What better way to discover the south of France than by planning our two weeks around the market days of the charming towns and villages scattered one next to the other throughout Provence? It was Thursday, so it was time to visit Aix-en-Provence (locals call their town “Ace”). Not only would we get to shop, we’d also get to see where Cezanne hung out, see the local cathedral and visit the “most beautiful tea room” at Caumont. We’d also learn that Aix is so much more than we had expected.
As usual, we got turned around and lost as we approached town. Sometimes we just had a hard time believing our GPS really wanted us to travel left down a tiny little street next to a crucifix attached to a wall in the middle of a road.
But we did find our way to the center of the old town. One of the very first things I spotted was a landmarker in the midst of sales booths and vendors’ cars.
Here stood 22 August 1944 one of Sherman tanks of the armed Allied liberation of Aix in Provence , surrounded by the population of the city in jubilation . Landed 15 August on the beaches of the Var , the armies lost more than 2,000 men before reaching Aix , while the provencal resistance saw 140 of its guerrillas die under enemy fire, often summarily executed. They joined forces August 19, 1944, to all liberate the city from Nazi barbarism.
These men, those of Aix , those of the American 3rd Division , and those of the 1st Armee Francaise Libre, leveed in North Africa and Corsica , commanded by the Marechal de Lattre de Tassigny. These men coming from all walks of life, had all skin colors and all religions. They mingled their destinies and their blood for human dignity in the defense of democracy and the liberation of Provence.
This is the beauty of the south of France. Next to a profound statement is the fruit of struggle. People are free to explore the countryside and meet one another thanks to the sacrifice of others. I am grateful.
Market day has been held in the same area for centuries. The Romans traded on these very streets before Christ was born.
The Cafe du Palais
We arrived at the market hungry and bought up clusters of fresh fruits and vegetables for our home fridge, then we went in search of a cafe for lunch. We were more than happy to discover the Cafe du Palais with its hearty lunches for about $15 plus wine. Lesson learned from this restaurant: Before collapsing into chairs at the closest cafe, take a moment to see how the servers treat the guests. If the servers look like they are going to spend as little time as possible with you because they’re Jonesing for their next cigarette break, you might be better off somewhere else.
After lunch, we strolled and shopped, enjoying the windows and gasping at some of the exorbitant prices.
Enough shopping! On to some culture.
Based on collections once owned by leaders of Provence, the Granet Museum houses about 12,000 works of art in the former Palace of Malta and at a chapel down the street and around a corner. You can actually take a virtual tour of the Granet Museum on their website but these are a few of my favorites from the collection.
Cezanne is the star of Aix-en-Provence but the Granet displays just 10 paintings and owns another dozen, not displayed. Still, restaurants and shops are named after the all-star impressionist and you can see metal plaques capping cobblestones throughout town where Cezanne once painted. The capstones lead from the house where Cezanne was born to St. Jean Cemetery where he was buried.
Caumont Center for the Arts
The Caumont Center for the Arts is recommended for its elegant tea room but the place is extravagently expensive. We stopped in for for a cup of tea and a dusty-looking pastry only to be shocked when we were charged twice as much for the “tea of the day”. Two cups of tea and a bottle of water came to just under $30. Service was very poor and we had to track down a server to take our order. They simply could not be bothered to bring us our check and we had to find a manager to help us with that. Luke-warm tea and a close and humid room on a hot, sunny day contributed to the discomfort and rude atmosphere in the beautiful tea rooms.
The restrooms were the real treat at the Caumont. We avoided the lower-level restrooms and used the first-floor toilet tucked into a small passageway near the outdoor formal gardens. Best restroom in all of France!
The gift shop is another delight. Tables are elegantly staged and everything is for sale.
So my advice for the Caumont is to peek in the tea rooms – but don’t bother eating – tour the verdant gardens, enjoy the gorgeous gift shop, and leave with lovely memories.
The Cathedral of the Holy Saviour
The Cathedral of the Holy Saviour of Aix-en-Provence was built atop an ancient temple to the sun gods on the Via Aurelia, the Roman road built through the south of France. Begun in the 1200’s when Aix was the capital of Provence, the cathedral was completed just about the time Christopher Columbus was discovering America in 1492. The carved doors to the cathedral are made of wood and were commissioned in the early 1500’s. You can see the four old testament prophets surrounding the doorway and a dozen pagan fortune tellers above – they foretold the birth and death of Christ.
The altar piece painting is a masterpiece of the 15th century created by Nicholas Froment of nearby Avignon. Moses, guarding his flock, is astounded to see Jesus and the Virgin Mary rise from a burning bush. I’d also be pretty surprised if it happened to me. The people painted in the left and right panels are the folks who paid for the painting, King Rene (left) and Queen Jeanne (right).
This is an altar built by Audinet Stéphani for the Aygosi family. It used to be in a Carmelite church that burned down in the French Revolution so it was moved to the cathedral along with the altarpiece, above. You can see Saint Maurice in his coat of armor to the left of St. Anne, the mother of Mary.
