In Saint-Denis just north of Paris, the Basilique Saint-Denis was where the Gothic style was born, and where the French monarchs were interred.
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.
Toinou – Les Fruits de Mer!
My eating in Marseille was a focused activity, based mainly on seafood. Some of my eating adventures are pictured here, and I have to say that my two favorite restaurants – both researched, in fact, long before my trip – during my 7-day stay were Toinou (4 meals) and La Boîte à Sardine (only 1 meal, regrettably). Toinou is part self-service, part place-your-order-at-the-counter, then you find a place at your table and wait for your order to arrive. My favorite thing there was their anchoïade (anchovy spread) spread on the mini-baguettes that you grab on the way to the order counter. Some of my selections are shown below.
Toinou – the sidewalk fish display
Toinou – sea bass with butter and fried potatoes
Toinou – shrimp with aioli on the side
Toinou – half a Breton lobster
Toinou – assorted oysters
La Boîte à Sardine, funky decor and delicious lunch
At the top of La Canebiere, and across the street from the Eglise des Reformes, is the slightly kitschy but fun La Boîte à Sardine (The Sardine Can), open on most days only for lunch, and serving exceptionally fresh fish. The menu is hand-written on a wooden box carried from table to table by the waiter.
Lunch at La Boîte à Sardine, catfish, potatoes, eggplant
Mutton couscous at Ghomrassen, near St. Charles train station.
The couscous at Ghomrassen was good, but a truly superb couscous was sadly lacking on this trip. I had also misplaced my list of recommended restaurants that served it.
A visit to Marseille also demands a tour of the Noailles district, the market area and center for imported exotic spices and foodstuffs. In one shop I was so bewildered by the array of aromatic ingredients that I went into sensory shock. I settled, however, for possibly the best slice of halvah I’d ever eaten.
My final splurge, after spending some time at a cafe next to the Catalans Beach, was the famous Marseille bouillabaisse, the local fish stew requiring 5 different Mediterranean fish. I’d read that the dish is skyrocketing in price because the required fish are no longer plentiful; I paid 60 Euros (about $60) for my lunch at Chez Fonfon, serving one of the most well-known local renditions.
The famous Marseille bouillabaisse, at Chez Fonfon
Chez Fonfon is on the far left, in the picturesque Vallon des Auffes
Finally, one of my favorite things in the world, moules-frites (steamed mussels with mariniere sauce, served with fries)
First view of Marseille from the top of the St. Charles Railway Station steps
My twin goals for my sojourn in France were a week each in Paris and Marseille. The cities have little in common: one a northern gray city under often-cloudy skies, France’s capital, and one of the world’s great centers of culture, the other a sunny Mediterranean seaport in tones of yellow, ochre, brown, gray, and the impossible blue of the Mediterranean.
My first view of Marseille is permanently imprinted in my memory: it followed shared car ride from Tours to Toulouse, an all-night train journey from Toulouse to Marseille, and at the end of a sleepless night a charcoal-gray pre-dawn breaking over massive ships in a harbor and then, at the end, exiting from a train station. I was at the top of a monumental flight of steps, the great sweep of a foreign city before me, and in the distance a pinpoint of golden light: the statue of the Virgin and Child atop Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica. I watched in what I imagine now was open-mouthed astonishment as the day dawned over this strange new place.
It was 1979, and I was in France on a Rotary International Graduate Fellowship. After a couple of months at a French language institute in Tours, I had come south to Provence, where I would be a student at the Universite d’Aix-Marseille in Aix-en-Provence. To reach Aix I first had to go to Marseille, a city that I would visit ten or twelve times during my soujourn in the south.
I found Marseille fascinating, the most exotic place I had ever been, a blend of north Africa, France, the Mediterranean, all of it contained in France’s oldest city and its second largest. That first day I walked and walked, all the way up the hill to Notre Dame de la Garde, where the Mistral – the violent wind that rushes down the Rhone Valley – almost blew me off of the lookout point over the city. I ate my first bouillabaisse on the Vieux Port (old port) at a place called Les Deux Soeurs, and I inhaled the atmosphere of the slightly down-at-the-heel, gritty, salt-air city.
In later years, when I smelled the smoky exhaust from large trucks or city buses, I was immediately transported back to Marseille. Today, that smell is gone, as is the gritty quality, and the cleaned-up city with its slick new tram lines owes much of its shine to its status as European Capital of Culture in 2013.
The Vieux Port, Marseille
Before my recent return, I had spent the past year or two poring over Google Maps, tracing the streets of Marseille, reading about its restaurants, and starting to make plans for an eventual retirement to the south of France. The city had a hold on my memory that wouldn’t let go. Finally, 35 years later, I exited the same train station and, spread out in a glorious vista before me, I beheld the same view as I had long before, this time in bright daylight. The St. Charles railway station had certainly changed, with a new addition, cafes, boutiques, and a much cleaner and brighter new atmosphere.
