A few observations after two weeks of living in Aix En Provence:
1. Forget about peanut butter or mayonnaise. You’ll find every size container of Nutella (hazelnuts and chocolate bread/cookie spread), however, and something suspicious called ‘Sandwich Crème.’
2. Small cars rule and if you can’t parallel park in a space exactly the size of your car, you can’t drive here…or maybe you’ll be driving forever. The new cars have rearview mirrors that fold in when you shut off the car. Good thing to have. Passing cars make mincemeat out of mirrors, and the sides of most vehicles are badly scraped.
3. Menus in restaurants are in French. Period. Get out your translator, know your French, or prepare for cow brains to show up as your meal.
4. Steve lost his baseball hat. The French don’t wear them (they do sell some gang-banger types in special stores). Finally found a cheap, goofy-looking hat and bought it. You’ll see Steve wearing it…watch for it!
Her Carriage Awaits
5. The high school students get a couple hour break in the middle of the day, so they’re hanging around from 12:00-2:00…which means they don’t get out of school until 5:00 p.m.!
6. “Service Compris” By law the tips are built in to the tab here. 15% that goes into a common pot then distributed to the waiters after the tax man gets his cut
7. I have my favorite place to buy pastries and bread (daily). Since I order my pain in French and my sable miel amondes in French, they’ve warmed up to me…gave me a brioche today as a gift. Cute, huh? To die for: A Torte Tropezienne…a brioche split in half with cream in the middle. Ambrosial specialty of Aix boulangeries.
8. Steve and I have a café au lait, tres chaud, every morning at La Mado or at a restaurant on the Cours Maribeau. Cost: 2.90 Euros apiece. Merci!
9. Smoking. Yes, the French, young and old, still love their cigarettes, and they smoke them walking or sitting down. They can’t smoke them in public buildings, but of course, they are smoking outside the cafés where we want to be (remember how that was in the U.S. before they banned smoking in the outside open areas?). Clearly this is a slow learning process.
10. Fashion. Yes, the French, young and old, still dress fashionably. Lots of French women are pencil thin, wear VERY interesting shoes –clunky boots with the short skirt or short shorts. And yes, both French men and women are wearing BIG scarves around their necks. I now have three new scarves. Fun to wear!
More on Mirabeau: As you know, Cours Mirabeau, the Main Street of Aix, was named for Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau (1749 – 1791, a leader of the early stages of the French revolution. A noble, he was involved before 1789 in numerous scandals that left his reputation in ruins, at least for awhile.
He amassed huge gambling debts, was in and out of prison several times (once for murder but he beat the wrap), had numerous affairs including one in which he blackmailed a wealthy father into “blessing” the marriage to avoid scandal. (Mirabeau had hoped to pocket some cash in the deal but that didn’t work out.) A skillful writer who, at various points produced highly erotic “literature,” had became acquainted with the Marquis de Sade when they shared the same prison. At other times he was a propagandist who used his skills to promote the views of those who paid him the most – a “Spin Meister” of his day.
But during the early years of the French Revolution he rose to the top and became a voice of the people. A successful orator, he was the leader of the moderate position, favoring a constitutional monarchy built on the model of Great Britain. Lafayette, of American Revolutionary fame; was by now head of the French National Guard, knew Thomas Jefferson, then the US Ambassador to France, and hooked Tom up with Mirabeau. Lafayette, with Mirabeau’s help, took some of Tom’s ideas and used them write much of “The Rights of Man,” the French rough equivalent to our “Declaration of Independence.”
When he died in 1791 he was the first to be interred in Le Panthion National, the resting place of France’s greatest heroes, even though support for his moderate position was slipping away. The later discovery that he was in the pay of the king and the Austrian enemies of France caused his disgrace, again. So, he was disinterred from the Panthion and dumped in an anonymous grave.
Historians are deeply split on whether he was a great leader who almost saved the nation from “The Terror”, or a venal demagogue lacking political or moral values, i.e. a model for the perfect GOP presidential candidate.
