You might be forgiven for not really knowing how to pronounce the name of the town “Aix-en-Provence”. Certainly I’d forgive you, as it’s taken me a while to figure it out myself! Contrary to any French “rules” you may have heard (wait, they’re French – do they actually have any rules???), that pesky first word is pronounced “EX”. I know, I know, it’s wierd, but there it is. The rest is as you’d imagine, so I won’t bore you with trying to figure out how to write it phonetically. It’s that first word that gives trouble.
Around here, there’s only one town beginning with that word (which means “a city built over a hot spring”), so most people just refer to it as Aix. I know I do…Anyway, it’s a moderately-sized city with a couple of universities that attract an international population, so it’s a wonderful, international, youthful jumble of energy. It’s also a pretty wealthy city, so the main shopping areas are fun to peruse.
Everything in Aix that we (or most anyone) wanted to do was easily accessible by foot, and they have convenient parking garages located at intervals off the perimeter road, so parking and walking is an easy job. That’s what we did.
I didn’t have a great map, just a “walking tour” map in French belonging to my landlady, but we planned to stop into the Tourist Information office to get a better one once we were there. We arrived after lunch (well, for us; the French were all still eating, and the outdoor cafés and bistros were packed!), so were able to start right in orienting ourselves without hunger driving us.
We walked on a narrow, winding street from the garage, and then, suddenly, stepped into a beautiful, open, tree-lined boulevard. The day was gorgeous, sunny, and warm, and the place was bustling. What a beautiful main thoroughfare! It’s mostly pedestrian and plaza, with only a narrow lane for traffic in the middle. Pedestrians definitely rule here!
We located the place where Roy would have a meeting later in the day, and then headed over to the Tourist Information office. Well, to where the TI is supposed to be – it’s closed for renovation. But they had several helpful signs pointing to what I guess is the temporary office…but they petered out before the actual location revealed itself. And when I asked someone, she directed us to the closed building. Oh well, we’d make do with the map we had. It doesn’t have all the streets marked, as it’s primarily to lead you on a particular route – so we decided to take that route! It heads into the old city and past the most notable sites, so it’s perfect.
What a fascinating town – the juxtaposition of narrow, pedestrian streets with big, open squares is really interesting. You turn a corner and the neighborhood has an entirely different feel. The architecture is beautiful, and the little shops we visited (had to have a couple of macaroons, or a pastry, or buy some more “tea filter” bags from one of the tea shops!) had wonderfully friendly people who were eager to practice their English. One had spent some time in Australia, one in Montreal, one in Sweden – they all broke into English when they heard me and Roy talking.
The highlight of our walk was an amazing encounter we had in the Cathedral (which in itself is a fascinating place built in three different architectural periods: 4th century, Gothic, and Baroque). I was interested in a brochure in English that might enlighten a bit about what we were seeing, so I asked a lady at the little desk. She apologized and said that she must be out of them. She then asked me (I think – I had quite a bit of trouble understanding her!), as she glanced over at what was obviously a tour in progress, how much time we had. The truth is, we probably had plenty, but, not being exactly certain of the route and time to get back to the main drag and Roy’s meeting, I told her only 20 minutes. She looked distressed for a second, then said something about showing us something.
She proceeded to call over to the tour guide and ask him for some keys – he was obviously peeved at being interrupted, and some words were exchanged -but he finally walked over to her and hand the keys over. We then went with her to a large double door, she inserted the key and PULLED, and we were stepping outside into the cloister.
They were doing some restoration at one end, but that didn’t stop her! She marched us right over to it, stepped over a little barrier, encouraging us to follow her, and pushed back the plastic sheeting that was draped to keep down dust from the restoration. All the while speaking to me at a great clip (I think she felt the pressure of our 20 minute time limit!), most of which I could only sort of guess at.
The expression on the face of the workman when the three of us poked our heads through the plastic sheeting was priceless. I started to walk past the sheeting, as I thought that was what she was encouraging us to do, but I finally figured out that her target was the carvings at the top of the columns, and the biblical stories they told. Oh, she had a lot to say about them!! I was glad I know a little of the bible, and when I was able to recognize a name from one of the stories, I really could sort of understand the gist of what she was saying. She kept telling me that I would translate for Roy, but she never paused for me to do so! And I couldn’t really anyway!
She was a lovely, VERY enthusiastic, elderly person, and I know she really loves that cathedral. It was very important to her that we not leave without experiencing what she thought was the best, most beautiful, and most important part. I kind of had to break it off, as I do believe we could have easily spent an hour with her while she told us all the stories in all the carvings, and all the symbolism, etc., but we really didn’t have the time.
I thanked her profusely, and she was beaming. It was obviously very important to her to have shared that cloister with us. It was an encounter that I shan’t soon forget, either – both the lady herself, and the beautiful cloister that she shared with us. This is why we travel. This is what it’s all about.
We didn’t take the most direct route back to the main boulevard, but it didn’t matter. If we felt we might be off-track, we just asked, and people were more than willing to point us in the right direction. By this time it was getting chilly, so we looked for someplace where we could warm up, have a drink, have a snack, and use the WC (not necessarily in that order!). We found a little “tea house” on the square at the city hall, and went in. I had the most delicious little cake/tart – not really sure what it was, but it was composed of mostly whole nuts – almonds, walnuts, and hazlenuts – stuck together with some kind of clear, hard glaze (sugar, no doubt), topping a little biscuit-like cake with currants in it. It was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten! It was really too much, but I didn’t want to waste it! And that with my hot chocolate…do I need to say more?
We took care of all our needs and found our way back to the main drag in plenty of time. Roy went to his meeting, and I found a wonderful bookstore called Book in Bar – an English bookstore/café that not only has a fantastic selection of every kind of book, but has an upstairs with used books! And all English!
I particularly wanted a book of French verb conjugations and a good dictionary. I found both, and some brochures about music events going on in Aix, and a used book for Roy to read. The place has a fantastic atmosphere, with comfortable chairs for people to sit and read, chairs with tables for the café, and it was abuzz with people chatting in accented English. It’s apparently a meeting place for people who want to learn or teach English. I spoke to the owner a bit before I left, and she told me that they’ve been open for 10 years – they opened the day after 9/11/2001! She said the place was EMPTY that day, and that they only had about 6 books on each shelf. They’ve come a LONG way!!!
Getting out of Aix and getting home was a snap. Back to the garage, easy to find the car and get out since most of the other cars were gone, and an easy ride on the motorway. Easy in, easy out, and a wonderful town – we’ll definitely be back!