The Cathedral (Cathédrale Sainte-Marie-Majeure de Marseille or Cathédrale de la Major)
After the view, I went back into the train station to buy a one-week transit pass and catch the Metro to my hotel. I can’t say enough good things about the B&B Hotel in the Joliette (main port) area. For a two-star hostel, its amenities were for superior to similar accommodations. It’s new, for one thing, and from the minute I opened my room door and felt the arctic blast of air conditioning that worked (there was a heat wave) I knew that we would get along fine and that there would be some delicious air-conditioned afternoon naps in my future.
Mucem (the museum of Mediterranean culture) connected to Fort Saint-Jean by a footbridge.
I took the Metro back to the train station just so I could officially start my visit from the top of those monumental steps. I worked my way down to La Canebière, the city’s principal street, and, just in time for lunch, saw Toinou seafood restaurant in front of me, from my list of recommended places to eat. It would become a favorite, and I believe I ate there four times over the rest of the week.
My Marseille adventures are too varied to recount in detail here, but I will post some of my food photos in the next post. I visited all the places I had never had the time nor inclination to see before, including the Corniche along the Mediterranean, the Cité Radieuse (or Unité d’habitation), a “vertical city” apartment complex designed by Le Corbusier, the Cours Julien artsy/chic area, several museums, the old Panier district, and, on my final day, a boat excursion to the Calanques – deep inlets or valleys along the Mediterranean coast from Marseille to Cassis.
Le 14 Juillet – July 14 fireworks over Marseille.
I was in Marseille for Bastille Day July 14, so I caught the night-time fireworks show. My daily routine was to walk from morning to lunch time, have a wonderful lunch of seafood, retire to the hotel for my air-conditioned nap to recuperate from the heat, then venture out again in the late afternoon and evening. As in Paris, nightfall didn’t come until about 11:00 p.m., but there wasn’t much use hanging around after dark, since the city seemed to close up tight in the late evening.
Samaritaine Cafe, on the Vieux Port
By the end of my stay, I was pretty much convinced that this would be a superb place in which to spend my “twilight years,” if in fact I ever have any, or can afford a comfortable retirement. Checking out rental prices in the windows of local agencies, however, the city seemed quite affordable, which was very encouraging.
Vallon des Auffes, Marseille – a small fishing port not far from the central city.
The changes that I saw to Marseille seemed mostly to be for the better; the planners and designers responsible for the makeover of the Joliette port area, the Cathedral district, and the new cluster of nearby museums, achieved brilliant results. Excellent design sense, simplicity, and not overly-gentrified renovation of the Rue de la République made the city literally sparkle under the bright sunlight. I wasn’t able to sample the more upscale gourmet eateries, but I read that Marseille has come up in the world’s culinary estimation. You can still get the traditional bouillabaisse, but at the cost of 40-100 Euros per person (roughly the same in $$$). Increased tourism, plus the scarcity of the Mediterranean fish used for the dish, have sent the price spiraling upward.
Vallon des Auffes, view toward the Mediterranean
My dream vacation ended after one week in the Mediterranean city, which was exactly enough time, and yet not quite enough. It was back to Paris for the remainder of my trip, and on to new adventures. First, however, I had to re-visit Aix-en-Provence, where I had spent 6 months in my youth, but that’s a story for another post.
Palais Longchamp, a monument to the waters of the Durance River brought into the municipal supply.
Rooftop terasse of Le Corbusier’s Cité Radieuse
Panoramic view – Marseille and the Mediterranean from Notre Dame de la Garde Basilica.
This was my first visit to Arles, in Provence in southern France. The town contains some impressive Roman vestiges, including an amphitheater and an Arena. I was fortunate that my arrival coincided with the annual photography exhibition Les Rencontres de la Photographie, held in locations and historic buildings throughout the town. I spent one entire day wandering from one photo exhibit to the next, in the intense summer heat.
I spent three days in Arles, staying at the delightful Hostellerie de la Source just outside of town. Among the highlights of my stay was a bakery and pastry shop that sold wonderful Provencal sablés (a kind of shortbread). I ate several. I had intended on the final day to take a bus to Saint-Remy and Les Baux de Provence, but after standing at the appointed bus stop among a group of travelers for an hour, the bus never showed up. Those destinations will be saved for a future trip.
Cathedral of St. Trophime
St. Trophime cloister
Photography exhibit, Archbishop’s Palace
Photography exhibit, photo group and chair