Saturday, February 23, 2008

Aix marks the spot

Now that our travels--KT to Texas and Boston and myself to Michigan--are over and we can catch our breath, it's time to catch up on a few posts. We never did finish off our Provence trip from January (posts here, here and here). We decided Wednesday would be a slow day, so we didn't do much more than read and relax--I ended up reading all of Peter Mayles books--A Year in Provence, Toujours Provence, and Encore Provence . We did head over to explore the nearby village of Callas--more closed shops and restaurants--and visit their local olive oil mill where KT stocked up on gifts.

But we were saving energy for our big adventure Thursday to Aix-en-Provence (pronounced X-in-Provence), which all the guidebooks hail as the perfect Provencal city. It was about a 2 hour drive away and, after paying quite a few euros in tolls on the French highway system, we made it there around 11am.

Aix-en-Provence is big enough that it has markets everyday but Thursday is one of the Provencal market days, which means food stalls everywhere. We eagerly and quickly strolled through them--the markets close not long after noon--buying cheese, dried sausage sticks (mmm), cookies and more. Given the bright sunny day, we sat down on the steps of a nearby building and, like many others around us, basked in the warmth while we nibbled on some of the food. Aix-en-Provence is a university town of around the same size as Cambridge and given how closed rural Provence had been, we were ecstatic to see open stores, bakeries, and restaurants everywhere. And fashionably dressed people flooded the city--to my mind, Aix was a perfect Paris-lite (most of the good stuff of Paris without the density, traffic, etc).

After wandering around a bit, and having lunch at one of the many OPEN restaurants, KT played guide and took us on a walking tour that included ruins of the city's original hot springs (now the site of a fancy spa that uses the warm waters), a mansion used by some local official's mistress (picture of me at top is at the front door), and a Catholic cathedral dating back to Roman times. The church has had many additions since then--and now houses a beautiful organ (right). Afterwards, as the sun was setting and a cold wind began blowing, we stopped and had some hot chocolate and coffee in one of the many outdoor cafes dotting the city. Rather than rushing home to uncertain dinner we thought it sensible to stay in a place where restaurants actually were OPEN. After looking at menus throughout the city--French restaurants by law have to post their menus--we settled on a lovely restaurant called Le Bistrot Latin, where we dined on a spectacular and beautifully presented 3-course meal for about half the price of what it would cost in Washington DC. We had spotted the menu on our own and then noticed the NYTimes and another guidebook had recommended the place. This blog writer also had a equally delightful experience and you can see some of the food's presentation at her write-up. The profiteroles I had were an amazing dessert.
We made it back to Claviers late, which already put our Friday plans to visit Gorges du Verdon, France's Grand Canyon, at risk, but KT woke up feeling sick (I suspect the mushroom pizza slice from the street stall she got in Aix!). So another day of rest and reading in our stone house. I explored Claviers a bit more and found the local cemetery and its memorial to those who had died in World World I (left) and also a monument to those who fought in the resistance (right).

When you think how small the village was then and how many people they lost, it's humbling. KT learned after our trip that the father of one of her uncles had parachuted during World War II into the area where we were staying (This ambitious plan to win back souther France from Germany was called Operation Dragoon).

Saturday morning, we glanced at Claviers weekly market (only about 5 stalls--meat, fruits & vegetables, fish, eggs, etc) and the sped off for the airport. We arrived in Toulon with extra time so we pulled off into the rocky beach just outside the airport and basked in the sun one last time as we looked out over the Mediterranean sea.

Things I'll remember about Provence: the distinctive iron lattice bell towers on churches, the great meals when we could find them, excellent rose wine, mountain switchback roads, beautiful stone houses (such as ours), the mad dog that chased out of a village, food markets.


Here's a short video KT took of the mountain village we stayed in:

Claviers house and village from dceditors on Vimeo.

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