The Further Adventures of Aix in Provence

That’s it, when I’m done with this blog, I’m devoting my time to writing a wry adult-themed graphic novel following the adventures of a Aix: a time travelling tour guide from the 24th century, now trapped in the past. Everything he’s learned is a lie; the past isn’t some candy-coated funland with a dash of Errol Flynn, but a quagmire of savagery, greed, rock music, and ass-kicking vigilantes fighting against encroaching hordes of invaders from another dimension. Hilarity ensues.

Speaking of hilarity, I still have a lot to say about the south of France.

So far, I’ve covered a day of my travels. It was a great day, but only an eighth of a fantastic trip.

La Vieux Aix

Leaving the welcoming villa of Pascale and Michel, we journeyed back towards the Marseille airport, before cruising inland to the town of Aix-en-provence. Which, as the name implies, is in Provence.

Driving in France

It’s fun discovering that you’ll be entrusted as the primary driver in a foreign country. Having not driven in months, I figured I’d be anxious. In truth, I was pretty jazzed about it. France enjoys driving on the correct right side of the road, which makes things easy. In the south they also seem to have a relaxed attitude, which filters in to their driving. With a little GPS, some patience, and a little trepidation, I did alright for myself.

If you can handle winding country roads, switchbacks, and French roundabouts, then you’ll do just fine. I highly recommend it. As beautiful as the scenery can be, there’s something cathartic about driving yourself through the French countryside, merging with the locals and having full control over your travels.

I’m now determined that, someday, I’ll manage a road trip through Europe. A EuroTrip, if you will. Consider this comment foreshadowing for a post yet-to-come.

In the meantime

Airbnb, you’ve done it again. Prior to signing off on the trip, we’d convinced Em’s folks to forgo their original plans of staying in a hotel for a roll of the dice with a BnB. Aix is an interesting place, but reputedly not terribly exciting. The old town offers winding cobbled streets and a bevy of cafés in which to while away the scorching afternoon hours. The newer sections of town, while nice, offer far fewer options and would require a reasonable amount of walking to find choice sights and sounds.

A bit of searching found us a place in the absolute heart of Vieux Aix. Those winding streets, cobbles, and quaint cafés? They would be right on our doorstep. The flat we found would be on the top floor of a beautiful old walkup, reno’d in a modern style with all the accoutrements of home. It was perfect.

Almost perfect.

See, walkups in the old city are exactly that. No lifts. No easy access. Just winding stairs up 6 floors to, well, to a beautiful loft flat. Had we known beforehand, we may not have chosen the place. Having chosen it, though, I have no regrets. The flat offered us unparalleled views across the city and access to one of the most vibrant areas I’ve ever visited.

Oh but the heat…

Also a surprise was the heat. We knew the Mediterranean would be toasty, but we didn’t expect the heat wave that we found there. Temperatures routinely hit 35C in the daytime, with little respite during the night. A few days even robbed us of any breeze which, in a flat without A/C, had a knack for turning our time indoors into a lesson in endurance. I’ve since travelled to Nigeria in the hot season, and actually found it bearable in comparison.

When the locals complain about the heat, you know you’re in for an experience.

I’ve always been a very modest guy, but even I found myself walking around with a linen shirt unbuttoned to near 70’s pornstar levels. You sweat. A lot. Eventually you get used to it … but some nights … some nights you consider planting your ass in a fountain and taking your chance with the disapproving glares from locals.

The heat would be with us for most of our trip, only really breaking on day 6. Even though it was just a matter of degrees, the change felt like a godsend. People seemed to walked with a spring in their steps and an extra air of excitement seemed to filter through the streets.

Thank jeebus for outdoor cafés

There are 4 things in abundance in Vieux Aix. 1: Cobbles. 2: Winding streets. 3: fountains. 4: cafés.

