Aix-en-Provence Revisited

by Britta on 4 November 2009

in European Adventure

Fountain, Aix-en-Provence

Fountain, Aix-en-Provence

I visited Aix-en-Provence once, 11 years ago, when Ann and I backpacked around Europe after we graduated from high school. We came here because I had seen the town in a movie and wanted to experience it firsthand, though now, I don’t remember what the movie was, or why Aix had seemed so charming.

Aix is charming. I’ve been here for about five days so far, and have been moved by the history and beauty that the town exudes. I don’t remember much about the town from my first visit, which is part of the reason I returned. I wish I could look at my scrapbook from that first trip, to see if any photos or ticket stubs jog my memory. I’d like to compare what I saw then to what I see now, to see what about the town has changed, and what about me and my perspective has changed.

Of the few things I do remember, one is the way I felt on my arrival. We were actually disappointed in what we saw when we came out of the train station: busy thoroughfares choked with cars, graffiti on the walls and doors of businesses we passed, and rubbish on the sidewalk. Eventually we made our way into the old city, and were duly charmed and overcome. This time, I felt the same thing when I arrived, even though I already (sort of) knew what to expect. I arrived on the bus this time, as the TGV (high speed train) station is outside of town, but the bus stop is only a couple of blocks from the in-town regional train station, and I saw much the same thing: cigarette butts littering the sidewalk, walkways crammed with people, exhaust and cigarette fumes clouding the air. Again, I made my way into the old town, pedestrian-friendly and almost car-free, and was, again, duly charmed.

Spice Stall

Spice Stall at the Market

The other thing I remember about Aix from my first trip is the markets, particularly the crafts market where I bought several gifts to bring home. I have not been disappointed on this trip — indeed, I have been a little overwhelmed by both the variety and the frequency of all of the markets. But since I love markets, I’ve been out every day exploring the wares and goods offered by these mobile vendors. My favorite, so far, is the spice stall. The man who works it sets out big baskets full of spice blends and individual dried herbs: He’s got the ubiquitous lavande and herbes de provence, but he’s also got a special blend for grilling, one for fish, one even for potatoes. He’s got ground cinnamon and cinnamon sticks, two varieties of Indian curry, five types of whole peppercorns and one blend of all five, dried garlic and ginger, whole star anise. I just stood by and sniffed the air for a while, breathing in the different aromas that were released every time he scooped up a new combination.

The markets aren’t limited to spices, however. In addition, the food markets showcase local fruits and veggies, meats — particularly dried sausages — poultry, cheese and dairy, bread and pastries, fish, olives, and honey. Next to this market was a flea market, with everything from old DVDs to antique jewelry. Adjacent to that was a clothing and goods market, with everything from knock-off goods to hand-knit hats and scarves. Further on, I encountered a crafts market, with local sellers displaying goods particular to the region and town: herbal and natural soaps, sachets of lavender and dried herbs, handmade jewelry, leather goods, paintings, honey, olive oils and tapenades, pottery, lampshades, wood and wrought iron furniture, painted glassware. I ran into a book market the next day, and a flower market the day after that. I love markets, especially lively and varied ones such as these, and in that regard, this town certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Cezanne's Studio

Cezanne's Studio

The painter Paul Cezanne is from this town, something I did not know before, and it’s fairly obvious that he’s the town hero. There are schools, roads, parks, and even a special path around town dedicated to him. His studio, his family home, and his favorite painting spots are open for all to see (with entry fee, of course). The museum houses some of his best and most typical works. Emile Zola, the writer, is also from this town, but though they are proud of him, he isn’t as revered as Cezanne, probably because he left for Paris and never returned. Cezanne went to Paris for a while, but he came back and made Aix both his home and the setting for many of his paintings.

The last thing I remember from my first visit to Aix is the cathedral, up the hill from the main part of old town, imposing and gothic, but less ornate and self-important than Notre Dame in Paris. When we visited the first time, a wedding began while we were still in the church. We watched quietly while the guests and then the bride filed in, and we gracefully made our exit while all eyes were on her. No wedding this time, but the same awe and introspection that the cathedral inspired the first time.

Being here again feels different. While much has changed about the town (it’s filled with high end shops and boutiques — were they here the first time?), much about me has changed, too. For example, I was surprised to learn about Cezanne, since I never even noticed that detail the first time around. I’ve learned to open my eyes a little more since then, to notice the quirks and the flourishes that make up a town and a community, to balance the details with the broad view, and maybe come away with an impression that’s both whimsical and accurate, and representative of me and the town I’m living in.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Pat Perry November 19, 2009 at 11:02 am

Smelling the spices and lovely flowers in the gardens – thanks for another great read!

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