Aix-en-Provence

Thursday 23rd October 2014

Our flight to Marseille departed at 8.00am and lasted only 90 minutes. We had collected our hire car at Marseille airport and were driving away shortly after 11am local time and arrived at our destination at about midday. Luckily, our room was ready and we could unpack straight away.

‘Le Pavilion de Beauregard’ is set high in the hills above Aix, and the final kilometre of road leading to it is narrow and bumpy. The building itself is very unusual, with what looks like a Loire chateau’s tower on one corner of an old three storey building. The tower contains the spiral staircase that led to two rooms; ours had windows in three walls, two of which had wonderful views down to Aix.

There was an open wooden staircase leading to an attractive bathroom set high in the roof. The bathtub was one of those free-standing, claw-footed, cast iron things, with shower curtains to pull around it and a hand-held douche. There were two sinks, which we always find a bit of a puzzle; who would want to wash and clean their teeth standing next to someone else? The funny thing was that at one point we found ourselves doing just that!

The sunshine was so gloriously welcome when we arrive that we simply sat in the garden for a couple of hours until we decided that we really should explore the town. The town centre is 500+ years old, with narrow streets and virtually nowhere to park. Luckily, we had been given an excellent map by Jerome, the owner of ‘Le Pavilion’, and we found a multi-storey car park close to the edge of the town centre.

As we walked into town we spotted a shop selling baguettes, pizza and pasties, so we stopped for a late lunch. We then ambled around town, enjoying its atmosphere and looking for the location of the framed print of Aix that we have on our lounge wall. We never did find it, and Gill even showed a photo of it to Jerome and a local tour guide, neither of whom could pin it down. We came to the conclusion that the artist must have painted an idealised scene based on familiarity with a much-loved town.

By about 4.30pm we were both thinking that we needed to find some toilets, so we stopped at the ‘Les Deux Garcons’, a bar that we thought might also sell food. This is when we found out that scarcely any restaurants in Aix open before 7pm, so we had a glass of rose each and took advantage of their facilities!

By now we’d realised that finding a restaurant might be a little harder than we’d imagined, so we checked the map and found a Fondue restaurant nearby. When we got there it turned out that they didn’t open until 7.30pm. We couldn’t wait that long, so we found a nearby Italian instead. By now we were aching and tired, so after the meal we headed back to the car park which seemed an awfully long way away. On the way we stopped off on Cours Mirabeau for a delicious ice cream. Back at ‘Le Pavilion’ Gill opted for a long, refreshing bath, and we both slept really well.

Friday 24th October 2014

Breakfast was croissants, baguettes and brioche, with four beautiful home-made jams. After breakfast we drove back into Aix and parked again in the car park that we’d found last night. We ambled through the streets making our way towards the Musee Granet, which displays a number of Cezanne paintings, together with collections from the 14th to the 20th centuries. On arrival we discovered that it didn’t open for another half an hour, so we killed time by visiting the church next door. The museum’s art collection didn’t detain us for long, and we then set off to find Cezanne’s birthplace. The sky was clear blue and the sun was bright, so the narrow streets were either bathed in glorious sunlight or subdued in deep shadow. Aix was certainly being shown at its best.

We’d booked a walking tour for 10am tomorrow, so we didn’t need to spend too long in the town today. We got back to ‘Le Pavilion’ at 2.30pm and sat reading in the garden again for several hours.

At 6.30pm we set off into town, heading for the fondue restaurant of yesterday. We were amongst the first diners to arrive, but the place filled up rapidly. Most people had made a reservation, so we were lucky to get in! We shared a cheese fondue that we just about finished, but we still had space to share a chocolate fondue :o) We’d taken care to park closer to this restaurant, so the journey ‘home’ was quicker. We must have used up a lot of energy today, somehow, because we were both exhausted when we got back.

Saturday 25th October 2014

On Thursday Gill had booked us a two hour walking tour for this morning, starting at the Tourist Information Centre at 10am. This meant that we had to be up for breakfast at 8am, then pack up and leave at 9am. Jerome very kindly agreed to look after our luggage while we were away. We couldn’t extend our stay in our room, but he had no problem with us using the garden until we needed to leave for the airport at 6pm.

On our way through the town we saw several Saturday markets. The fruit and vegetable market made us wish that we were staying for longer and self-catering, because everything looked so enticing. There was an amazing stall selling fresh mushrooms; Gill counted fifteen different varieties!

The guide for the walking tour was excellent, with very good English and a good feel for what his guests would find interesting. There were eight of us in the group, the other six being Americans. He spent a lot of time during the tour pointing out the various architectural styles and explaining the evolution of Aix-en-Provence.

Many buildings have several bricked-up windows due to Napoleon’s ‘window tax’ ; he’d worked out that the richest in society had the most luxurious homes and that there was a direct ‘wealth-to-windows’ relationship that he could exploit for taxation purposes. The Americans were appalled at this, and amazed that we had the same phenomenon in the UK. I did point out to them that maintaining armed forces to protect and extend the Empire was expensive ;o)

The second half of the tour covered ground that we’d already seen in the previous two days, but it was good to have details pointed out that we’d never have noticed alone, particularly the ‘trompe l’oeuil’ painted windows that disguised the fact that windows had been removed.

On Thursday we’d seen the Saint Sauvere church and our tour ended there today. We arrived just in time to see one of the perfectly-preserved medieval main door panels exposed to public view; there are two main entrance doorways, each with two panels, and they are both covered up nearly all of the time to protect them from vandalism and, you might suppose, the elements. Each day, at around midday, one panel is revealed for ten minutes or so, and we saw it, thanks to our guide.

The site covers an enormous span of history, from a Roman pavement dating from the second century BC via the second century AD baptistry right up to the twentieth century altar. In the 18th century they’d been obsessed with symmetry, so the elaborate organ on the left side of the church had been balanced with a visually identical fake directly opposite.

At the end of the tour we went back to a nice restaurant that we’d spotted on Thursday night. The quality of the food was well above average, but the service was a bit slow. When we left we both realised that we wouldn’t need to buy anything for afternoon tea! We went back to ‘Le Pavilion’ and settled down in sunshine in the garden to relax for a few hours until it was time to drive back down to Marseille.

We left at about 6pm for the 35 minute drive, stopping to top up the tank on the way. It’s only 35 kilometers from Aix to Marseille, and we’d done little driving while we were there; just five return trips to the edge of the town. You have to return the car with a full tank and, sadly, the needle had drifted a little away from ‘Full’. I was amazed and pleased that it took only about £4’s worth of diesel to fill it!

We were well early for check-in and were through to the departure lounge two hours before departure. In the event, the incoming flight was delayed and the plane left an hour late. We landed at Gatwick at 10.30pm UK time, were through passport control, had picked up our bags, got back to the car and reached home just before midnight; pretty good!

Aix is a lovely place and we really enjoyed our visit!