Every courtyard and square seems to teem with umbrella-covered seating areas. While they really come alive as the evening sets in, they’re a godsend for anyone brave enough to set foot in the noon-time sun. More often than not we’d find ourselves sheltered under sun-dappled fabric, sipping frosted drinks while keeping physical exertion to a minimum. Outside of the sheer beauty of the warren of winding streets that make up the old city, the cafés are the aspect I’ll remember the most from our stay.

The first couple of days saw us spending our time exploring the streets of the old city. Even at the end of the week, I swear I was discovering new locales and corners. There were touristy havens, more restaurants and eateries than I could count – especially in the restaurant and eatery district – and any number of shops in which to while away the hours. In that time I discovered a great place to buy absinthe, a store selling beer from Quebec, costume shops, the Best Fucking place to get a haircut, a board gaming haven, a late-night comic store, and far too many patisseries and crême glacé purveyors to even begin to count.

Stay long enough and you’ll become familiar with the many buskers who ply the cobbled streets day and night. Between the knife jugglers, breakdancing crews, unicyclers, and mariachi bands, you’ll certainly not lack for public entertainment. Nor lack for hats jingling with Euros. One particular busker certainly stood out. I’m not sure what his name actually was, but I opted for Bernard. And Bernard and his accordion were everywhere!

Sit down at a café? There was Bernard. Browse the shops along the high street? Bernard. Lunch, dinner, restaurant, patisserie, the grocer … Bernard would saunter up with his playlist of 4 classic hits. It was beautiful. At first. Became charming. Then slowly degraded into somewhat of a joke. If Remi had been anything other than charming and friendly, we likely would have been annoyed. Eventually he would even stop asking us for money, just grace us with a knowing nod as he passed.

It was honestly a magical place. If you have a special someone in your life, I’d certainly recommend booking a trip to Vieux Aix, at least for a few days. I can see how the city would wear on you if you secluded yourself there for a prolonged period. But I can also see how it could be a fabulous aphrodisiac. An air of romance drifts through the streets and, if you can avoid being there with family, I’m sure that air would work wonders.

The nightlife

Aside from being a tourist haven, the old city boasts a vibrant nightlife. The streets absolutely come alive with foodies, club-goers, and revellers of all sorts. You’ll find fancy places to eat, pubs, smokey dives, anything your heart desires. There seems to be an ebb and flow to night activity. Certain nights prove livelier than other. But overall, the old city comes alive after dark, and stays that way well into the early hours. Keep this in mind when you’re booking a place to stay. Depending on where you are, sleep may be hard to come by.

We stayed in the north, towards the edge of the quarter, on the 6th floor of a townhouse, and were afforded with fairly quiet nights. I’m certain the story would be different were you closer to the ground or located towards the southern and western portions.

I had a few forays into the southwest while we were there. The streets become noticably narrower, while pubs and restaurants become much more common. It’s the place to go should you have a craving for anything from traditional French cuisine, to anything from Lebanese, Moroccan, Italian, even Irish fare. We sample more than a few dishes and were never disappointed.

My father-in-law certainly had much to say about the gelato and crême glacé available in the city. Being the aficionado that he is, I would take that as a glowing endorsement.

Markets

Come the weekend, markets unfold throughout the old city. They’re like something pulled from the scenes of any number of Hollywood films. Stalls overflow with fabrics, ceramics, books, trinkets, fashion, anything imaginable. A lot of it is geared towards tourists, but even that feels like it’s locally made any many degrees more authentic than most tourist kitsche found in many other destinations.

The markets are also a haven for foodies. This is your opportunity to stock up on fresh produce, snacks, and any number of tasty offerings. We found some fantastic cassis mustard that I haven’t stopped thinking about since we left. We managed to stock up our fridge with enough supplies to keep us stocked, healthily so, for the remainder of our stay.

What else is there to do?

Well, as lovely as old Aix is, it will wear on you. There’s a lot to do, but not really enough for an entire week.

