base and, during a party one night, a friend who prided herself on Airbnb found me a place to live. Cute, colorful and well-located with excellent reviews, I soon found out that the winter months mean everything can be negotiated. The South of France is a summer destination so can be quite a bargain at the holidays when it is still pretty mild, sunny and far easier to get around without crowds.
So, with an Airbnb at half the normal price for a two month stay (December 15 – February 15), I spent months finding the best air tickets for my daughter and me, along with tackling the other big issues that come with leaving home for more than two months.
I have a roommate who would serve as my house manager while I was gone. Rents could be deposited directly and mail accumulated at home. Check. Internet made banking and communication easy. But….what about the dog?
Noelle. My cherished long-haired Jack Russell terrier and the best dog I have ever had, would come with. Bringing a dog to Europe is kind of a mystery. Everybody thinks they need this document or these papers or this special micro-chip. Traveling with a dog is feasible and does not have to be stressful, but I will uncover these mysteries in another story. Suffice it to say, I did the minimum amount of health paperwork for Noelle and bought a simple carrier and we were on our way. Delta glanced at her papers and the French customs could have cared less. C’est comme ca in France!
It was a long trip to Marseille-Provence Airport and the Charles de Gaulle Airport had no dog facilities so we sprinted for the small park outside the baggage claim. Now I had dog and baggage and was not sure how to get to my new digs. It turns out that Uber and taxis are over 50 Euros to Aix which seemed unnecessary. As I was pondering, my seatmate, a college kid from Brazil, asked his parents to give us a ride. Very unexpected and sweet.
Settling in: the where, what and when of Aix-en-Provence
Now that I have been in Aix, I know that the easiest way back and forth to airport is the bus. It leaves about every 30 minutes and there is always one waiting both at the airport and the bus station (gare routiere) in Aix. Bus stations are nice here so no worries! The bus takes the fare (about 8 Euros one way or 13 return) on board and even takes credit/debit cards. From the “Gare Routiere” it is only a ten-minute walk to anywhere in Aix and you are within 100 yards of the excellent Office of Tourism that can help you with anything from maps to hotels to restaurants to culture, all offered in excellent English. And the train station is nearby, too, as well as the Apple store where you get excellent wifi just standing outside!
Finding my Airbnb home was easy with the help of my transplanted Brazilian, but Aix is not always easy to navigate. It is a small city and maps are clear but many of the roads do not allow cars to pass or they only allow official and business vehicles that can get by the barriers. So, walking is how you get around Aix. Parking is expensive but can be found in structures and on the outside periphery road that circles the town.
My apartment listing was full of beautiful photos and had excellent reviews and, for the most part, they told the correct story. But, while the terrace was an attractive highlight, the listing failed to mention that the apartment was four steep flights of stairs to reach the front door, another few for the bath, a few more for the loft and then 5 or 6 more steps to get to the terrace. It appears that it is ASSUMED that a newcomer to Aix would understand that, to get a terrace, you have to climb for it. With a dog and arms full of groceries, it is not an easy climb and I would never take an apartment on the fifth floor without an elevator ever. Anywhere.
When I do descend my garret flat, I am in the beautiful square of the Hotel de Ville or city hall. The clock tower that I see from my terrace, with its amazing views, is part of this plaza. There is always plenty of activity here from the flower market every morning to the partying students that fall out of the Le Mus nightclub at 2 AM (always have ear plugs in Aix) from Thursday to Saturday. The vegetable market is one plaza over at Place Richelme and, while there are vegetables, cheeses and rotisserie chickens every day, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday is the big market with fresh fish, shellfish and much more.
The larger market along the Cours Mirabeau can be found on the same three days and the array of cheeses, fresh pasta, olive products, jams and sauces, foie gras, pork products, duck, produce and honey are astounding. Sample everything without feeling obligated to buy. Many times you can find the same honey and jams in the grocery for less—but the market is always more fun.
Try every cheese with truffles and buy most of them. Try the foie gras and related products and pâté. Many of these just don’t exist in the U.S.
In addition, there is a clothing market and great inexpensive sweaters, scarves, coats and bags can be found. I have worn many of my ten Euro sweaters all winter and my daughter has the most amazing fake fur vest she is surely showing off in New Orleans. We were here at a great time. The dollar is strong and people wanted to move stuff before Christmas.
A City of Fountains
Aix-en-Provence is known for its waters. The Romans discovered the thermal resources here and quickly tapped into them. You can still see ruins of the Roman baths in the oldest part of the city and a spa, Thermes Sexius, using these same curative waters still exists today.
Fountains are everywhere and these, for most of the time Aix has been in existence, were the source of water for residents. While water is now available inside the house, you will still see people drinking from the fountains and filling containers. It is safe and comes directly from the underground source. In fact, on many fountains covered by moss, the water is warmer than the air in winter and steam rises mystically.
The thing about the fountains in Aix-en-Provence is that you don’t need to seek them out. They appear. Around every corner, at the exit of a parking garage, next to the bar you are sitting in or sitting at a roundabout where cars circle it, barely able to drive with the beauty of the fountain grabbing drivers’ eyes. The Fountaine de la Rotonde at the base of the Cours Mirabeau is breathtaking, no matter how many times you see it. It signifies Aix and is the city’s centerpiece.
There are amazing places to eat in Aix, both casual and elegant, and I will continue with my favorite cheap eats and special meals in my next post on Aix. This is the land of Cezanne and his beloved Mont Saint Victoire so discovering the region that inspired him will also be in my next post. Art and culture ooze through Aix—like water—so, for a few days or a month, there is no shortage of things to see and do. Stay tuned.