exactly what you envision in the fairytale south of France -- and much more.
Considering this is Cézanne country, you'll sense the presence of
artists and visionaries past and present, unable to tear your eyes away from
the fabled land that's gifted in unrestrained landscapes and bold colors.
Café terraces brimming with contented patrons line up in the shade
of the Cours Mirabeau, the calendar pin-up avenue bordered
by a gallery of imposing plane trees and fountains.
Honey, goat cheese, tapenade and rosé wine magically work their
way onto the table where the French love of life seems to be
the plat du jour every day of the week.
Yes, Aix-en-Provence pretty much defines how you expect Provence
to look, smell and taste, the very definition of French southern charm.
No wonder dozens of books and magazines allude to the
parallel partnership of Provence and "the art of living".
It's so lovely, you'll hardly know where to begin.
Prepare to walk with your head in the clouds, your heart
on your sleeve and joy in your journey.
But in the case of Aix-en-Provence, I nearly missed the boat.
Taking pride in a penchant for unearthing quirky, lesser-known villages,
I was naturally a little disinclined toward Aix, thinking it might be too
celebrated, too sure of its own cool factor.
Booking a B&B outside of the city, I smugly congratulated myself for
digging deeper into the "real" Provence, thinking a quick day or two
popping into Aix would be sufficient time for such a popular tourist venue.
Clearly, I was delusional.
Though I adored our countryside accommodations, looking back I realize
it would have been delightful to stay in the center of the Aix universe,
a city bustling with energy, style and a wealth of history.
I underestimated this small city, at once both down-to-earth as
an old country doctor and as elegant as Grace Kelly.
Exquisite, colorful and casual, Aix-en-Provence plays on
the smallest of details -- and gets them right.
You'll feel both soothed and invigorated at the same time,
full of life and filled with the abundance of Provence.
Our helpful B&B hostess made a lunch reservation for us at Le Formal,
Les Caves Henri IV, a quietly lit wine "cave" not far from the
the more overworked cafés of the Cours Mirabeau.
Its setting was perfect.
Vaulted stone arches and starched tablecloths add a smidge of sophistication
and calm, allowing the wine, conversation and food to shine.
The pretty dessert presentation deserved a gold medal, capping off our
midday merrymaking and earning a half page in my journal that day.
“We had a crisp, oily salad and slices of pink country sausages, an aioli
of snails and cod and hard-boiled eggs with garlic mayonnaise,
creamy cheese from Fontvielle, and a homemade tart.
It was the kind of meal that the French take for granted
and tourists remember for years.”
Peter Mayle, British writer expat, "A Year in Provence"
literary giant Emile Zola, the city has cultivated a new genre of masterwork.
Poets and painters have long showered us with the loveliness of the world.
These days, some of the best proof of France's artistic genius
often comes straight from the farm.
Aix's farm community is much like an avid artist fraternity,
manifesting fresh masterpieces seven days a week.
This is a legendary market town, one you won't soon forget.
With several different marketplaces in the city, it's easy to find
exactly what you crave but if you have time for only one, check
out the marché located in the heart of the old town at Place Richelme.
Tomatoes and berries, live chickens and rabbits, olives and nuts, it's a
memorable feast drawn from the palette of an artist but designed
for anyone who wants to eat well.
Art and practicality side by side, ripened to perfection.
It's a balance that looks, smells and tastes good.
"You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces -
just good food from fresh ingredients."
Julia Child, America's favorite "French" chef
"What more can a man ask of heaven? If I should happen to die in Paris,
I beg of you to send me here, and have me exposed to the sun.
I am sure it will bring me life again."
Thomas Jefferson, US Ambassador to France upon arrival in Aix-en-Provence circa 1787
The small city boasts several very fine churches.
Art and God coexist side by side in these beacons of beautiful France.
We made time for two religious sanctuaries, the Cathedrale Saint-Saveur and the Eglise Saint Jean de Malte, each with its own special flavor and history.
must-see, even if you only have a day or two to visit.
Sitting on the ruined plot of a Roman forum or pagan temple -- historians
can't seem to agree -- the church evolved over a period of some twelve centuries, reason alone for its mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque influences.
The dome in the baptistry is impressive, its 12th century cloister delicate
and the 15th century altar painting by Nicholas Froment
of Madonna and the burning bush quite startling .
and organ flanked by screens that seem to call to mind the work of
Paul Cezanne and his more modern edge.
