Sunday, September 11, 2016


In the Old Town, Aix-en-Provence

As I relate in my Provence, Cote d'Azur, and Monaco book, the first time I went to Aix (which is pronounced like x in extra), I was a college student living in Paris.  I had bought a cheap bus ticket to Nice about a month before spring break, which was in April.  I couldn't wait to leave Paris, where it had been raining for what seemed like forty days and forty nights (never mind 'April in Paris' and all that; the weather can be nice in April but most of the time it isn't), and I arrived a little early at the appointed address on the night of departure.  The "bus" turned out to be a guy's car -- apparently not enough people bought tickets to warrant a bus -- and I ended up sitting in the front with the driver, who didn't speak any English and chain-smoked.  The rain continued through the night and by the time we reached Lyon I had a massive headache.  But not long after that, it was daylight, and the sun was shining, and the driver announced we would be stopping in the town of Aix for breakfast.  He took us to Les Deux Garҫons on the Cours Mirabeau.  Anyone who's walked along the Cours Mirabeau will understand when I say I thought I'd died and landed in le septième ciel (seventh heaven).  It is one of the world's most beautiful thoroughfares, described lovingly by M. F. K. Fisher in Two Towns in Provence: "It is probable that almost every traveler who has ever passed through Aix has been moved in some positive way by the view from one end of the Cours or the other, by the sounds of its fountains in the early hours, by the melodious play of the pure clear sunlight of Provence through its summer cave of leaves.  Some of them have tried to tell of their bemused rapture, on canvas and sketch pads and on scratch-pads and even postcards, but they have never been satisfied.  It is a man-made miracle, perhaps indescribable, compounded of stone and water and trees, and to the fortunate it is one of the world's chosen spots for their own sentient growth."  (Restored, warm, and happy, we drove on to Nice, and when I returned to Paris three weeks later it was still raining.)
 The "summer cave of leaves" that Fisher mentions refers to the two rows of plane trees that line the Cours.  In the summer months, the tree branches meet in the middle of the street and form a sort of canopy.  But even in the winter, the street is impressive.  In my book I feature an article by Gully Wells entitled 'The Boulevard: Live the Dream' (Condé Nast Traveler, February 1998), in which she relates that in Aix, the town planners of long ago took Leonardo da Vinci's remark, "Let the streets be as wide as the height of the houses" to heart, and they remembered that "perfect proportion, like great bone structure in a face, is the secret of lasting beauty."  The Cours is 440 meters long and 42 wide, and none of the houses are more than four stories high. Again to quote Wells, "not only did the architects do their math right, but they also knew that nature had to be included in the construct -- and they understood that there is something organically satisfying about the combination of stone, water, and trees." 

The Cours was established by Archbishop Michel Mazarin, who Louis XIV charged with enlarging Aix, and it was requested by wealthy homeowners who wanted a grand thoroughfare that could accommodate carriages and pedestrians. It links the chic Mazarin district with the old market town, and it's named after Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791), who was a politician with a bit of a scandalous personal life. In reading about him, it's unclear to me if he had any ties with Aix, though at the time of his death he was very popular and had a magnificent funeral -- it was for him that the new church of Sainte-Geneviève in Paris was converted to the Panthéon for the burial of great men (but in 1792, papers were found proving his hostility to the Assembly, and in 1794 his remains were removed from the Pantheon).  But Good King René, whose statue is in the middle of the fountain at the top of the Cours, definitely had associations: he and his second wife, Jeanne de Laval, lived in the area for some years; he died in Aix; and he introduced Muscat grapes to Provence (the statue depicts him holding a bunch of these, along with a scepter; he's also donning the crown of the Counts of Provence, and the books at his feet are meant to indicate his strong patronage of the arts and of learning). 

