La Rotonde, Aix-en-Provence
The final installment in my travelogue of my time in France is my day in Aix-en-Provence, a sentimental journey 35 years after spending time there as a student. Taking the train from Marseille, I arrived about 8 a.m., hoping to avoid the blistering heat of the past few days. From the train station I walked to La Rotonde, a traffic circle surrounding a large fountain dating from 1860, topped by statues of the Three Graces. From the Rotonde extends the Cours Mirabeau, one of the most beautiful streets in Europe.
Apart from a large Apple store and some upscale boutiques lining the Cours Mirabeau, the views were pretty much as I remembered them. Founded by the Romans, who discovered hot springs there, Aix was the capital of Provence during the middle ages, and after the 12th century, became an artistic center and seat of learning. The town exudes an air of old aristocracy, attested by the hôtels particuliers (private mansions) which line the Cours Mirabeau and the streets of the Quartier Mazarin to its south. It is still an artistic center; among its museums are the Musée Granet and the Fondation Vasarely, and just outside of town is the Atelier Cézanne, where the artist worked.
Hôtel de Ville and Clock Tower
Among the town’s many architectural treasures are the Hôtel de Ville and Clock Tower, the Cathedral of Saint Sauveur and its exquisite cloister, and small squares with fountains – Aix is filled with fountains, though my favorite, the Four Dolphins Fountain, was under restoration and covered from view.
Cathedral of Saint Sauveur, detail of carved capitals in the cloister
The day was already beginning to heat up, so after ambling up the Cours Mirabeau I stopped to rest over a coffee at the town’s most famous cafe, Les Deux Garcons, dating from 1792. I had visited the cafe many times during my students days in 1979-80, and admiring the marble-topped, brass-rimmed tables, remembered how one of my friends had simply picked one of the tables up and walked away with it, eventually shipping it back home to the USA.
My next destination was the hôtel particulier at 43 Rue Roux-Alphéren where I had rented a tiny servant’s room as a student. I remembered opening the huge wooden door with my large, old-fashioned key, and trying to walk up the stairs before the automatic timer switched off the lights – I never seemed to make it.
43 Rue Roux-Alphéren, entrance
43 Rue Roux-Alphéren; the tiny window with closed shutters between the large windows to the left was the room I rented.
The real attraction of Aix, however, and my reason for visiting on a Saturday, is the huge market that takes place several days a week on the Place de Verdun. I was overwhelmed by the selections of fresh fruits and vegetables, olives, spices, meats, cheeses, and prepared foods. I could have eaten here for days and been happy. I settled, however, for some packets of spices, fleur de sel from the Camargue, some cheese, bread, and a straw shopping basket.
The Saturday market in Aix
My day in Aix went by quickly. After visiting the Cathedral and meandering down shop-lined streets, I went to the Musée Granet to view its art collections as well as the traveling exhibit American Icons. Next to the museum was the church of St. Jean de Malte, where I remembered going in the evenings to attend vespers. The church smelled of incense, which brought back memories of sitting in a circle in the dim sanctuary singing together from song sheets.
I didn’t think I would be hungry after the market, but I was. I wandered back down to The Rotonde, where in my student days there used to be a stand selling fabulous freshly-made pan bagnat – loves of bread cut in half and stuffed with tuna, vegetables, olives, parsley, garlic, and olive oil. It was long gone, but the cafe Le Cintra, where I used to hang out and have morning coffee while trying to work the Herald Tribune crosswords, was still there. The cafe had gone markedly upscale, spilling out onto the sidewalk and filled with lunch diners. I sat down and ordered moules frites – steamed mussels in mariniere sauce with a side of fries. It was delicious.
Prior to catching the train back to Marseille I wandered some more, stopping at an antique shop where I bought an old porcelain demitasse cup and saucer. I now drink my coffee out of it every morning.
My student days in Aix had been bittersweet, the experience of culture shock rather extreme, my fears of speaking in French inhibiting my study experience, the eternal Provencal sunshine and the town’s beauty almost too much sometimes. As it turned out, I left France before the school year was finished, due to lack of funds, something that I have always regretted, and returned to a life of uncertainty and an unknown future in the USA. Returning after all these years, I had changed, and I found it hard to recapture the feelings of my youth.
Jupiter and Thetis, 1811, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. Oil on canvas, 136⅝ × 101¼ inches. Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence, France.