Look for the Delacroix painting, allegedly based on an earlier
van Dyck painting of the Crucifixion.
"If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love actually is all around."
The Prime Minister (Hugh Grant) in 2003 rom-com hit* "Love Actually"
Scenes from this movie were shot in nearby Vidauban -- remember Colin Firth's country getaway?
a door or two -- or two hundred -- in France.
In Aix, you won't be disappointed, the sheer architectural detail
and beauty of les portes among the highlights of any visit.
This is a town meant for wandering.
Elegant mansions from the 17th and 18th centuries are colored
in that unforgettable shade of yellow that screams "only in Provence,"
reminding you why the likes of Cezanne, Renoir and Picasso loved to
set up shop in this well endowed bed of roses.
The nooks and crannies, café terraces and native boutiques could keep
a fervent French enthusiast happy for days on end.
And yes, I count myself a card-carrying member of that society....
Aix's avenues provide plenty of fodder for a traveler's imagination.
As you stroll, think of the women who washed their clothes in
these ancient fountains -- a few of them had hot water from underground
thermal springs -- and consider how much function ruled the old town,
the same city where beauty and pleasure rule the roost today.
History withstanding, Aix manages to keep it fresh.
After all, this is a town teeming with students.
Considering all the universities and study-abroad programs on offer
here, Aix's 140,000 population is student heavy.
Boasting about 40,000 bookworms, the Aix scholar is in all likelihood
devotes as much time to the ready sunshine & wine as they do to academics.
Ready to take out that student loan?
Though he came from a wealthy family -- banking tycoon papa kept
the artist fed and sheltered if not quite nurtured -- Cézanne's art wasn't
the type the conservative citizenry of Provence was seeking,
his brush strokes deemed a bit "mad."
His best buddy from childhood, Emile Zola, was much more popular -- at
least outside the confines of Aix.
Zola soon became an international sensation though he angered
the locals by modeling a fictional town after them -- in a manner
that was more than a little mean spirited.
In one of life's little ironies, it was young Cézanne who yearned
to be a famous writer and Zola who itched for the easel and paints.
Les Deux Garcons is the café on the Cours Mirabeau where everyone likes to gather. You'd expect to pay a bit more for a cup of coffee here; after all, it's sort
of a first cousin to Paris' Les Deux Magots in the sense you're here for the
location, the legend and the beautiful people that swarm here.
The brasserie, dating from 1792, is essential to understanding a town that takes
time out on a regular basis to sip a local rosé while watching the world go by.
Cézanne and Zola did it here, as did Renoir and Monet -- and you, too,
can engage in Aix's premier sport -- people watching -- while looking
ever so chic while you count your many blessings for being here.
Winston Churchill, a posse of movie stars and every Tom, Dick and Harry
who visit Aix can't help but pose in the enviable address of this historic diner.
If you didn't get enough Cézanne at the café, follow the trail.
Like so many other French towns, Aix has developed an artist's walk.
The Circuit de Cézanne, a well-marked footpath, is designed to
celebrate the legacy of their local boy-genius.
It leads straight to his atelier, well preserved to the last detail.
Though his friend Zola made it to the big time in Paris -- interred
in the Pantheon since 1908 -- Paul Cezanne rests in Aix's Saint-Pierre
Cemetery, his famous Montaigne Ste-Victoire -- whose silvery
peaks he painted over and over again -- keeping watch over him.
These days, poor, misunderstood Paul is making big bucks for the town that
turned its back on him -- until they understood what his backside was worth....
"If you're born in Aix, nowhere else will do."
see & experience -- Fondation Vasarely, Cité des Livres, Musée Granet -- but
then again, I have no doubt there will be a second chance.
As the old Aix legend promises, if you've dipped your hand into the
mossy fountain to test its waters, a return visit is guaranteed.
Thank goodness, I'm part traveler, part clown -- learning long ago
if you wish hard enough for it, you can make it happen.
I have plenty of time to be rational at home; for now, I'll bank on the legend.
"If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, will answer you:
I am here to live out loud."
next year, any day now, as soon as I can get on a train."
Elizabeth David, British Writer & Cookbook Author
Live now, live out loud, live the dream in Aix-en-Provence.
This is a place to begin where you left off.
No need to worry about what you missed because it's written in the stars,
you're going to return, ready to start all over again at the beginning....