If you like art, you’re in luck. Several of the masters spent time in the region. Cézanne, Picasso, even Van Gogh graced the beauty of France. Cézanne even famously painted the streets of Aix and the Marseille coast, and you can even visit some of the sites of his works, which have changed little in the interim.

Aix itself boasts a fantastic museum and gallery where many great works can be viewed. It’s a wonderful place to view many modern pieces, as well as classics from the masters themselves.

In fact, several of the masters spent a great deal of time in and around Aix. Van Gogh found a plethora of inspiration in provence. While Paul Cézanne rooted himself in Aix, painting many views of its winding streets throughout the seasons. He even travelled south to Marseille, painting the sights around Pascale and Michel’s home. One such painting, not an original of course, hangs proudly in their lounge.

Perhaps art isn’t your thing. Uncouth heathen, you may be…

Fear not, fellow travel person. There are no shortage of options for you to spend your time on in Provence! Seriously. There’s enough to do in the immediate environs that you’ll be forced to make some very difficult choices.

We ended up narrowing down out list to a vineyard, Marseille, and Cassis. I would have been overjoyed to visit some local remnants of Roman roads, as well as the beauty of Nice, but all they’ve given me many great reasons to return.

First off

Setting off through Peyrolles and Jouques, we took a serpentine tour over the rolling hills of Provence, past idyllic canals, through meandering valleys, towards the thriving wine region to the east of Aix. Our guide brought us to a revived vineyard reknowned for its rosés.

You could easily lose yourself in vineyard tours in the region. However, I recommend simply finding one you like and restricting your time to that.

While there, take the time to tour the estate. You’ll likely be treated to an operation that’s been active for generations. Vineyards in the region tend to hold a history that’s awe-inspiring. Many dating back decades, if not centuries, with cellars and processes that have changed little in that time.

We saw centuries old casks. Walked through rooms lined with bottles dating back through the 60’s. And learned about the wine-making process from vine to bottle. It was fascinating and honestly an essential experience for the south of France.

Of course, no tour would be complete without a tasting. All I can say is that I’m glad we had a driver to take us home.

 

Marseille

Ah Marseille; a jewel upon the azure coast. It really is a sight to behold. With it’s stunning harbour, gleaming architecture, beautiful seaside vistas, and imposing hilltop fortress, it’s possible to forget that the city itself is a tourist mecca. Beyond the now-familiar French cafés lies a veritable shoppers’ dream.

Being the skint traveller that I am, I avoided the shops altogether and spent most of my time touring the harbour and shooting coastal scenery. It was really quite tranquil.

When all was said and done, with little money and little time, I didn’t really find much to keep me in Marseille. I’m sure it can be a stunning destination under the right circumstances. To be honest, I much preferred Aix.

Cassis

And then there was Cassis.

I can now say that I’ve made travel plans based entirely on a recommendation from a barista from Starbucks.

We talked the group in to taking a drive out to the resort town of resort towns. I was again tasked with driving and have zero regrets in doing so. There’s nothing quite like approaching Cassis from atop the seaside cliffs, watching the town reveal itself below as the sea stretches out across the horizon… Before descending towards the coast on an at-times-harrowing series of mountain switchbacks.

I’m a big fan of roadtrips and the descent to Cassis ranks among the best experiences I’ve had while on one. As it’s frowned upon in France to drive with one hand and shoot photos with the other, no images exist of the stunning drive. Do yourself an image search and I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Parking is an absolute nightmare, however! Don’t forget, this is a resort town, with tremendous appeal for both tourists and locals. Lots fill up fast and, if you don’t want to circle the avenues for hours, you’ll likely park far away and make the final leg of the journey by shuttle.

