Friday, June 15, 2007

Quick look at Aix-en-Provence

Heart of old Aix (Place Hôtel de Ville)

We made a day trip last year to Avignon by train – a wedding anniversary present from the children - and had been greatly impressed by that veritable time-warp of a destination. There were just two niggles . First, they still haven’t got round to repairing that Pont d’Avignon. Surely the nation that built the Millau Bridge can cope with a footbridge over the Rhone. (Just joking, of course: the Rhone in spate would probably deal with any new bridge the same way it’s dealt with all its predecessors. )

The other complaint is its size. Avignon, or at any rate the historic heart thereof, is not that big, and the square next to the Papal Palace is a magnet for every single tourist around lunchtime.

It’s just one stop on the TGV to the neighbouring Aix-en-Provence. Not having had time to see it on the Avignon trip, I assumed it would be quite some time before we felt ready to face another lengthy day excursion. But as mentioned in the previous post, we used Marseille airport to get to Madrid, so hit on the idea of bed-and-breakfasting in Aix on the return journey.

Nothing could be simpler from a logistic standpoint. You come out of the airport terminal, and there’s a regular express bus service into Aix. First stop, in fact, is Aix’s TGV station, way out in the wilds as TGV stations tend to be, so it was handy to get a glimpse of where we would be boarding our train back to Antibes the next day.

As soon as one sees Aix’s first edge-of-town filling station, one is almost at the putting -down place for buses, and it’s then just a 10 minute walk, if that, up to the Place General de Gaulle, Aix’s busy main square, with its vast Rotunda fountain, topped by what seems like the Three Graces. Our hotel for the night, Le Christophe, which we can recommend for olde-worlde French décor and atmosphere, is right on the square.

After unpacking, we plonked down with a degree of trepidation at a nearby restaurant. It was 10pm, and there were other diners tucking into their desserts. We need not have feared; in fact folk were still arriving some 30 or 45 minutes later. Such a change from Antibes, where curiously, despite its year round flood of visitors, things tend to close up early, too early one feels.

Typical Aix thoroughfare (from Petit Train)

The next morning we made enquiries and were relieved to hear that Aix had that essential facility for the flying visitor, namely Le Petit Train.

Petit Train negotiating a tight bend

In fact, to its credit, it did not look like a train at all, as befits a mellow town that attracts couples rather than families with younger children. It took the best part of an hour to do the main sights, and Aix impressed with its sheer size and seamless authenticity: there seemed to be one busy thoroughfare, or square after another, usually boasting some noteworthy relic from the past. We were also taken out of town up a hill, near the top of which is Cezanne’s house, which is open to the public (though we didn’t stop). The guide explained that the great man had chosen that spot deliberately, being fixated by the sight of Mont St. Victoire, which appears in scores of his paintings.

The main street of Aix is the Cours Mirabeau. I've just discovered from my guide book (which I rarely look at in detail until after a visit !) that it's been dubbed "the most satisfying street in France." It's lined with lofty plane trees that, unusually for France, have seen little pollarding. It was originally created for the horse and carriage, needless to say, and still has a feel of a more gracious age.

I was greatly impressed by the two huge sculptures of the bearded gents, supporting a balcony over a doorway.

I've since learned (more retrospective reading of the guide book) it is (was?) the Hôtel Maurel de Pontevès, built in 1647. It is in an excellent state of preservation ( a tribute, one assumes to clean air, being some distance from the Marseilles refineries.
We quickly located one of the main touristy squares we had seen from the train. There was what for me an unfamiliar beer on the menu, which I ordered on spec', feeling that anything new was likely to be an improvment on standard French beer. How can one put this charitably ? Are the French brewing beer using a wine-making recipe ? How do they get it SO consistently wrong? One would have hoped that the takeover of Kronenbourg by the Newcastle Brown brewery would have injected some Anglo-Saxon know-how, but K is still the same fizzy pee it’s always been. Imagine my surprise to find that the “Dorelei” was half decent beer.
I’ve since looked up "Dorelei" on the internet: it’s brewed in Strasbourg, which is almost Germany, needless to say, and is apparently, and oddly, a conscious attempt to mimic a Belgian beer. So, its quasi Germano-Belgic, or quasi Belgo-Germanic. Either way, there’s some mellowness, flavour and subtlety, and I might try asking some local tourist bars in Antibes if they can’t get some in. I’d willingly pay 6 euros a pint than have to stick with the present mares' urine/gut-rot offerings that masquerade under the name of beer.

And finally, to round off six nights away from home, we chose a long-established restaurant on the Cours Mirabeau for our last main meal. It's called Les Deux Garçons, and apparently world-famous, established, it says in 1792. The date's on the plate as well, just in case it slips your mind- assuming that number's not the calorie count.

I ordered the salade gourmande. Although not the greatest fan of paté foie gras, that pale slice sitting on top was something else - butter-like in its creamy smoothness. Note also the cured duck.

Overall verdict: I wish that Aix was closer. We only had time to see its main streets and squares, but there's clearly a lot more to see, tucked away in side-streets. Nothing beats people-watching under the Provencal sun, in a square with tables, chairs and shaded with plane trees.

If we use Marseilles again for a flight, we may well decide to repeat the exercise, and add an extra night or two, as a way of getting to know the place better.

Negatives: too many tourists. And, as always, those French prices for wining and dining - especially noticeable after Madrid.

1 comment:

Gigi said...

I lived in Aix for 14 years, Colin - and I still yearn for it! All the major events of my life took place in Aix - marriage, children...I'd do anything to be able to go back there to live! (Gizza job, anyone????)

Thanks for posting all the lovely photos :-)