From Rick Steves: Aix-en-Provence was founded in about 120 B.C. as a Roman military camp on the site of a thermal hot spring (in France, “Aix” refers to a city built over a hot spring). The Romans’ mission: to defend the Greek merchants of Marseille against the local Celts. Strategically situated, Aix-en-Provence was the first Roman base outside Italy—the first foreign holding of what would become a vast empire. (The region’s name—Provence—comes from its status as the first Roman province.) But Rome eventually fell, and the “barbarians” destroyed Aix-en-Provence in the fourth century. In 1481 the Count of
Provence died without an heir so Provence was gobbled up by France. When Aix-en-Provence was made the district’s administrative center, noble French families moved in, kicking off the city’s “beautiful age.” They built about 200 hôtels particuliers (private mansions)—many of which survive today—giving Aix-en-Provence its classy look. Aix-en-Provence thrived thanks to its aristocratic population. But when the Revolution made being rich dicey, Aix-en-Provence’s aristocracy and clergy fled. Aix-en-Provence entered the next stage of its history as the “Sleeping Beauty City.” Later in the 19th century, the town woke up and resumed its familiar, pretentious ways. In Aix-en-Provence, the custom of rich people being bobbed along in sedan chairs survived longer than anywhere else in France. After the Revolution, you couldn’t have servants do it—but you could hire pallbearers in their off-hours to give you a lift.
Aux Deux Garçons: This famous café was once frequented by Paul Cézanne, Emile Zolla, Jean-Paul Sartre, and other arty types. The building dates from 1660, became a brassiere in 1792, and was purchased by two waiters in 1840 who gave it its present name ( The Two Young Waiters). It is now popular with—and controlled by—the local mafia. They say not to take photos here (and don’t open a competing café—the mafia is a serious problem for many independent restaurateurs in Aix).
Rolynn at The”Two Gs” (Before We Knew About the Mafia
The Cézanne family hat shop was next door at #55. Cézanne’s dad must have been some hatter. He parlayed that business into a bank, then into even greater wealth, setting up his son to be free to enjoy his artistic pursuits. Perhaps he got some help from his neighbors
Technology and Travel: The last time we were in Europe it was less than ten years ago. We remember dragging around travel books, maps, cameras, translation guides, lists of words and phrases, and more. How technology has changed all of that. All our travel guides are now on my iPad or Kindle. If we need more info we just Google it up. Our iPhone is our camera. Instead of paper maps we use Pocket Earth, an app that does not require a continuous internet connection. Just download the maps and plot your route when you have a connection then save it for off line use. Monday we are going to take a road trip to some of the villages in the region. Below is a portion of our pre-plotted route. While driving we will not need an internet connection to follow it. We also use it to get us around the twisted streets of the old town.
Translation is another thing. We are using an app by Google named Translate. You speak into it in English which it will then translate into spoken French (or most any language ) and visa versa. It also “listens” for a response and then translates that to English so you can “converse” but we haven’t used that. What we have used a lot is its capacity to use the iPhone camera to translate written text. This function does not need an internet connection so it’s great for restaurants and the like. See the example below. It’s not perfect, but it gets the job done.
September 28: Today we took a road trip with our friend Sue Seeman who is visiting for a few days. Our mission – to visit three villages to the north of Aix. We rented a car and took off at about 9:00. The rental office is on the edge of Aix so getting to the highway was not too tough. With the help of Pocket Earth we made our way to our first stop with only one “do over”.
Lourmarin: After about 40 minutes on the road we arrived at Lourmarin, our first destination located in the Luburon area north of Aix. This region was made famous by the book “A Year in Provence” and the Russell Crowe movie “A Good Year”, is nestled in wine and olive country.
We arrived at mid-morning just in time for a petite dejeuner of ham and egg at a small café. We wandered the streets and checked out the views down each skinny lane.