The town itself is absolutely stunning. Nestled in a natural harbour, Cassis oozes charm and a coastal … je ne sais quoi. It’s a place to go for an afternoon of patios, cocktails, sunshine, and dips in the sea. Qualities like this would normally scare me off. A vacuum for tourists to lounge, meander, and spend money is not my idea of a happy place. However, Cassis has been doing this for a long time and seems to have things figured out. The crowds almost meld into the plethora of venues in the area, leaving an oddly open feeling to the streets. I guess there’s a difference inherent in places where you’re encouraged to spend, as opposed to others where you’re encouraged to spend on leisure.

You’ll wander cobbled streets. Sip cappuccino under sun-dappled umbrellas. Watch condensation roll off of icy drinks. And generally take in the coastal picture. Boats and skiffs drift lazily in the harbour, while the sounds of beach-goers permeates the very air around you. It’s really quite serene. If you visit, you owe it to yourself to take enough time to not have to rush your stay, which is exactly what I’ll be doing on my next visit.

It’s worth mentioning that this was my first experience with the liberal French beach attitude. Namely as it pertains to apparel. The only thing that perhaps tops the overly-hairy middle aged men in speedos meant for men with less … mass – or perhaps the sole reflectively-pale ginger on the beach … which was me … I’m the reflectively-pale ginger – were the free-thinking ladies of a certain demographic. Teenage me would have experienced a blissful state of shock. I think something may have broken in his brain. In my thirties, and I hope this applies to most guys, I feel like the wow factor of public nudity is somewhat dulled. There’s the initial moment of, ‘this is a thing here’. Quickly followed by a feeling of normalcy.

Although maybe I didn’t want to be the one creepy ogler on the beach…

I did enjoy the not-so-subtle ploys of a boy from further down the beach. We’d happened to sit next to a couple of girls who’d taken to sunbathing. Along the beach walks a boy of maybe 12. His topless radar was almost visible as his focus locked in on the pair nearby. A more obvious double-take I’ve rarely witnessed. For the next 10 minutes he found many excuses to sift through the sand nearby, gaze across the beach, and struggle with whether or not to take a dip in the sea … ‘oh, nope, not this time either. Time to walk back up the beach and see what I see!’

I didn’t have the same indecision with the sea. It was uncharacteristically hot out, being a pale northerner had required me to slather myself with layers of factor 30, I was getting the most out of this day, and the water was calling! I also continued a proud tradition that has been passed down among the men in my family for generations … losing our sunglasses in large bodies of water.

As the surf rolled in, I took advantage of my first real encounter with the open Mediterranean. I waited for a big curl, then hauled-ass and leapt into the foamy water.

And that was the last I saw of my beloved aviators from Boots.

Aside from that, the water felt incredible! I still made the rookie mistake of opening my eyes underwater – thanks, years of swimming in freshwater! Otherwise all was fantastic. Had half our party not been left baking in the sun, I likely would have spent the rest of the afternoon in the water.

And that’s the only unfortunate thing about travelling with a group. Sooner or later you’ll be enjoying yourself more than anyone else. However, the group consensus will sway against you and you’ll find yourself whisked off home long before you’ve had your fill. Things do balance out, and fair is fair, but it can still be a tough nut to swallow.

The end

And that’s about it. We spent a little more time in the old city in Aix, which was lovely. By now I think we’d all thoroughly decompressed and found that calming place of zen that accompanies a trip of perfect length; one when you become familiar with your surroundings without being bored of them. We spent some time in the restaurant quarter and enjoyed some fantastic Moroccan cuisine. Much of the local specialty, rosé was enjoyed. We even treated ourselves to a few simple, home cooked meals. Being as the flat was quite nice, and with the heat lifting near the end of our stay, it was refreshing to simply stay in and enjoy the breeze from across the rooftops.

I like to think that we’d become fixtures at some of the local courtyards. Nary a sieste passed without at least myself seated under a canopy, beer in hand. I actually wonder if Bernard missed us … perhaps curious as to where his seeming stalkers had disappeared off to without so much as an au revoir…

I think the experience of Aix is what many people expect to find in Paris. It’s a shame for them that they are much too far north to reliably expect it.

 

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