Even off the Cours Mirabeau, Aix (derived from Aquae Sextiae, the Roman name for waters of Sextius, referring to the natural baths the Romans found there) is easy to love, even if you're a churl like my husband sometimes is (when I visited with him in the late '90s he initially cursed the town for not having sufficient parking, but once our car was safely ensconced and he'd had a properly flaky croissant and a café crème, he was able to see past the parking flaw; note that Aix addressed this parking issue a few years later, along with some other urban plans that better accommodate visitors).  Aix is known as the city of a thousand fountains, and while that number is probably off by about 900, there is seemingly a fountain every time you turn around, and some are used for very practical purposes like chilling rosé:    

Among my favorite sights  and belles choses in Aix are the Saint Sauveur Cathedral (don't miss the painting of St. Mistral holding his severed head); the outdoor markets (the website for the produce market held on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday is in French only, but no matter, all you need to know is that the market is picturesque and great for putting together a picnic; and there are also markets specializing in clothing, crafts and used books on particular days of the week); the Musee du Palais de l’Archevêché / Musée des Tapisseries; Musée Granetthe Pavillon de Vendome; the vertical garden at the bus station, which is claimed to be the largest public green wall in France; the shop Expressions [1 rue Cardinale] for a wonderful selection of fine artisanal ceramics (I bought my sister-in-law a beautiful ivory-colored bowl with a light brown ribbon woven through holes around the rim), essential oils, notecards and postcards, etc., all great for gifts and souvenirs; the previously mentioned Les Deux Garҫons  (and note that somewhat confusingly there is another café called Les 2G, also on the Cours, but it is positively not the same); the hotels Hotel Le Mozart; Hotel des Quatre Dauphins; and, for a splurge, the Villa Gallici; and the local culinary sweet, calissons d'Aix -  according to a piece in my book ('Provence's Almond Calissons') that originally appeared in The New York Times by Kathleen Beckett, calissons have "been compared, with typical French eloquence, to the paintings of Cezanne and the music of Mozart."  Though the confection may be found in some specialty stores in North America, calissons are never as good as when they're bought fresh in Aix, and one of the best places to find them is Patisserie Béchard, at #12 Cours Mirabeau.  In her article, Beckett explains that a calisson has three ingredients (almonds, sugar, and fruit confits, usually of Cavaillon melon) and also three layers: icing, paste, and rice paper.  Aix was founded in the year 123 by Caius Sextius Calvimus (three names) and originally called Aquae Sextiae Saluvium (also three names).  This was later changed to Aix-en-Provence (yep, three words again) which is typically referred to as simply Aix (three letters).  Calissons are served three times a year, on September 1st, Christmas Day, and Easter Sunday -- at Notre Dame de la Seds to commemorate the end of the great plague of 1630.  During this service, the priest offers calissons from his chalice, repeating three times, "venite ad calicem" (come to the chalice) and the congregation replies, three times, with the Provenҫal phrase, "venes toui i calissoun" (we are coming).  With such rich lore behind it, it's no wonder that calissons have a marc deposée
-- similar to an appellation controllée -- assuring that the sweetmeat can only be made in Aix.