After a couple of hours we headed back to the car park, our departure having been delayed by Sue and Rolynn’s penchant to be distracted by every shinny object in every shop window. Fortunately, many were closed on this Monday or we would still be there.
L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue: An hour later found us in this picturesque village on an island in the river Sorgue. Originally known as “Insula”, the town officially adopted the name of “L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue” in 1890, taking the latter part of its name from the river.
As early as the 12th century the river served defensively as a moat around ramparts which then surrounded the town. The river also served as a source of food and industry: fishing and artisan mills for oil, wheat, silk, paper, wool, rugs and dyeing powered by as many as 70 water wheels.
A busy commerce developed until there were two annual fairs and two weekly markets. It is now known for its antiques. The current Sunday open-air market originated on November 9, 1596.
After wandering the island we stopped for a leisurely lunch at a café by the river. Someone has to do it.
Les Baux de Provence: By mid-afternoon we were in Les Baux which was first settled in the Neolithic period, 8,000 years ago, and stayed occupied through the Bronze Age and Iron Ages. Around the 2nd century BCE it became a Celtic hill fort.
The medieval castle was built in the 10th century, and expanded into a fortified town in the 11th century. Les Baux became the seat of a powerful feudal lordship that controlled 79 towns and villages in the region. The lineage of the local rulers died out in 1427 and the lordship passed to the Counts of Provence. In 1482, Provence was annexed to the Kingdom of France and Louis XI ordered the dismantlement of the citadel.
In 1515, Louis XII appointed a governor with the title of Baron des Baux and the town experienced a new golden age. Renaissance houses were built, and the castle was partially repaired. A hotbed of the Protestant Reformation in Provence, Les Baux revolted against the king’s authority in 1632 which prompted Cardinal Richelieu too raze the citadel and expel the residents. For the next 200 years, the ruined town would be inhabited only by bats and crows.
In 1642, Louis XIII ceded the Duchy of Valentinois and Marquisate of Les Baux to Honoré II Grimaldi, first Prince of Monaco. To this day, “Marquis of Baux” is one of the Prince of Monaco’s many hereditary titles, and one which is usually given to the reigning Prince’s eldest son (the equivalent of Prince of Wales in the UK).
Les Baux lent its name to “Bauxite”, the ore of aluminum, which was discovered here in 1825 and was mined until the late 20th century. The peak population of 4000 is now only 22 and the many once private homes are now tourist shops and cafes.
While Sue toured the old chateau, Rolynn and I took a break for wine and beer in a small street café.
We were on our way out of Les Baux by 17:00 and reached the outskirts of Aix by about 19:00. It was too late to return the car but we had until 9:00 the following morning. Parking is extremely difficult but we found a spot in the lot in the Place des Precheurs, about two blocks from our apartment. But, this is where they hold the big daily farmer’s market so we had to move the car before 6:00 the following morning or it would be towed – and they are serious about that.
September 29: So, Rolynn and I got up at 5:15, walked to Precheures, which was packed with cars the night before but was now nearly empty, to retrieve the car. But, the rental office didn’t open until 8:00 so what to do with the car for two hours? Fortunately, we found a lone parking spot not far from the apartment. We walked back to the apartment, had a little breakfast, returned the car across town in rush hour traffic, then hiked back across town to fetch Sue for morning café au lait at La Mado. It was not the most efficient of maneuvers but not as bad as I make it sound. Sue and Rolynn took off in their never ending search for ever shinier baubles while I went back to the apartment to keep our legion of eager readers informed.
September 30: Sue’s last day began with café au lait at Aux Deux Garçons. Then Rolynn and Sue went off to execute the final phase of their shopping campaign.
We met at about 14:00 for lunch at the Corner Bistro, about a block from our apartment, for the best burgers in Aix. Sue left to catch her shuttle bus to the TGV train station at about 15:30. We haven’t yet decided what we will do with rest of our week but we know we are going to Normandy next week.