I’m a fool for stained glass, and while I have no information, you can see that the window tells a story. Looks like maybe its the story of the female icons of the church, complete with a dog symbolizing loyalty.
End of the Day
At the end of every day in the south of France, we leave tired, happy and full of new memories. We take photographs of the parking garage and the cross streets where we left our car earlier in the day so we can find our way back. This may be the most important tip I give you in my blog! Simply pop your ticket into the machine located somewhere near an entrance to the garage and pay with your credit card. Your ticket will be validated and you can insert it into a second widow-height machine as you drive out of the garage.
Have a great day in Aix-en-Provence. Just eat somewhere else.
I am totally smitten by the south of France. It’s kind of like the southwest USA but entirely different: Arid, rocky hills give way to lush green mountains anchored by flatlands of lavender and vineyards. Simply, incredibly, beautiful.
And the people! They are wonderful! No one speaks English until I greet them with “Bonjour” followed by my explanation that I do not speak French, even as I speak my pathetic French. I speak a little Italian, Spanish and Portuguese but I’ve always run from the complicated French language. In fact, that’s something I hear all the time from French people: it’s complicated.
But everywhere we go, French tourists and shopkeepers are quick to point the way, describe what we need to know and do their best to communicate in English to us. While the language is not natural, the people are. We could not be treated more warmly.
Our first road trip took us to Les-Baux-en-Provence on the recommendation of our friends, the Freshmans, who visited while on a Viking cruise. We were prepared for the beautiful light show (see Carrieres de Lumieres, below) but we were taken totally by surprise by the gorgeous approach to the hill-top town of Les-Baux-en-Provence.
We twisted through tight turns even as we climbed through sun-bleached rock formations. Breathtaking both because it was beautiful and also because we were scared to death we would meet an on-coming car with no place to pull over to the side of the road to pass. It was a bit like Sedona but with white rocks towering over us on both sides of the road. Beautiful homes were built right into the rocky hillsides often incorporating caves as part of their design.
When we reached the town, we waited nearly 15 minutes for a parking spot to open in the 15-car parking lot next to the village rather than hike up the rest of the mountain. The picture below shows where we bought our parking pass – $5 for the entire day – after much coaching from some lovely French tourists. After a few hours of fabuloso shopping and gelato, we went to leave the parking lot when there was a tap on our window. “Do you speak English?” Yes, we do. “Can we have your parking pass? We can’t figure out how to use the machines. We don’t have Euro coins and it won’t take our credit cards.” Yes, you can. Where are you from? “Tampa.” No way! They live about 10 minutes away from us in the States.
The tiny village sits at the base of an old, decaying castle in a medieval town updated in a Sausolito kind of way. My friend Denise Brewster thought all the little villages would look this way. She said this was a great place to start our trip because it was such a stepping-back-in-time village.
You wander down twisty little streets that circle back on themselves then turn up or down the mountainside to be connected again by a flight of stairs. Shops the size of tiny living rooms feature timbered and plastered ceilings and lightly stocked shelves.
Shops sell honey, tiles, hats, dresses, toys, postcards, candy, carved wood…just about anything you would find in an upscale tourist town. See something you like? Ask if they have more or a different size and the shopkeepers hurry out the door to a nearby warehouse to get you what you want. We absolutely delighted in wandering through the little village imaging what life was like here 500 years ago.
One of Denise’s best memories: “We sat on a terrace overlooking the village, eating rabbit and black bull raised on a local farm Barbara had a very nice pasta which was delicious.” Oh, my good God, the French can cook! We ate at Bautezar Restaurant where we relaxed with decent service and fabulous food.
When we had exhausted all options in the tiny village, we headed for the sound and light show just down the hill. “You cannot miss the Carrieres de Lumieres,” my friends the Freshmans advised, “Great art is projected on the walls of an old limestone quarry.”
We purposely visited late in the day after the buses and hordes of tourists had left the mountain. We parked in a spot right in front of the show, walked up to the ticket office and purchased tickets for 12 Euro each.
We really needed restrooms after our very long lunch and way too much wine and we were directed down a hall to the left. Down the hall to the left ended up being a very, very long walk of about 2,000 yards down sandy paths and up short ramps! The bathrooms are immaculate but use the toilets before you arrive unless you’re ready for a very long walk.
The show, itself, was glorious! Images of Chagall’s paintings drifted through the air, landing on a stone wall or the ceiling or the floor or down a corridor. If you paused, the show landed on you and you became part of the festivities. Here’s a little video by Joelle Luce to demonstrate what a previous show was like. We didn’t see the Renaissance painters; we saw Chagall.
The show is projected on 5,000 square meters of limestone walls. The story of Russian born French Citizen Marc Chagall is told through 12 dream scenes of a summer night. Music ranges from classical to Janis Joplin as the viewer slowly falls in love with the work of Chagall.