No dossier of Aix is complete without the mention of painter Paul Cézanne, who was born there in 1839 and who reportedly wrote of Aix that 'When you are born there, it's hopeless, nothing else is good enough."  In the mid-1990s, some folks at the Aix Tourist Office created the 'Circuit Cézanne' or 'In the Steps of Cézanne,' a walking tour brochure indicating various sites that were a part of his life.  As there are very few works by Cézanne in Aix -- a curator at the Musée Granet, Auguste-Henri Pontier, supposedly swore that no Cézanne painting would hang on the walls of the museum in his lifetime, and even after Cézanne's death in 1906, decades passed before the first Cézanne painting entered the museum's collection; there are now a total of ten -- this may seem like nothing more than a marketing ploy; but I think there is nothing wrong with capitalizing on a local son in this way, and I am a big fan of good walking tours.  The circuit follows brass markers with the letter C that are embedded in the pavement, and while it's true that some of the markers are to references that are a bit of a stretch -- and on a few occasions there is no marker at a designated stop -- the route is still worthwhile.  And, like all good walks, the best part about it is that one is able to explore different neighborhoods around town, undoubtedly discovering places and details that might otherwise be missed, all while having some structure to keep one on track. It's also a big plus that Aix's city center is a gem of beautifully preserved 17th and 18th century architecture.  My friends Amy and Denise and I set out to follow the entire route, and we did, including the Cimetière Saint-Pierre, where Cézanne is buried (his tomb is near the Carré Israëlite, the Jewish section).  I regret that we did not take the time to find the spot where the ashes of art historian and Cézanne scholar John Rewald (1912-1994) are located as several of his books are among my favorites: The History of Impressionism (first published in 1946; published by MoMA in 1973); Post-Impressionism From Van Gogh to Gauguin (MoMA, 1978); and Cezanne: A Biography (Abrams, 1990).  In a review of Rewald's The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue  Raisonnée (published in two volumes by Abrams in 1996), art critic Michael Kimmelman noted that this work "is as much a monument to Rewald as it is to the artist he revered."  Of Rewald's two Impressionism books, Kimmelman said they "remain basic books on the subjects more or less half a century after they were published.  This is because he did the indispensable job: he got to know the people who knew the artists or were their closest relatives and wrote down everything he learned."  Kimmelman added that Rewald photographed sites around Aix that Cézanne painted "before time had changed them too much.  Thus Rewald himself became a crucial link to a vanished epoch."  So returning to the Cimetière Saint-Pierre 
will be at the top of my list on my next visit.

Rewald and the writer James Lord (whose works Giacometti: A Biography, Six Exceptional Women, and Some Remarkable Men are books I love) established the Cézanne Memorial Committee, and money raised in the U.S. enabled the Committee to purchase Cézanne's studio. The Atelier de Cézanne (also known as the Atelier des Lauves), located just outside the center of Aix,  presumably looks very similar as it did when Cézanne worked there.  It is very much worth visiting: tickets (6 euros) may be purchased at the Aix tourist office (300 avenue Giuseppe Verdi) and it's easy to take bus #5 to the studio (let the driver know you're getting off at the Cézanne stop).  The guided tour is about 30 minutes and does require a reservation as the studio only accommodates 18 people.  The Jas de Bouffan, Cézanne's family home and a national historical monument, is also worth visiting (again, visits are guided and require reservations; 6 euros, 25 people maximum).

Before my visit I discovered a writer with whom I was completely unfamiliar: M. L. Longworth, who is originally Canadian but who now lives in Aix via Santa Cruz, California.   When she, her husband, and daughter first moved to Provence almost twenty years ago they rented a guardian's house on the Route de Cézanne, just outside of Aix, but for some years now they've been happily ensconced in the center of Aix.  By browsing Longworth's website you can find her blog -- "on food, writing and life in the south of France" -- where she explains that she started out writing non-fiction but then she realized "that if I wrote fiction then my characters could live in, and experience Provence as I do...above all, I really want the reader to experience Aix-en-Provence the way I do, as if they were beside me."  Longworth's mysteries, which feature a judge, Antoine Verlaque, and his girlfriend, Marine Bonnet, are perfect companion reading for a southern France sojourn, and include The Mystery of the Lost Cézanne, Murder on the Île Sordou, Murder in the Rue DumasDeath in the Vines, and Death at the Château Bremont (all published by Penguin).  I encourage readers to subscribe to her blog as she often writes about Aix (and elsewhere) and her posts are well written and interesting.  I learned all about the newly renovated Hôtel Caumont, a former mansion which had previously been Aix's conservatoire de la musique, from one such post. Now, after over four years of work, the building has reopened as a large exhibition space under the direction of a French organization called Culturespaces.  The interior looks beautiful from the photos Longworth included, and there is an outdoor café on a terrace, a pretty garden,  two indoor dining rooms, and a 30-minute film about Cézanne that runs on a permanent loop in the auditorium.   


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