Provence: Joie de Vivre

After seven days of getting up at dawn and walking until dusk, we decided to spend just a few days in the countryside of France chasing 'joie de vivre'. The landscapes of Monet and Cezanne unfolded as the TGV from Paris sped towards our Provencal destination of Aix en Provence, a stab in the dark when planning our vacation and ironically the highlight of our trip. The train ride itself was sheer bliss and offered much needed recovery time from many days trying to navigate a foreign city while speaking a foreign language. We stayed at a boutique hotel called Hotel Cezanne, a stark contrast to the rustic, timeworn Hotel de La Tulipe in Paris. We arrived in the late afternoon with just enough time to freshen up and make our way up the hill to the narrow streets and open air cafes in the heart of the old city.

The charming, small town feel of Aix en Provence did not take long to sink in. The streets were filled with people and lined with shops, cafes, culinary markets and patisseries, a pleasant juxtaposition of old and new. Ancient buildings dating back to the 17th century house chic, urban storefronts. Pedestrians shared the narrow cobblestone streets with an occasional car or motorcycle. Traditional French retailers like Hermes, Sonia Rykiel, Comptoir des Cotonniers, L'Occitane en Provence were all represented and mixed with shops like the one above, L'Espirit des Lieux en Provence, that sell products unique to Provence. We didn't leave this charming store empty handed!

{Saturday morning fruit and vegetable market at place des Prêcheurs}

 The residents of Aix en Provence exude 'Joie de Vivre'. The crowded streets are filled with locals following their daily routines. The thing that I most envy about the french way of life is that they are not in a hurry and they mix chore with pleasure. For example, the nightly grind of preparing dinner is coupled with an afternoon stroll through these charming streets to gather ingredients. They might visit a boulangerie for bread, a patisserie for dessert; a fromagerie for cheese and a specialty store dedicated to providing olive oil. A daily visit to the fruit and vegetable market on place Richelme is a must; and on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays there's another one on place des Prêcheurs. When they tire of the markets, they simply grab a friend and share a tiny french coffee and a pistachio macaroon in one of the open air cafes while Provence strolls by. I could get used to that!

{Fromagerie Gerald Paul, 9, rue des Marseillais}

How fun would it be to visit Gerald Paul and have him help you plan a cheese course to complement your dinner menu? I know little to nothing about cheese and would like to know more. I would especially like to acquire the knowledge of putting together a savvy 'cheese plate' appetizer. I would love to ask Gerald Paul, "What's the best cheese to serve with those adorable little champagne grapes I have noticed in the outdoor markets or with fig jam or honeycomb?"

{Place aux Huiles, a specialty shop featuring high quality olive oils and Provencal culinary products}

A foodies dream store, Place aux Huiles features over 600 olive oil inspired products. They offer in store tastings and pair their offerings with local wines. They also sell many specialty products that are grown regionally in Provence: honey from Provence and Corsica; fleur de sel de Camargue; balsamic vinegar of modena; almonds; jams cooked in traditional copper pots and a wide range of spices.

These little olive trees caught my eye as we strolled down an avenue towards place des Cardeurs where we planned to eat dinner. Oh, how I wish I could take a few of these home!

{Bistro des Philosophes, 20, place des Cardeurs, Aix en Provence}

As we turned the corner, the narrow streets opened up to a wide piazza, place des Cardeurs, filled with cafe tables, chalkboard menus, olive trees and umbrellas. One restaurant's outdoor dining was indistinguishable from the next. Again, old world meets new as we dined under the stars in this classic french bistro as the World Cup played on a sleek wide screen TV. Somehow, my experience in Paris actually made me believe that I really could speak French but here in Provence where English is not spoken so fluently, I was struggling to order dinner. We settled on a filet of beef only because it was the only dish we could understand.

{a wider view of place des Cardeurs that shows how expansive it is}

The restaurants don't begin serving until 8:00 PM, a little later than we are used to. When we arrived {early}, the chef was feeding his staff family style. Everything is prepared fresh each night, and the staff gain first hand
knowledge of the night's fare. We busied ourselves trying to translate {guess} what was on the evening menu. As the sun goes down, the piazza fills with people and a pleasant buzz of foreign languages and roars fill the air as the World Cup energizes the crowds.

Our meal at Bistro des Philosophes was one of the best meals I can remember having in recent years. In fact, we enjoyed it so much we came back the next night!

Upon returning home, I did some research about this gorgeous city. Aix en Provence dates back to 123 BC when it was built by the Romans on the site of a thermal spring for which the city was named (Aix comes from the Latin word for water, aquae). The famous impressionistic artist Cézanne was born in Aix. He used the city as an inspiration and background for his paintings for many years. Mont St Victoire, which is just outside of Aix, was painted by Cézanne over 60 different times. To this day, Cézanne's studio can be found on 9th avenue, undisturbed since he last used it in 1906. It is also known as the city of fountains as there are exquisite fountains everywhere.

{fountain in the center of aix en Provence at the Hôtel d'Albertas}

In 1745, the most wealthy families in Provence prided themselves on having the largest, prettiest, and costliest homes in the city. One such home was owned by Marquis Henri-Rainaud d'Albertas, an influential noble whose family had served in Parliament for seven generations. He fought for 20 years to rid Rue Espariat, the street on which he lived, of the smaller houses that cluttered the view from each of his windows. He was finally successful in replacing the homes with a town square so that he could enjoy the square's live theatre performances from his balcony.  

The Fountain of Hot Water was made from the Bagniers spring in 1734. It was nicknamed "Moussue" because of the moss that adorns the fountain. The 93° hot springs have been appreciated for their healing powers for over 2000 years.

Ancient architecture, faded blue shutters, scrolling centuries old ironwork, ivy clad buildings, and window boxes create a photographer's fantasy. Every few steps, I am compelled to stop and take a picture!

{fontaine de la Rotunda, circa 1860}

This impressive fountain built in 1860 is actually one of the more modern fountains of Aix en Provence. It rests in the center roundabout on Cours Mirabeau, a picturesque avenue lined with trees. Three statues: Justice, Agriculture and Fine Arts adorn the fountain and recall the main activities of this town.

Saturday morning before we had to catch the TGV back to Paris, we had the thrill of visiting the Saturday morning markets Aix is famous for. From flowers, fruits and vegetables to Provincial hand crafts such as pottery, linen tablecloths and fabrics; to antiques.

Joie de vivre! I could get used to this!
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