Our Aixperience

We visited Aix-en-Provence and saw a knife fight.   That wasn’t the only thing we saw.

After leaving the restaurant at dusk, we strolled the streets.  Some towns roll up the sidewalks after dark; Aix does not.  It is practically mandatory to walk the streets in the evening and have a drink on cafe terraces.  Yep.  Streetwalking is mandatory.  It’s especially nice because the old town (vielle ville) is car free, easy to navigate and a manageable size.

Boulevard Mirabeau (Cours Mirabeau), is a grand avenue built on the site of the former ramparts in the 17th century.   Our favorite trees in Geneva, the plane tree, line and shade  the stately boulevard.  The overhanging trees provide much-needed shade on hot summer days.  Moss covered fountains are in the center of the avenue with stately old town houses behind the wide sidewalks.

We strolled it that evening, but went back the next morning to have coffee (and a croissant)  in the legendary café, Les Deux Garcons.  Dating from 1792, many famous people have dined here including: Picasso, Churchill, Edith Piaf, André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, Raimu, Alain Delon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean CocteauSophie Marceau, Jean Reno, Hugh Grant and George Clooney.  It was a regular haunt of Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola.  I can see why.  The cappuccino was tasty and the croissant was wonderfully light.  It was a treat to sit and watch the world pass.

Being American, we like a fast pace and giant to do lists.  It is impossible to live like that in Aix.  It is a place to stop, enjoy the view and make the mundane wonderful.

Aix is known for its many and varied markets.  They have normal markets, local producers markets, flower markets, antiques markets and old book markets.  We visited the morning market at Place Richelme (there are also markets at Place de Verdun, Place de l’Hôtel de Ville and Place des Prêcheurs).  We picked up some fresh fruit and perused the many artisanal varieties of cheese, meats and breads.

 Aix-en-Provence is a university town (University of Provence Aix-Marseille) and filled with academics and students.  It also gets its fair share of aristocrats, people who are wealthy enough not to have to work and professionals.   It has a reputation for being a bit elitist.  If you are interested in Aix, it was immortalized by Peter Maille’s book “One Year in Provence.”

Like many other towns in the south of France (Arles, Orange, Vence), Aix was inhabited by the Romans.  They built thermal baths at Aix, Aquae Sextiae, around 2000 years ago.  Today you can visit the newer (18th-century hot-water baths) and modern spa built atop the old baths (you can see them from the lobby).

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Van Gogh In Saint-Rémy De Provence

 

After cutting off part of his left ear in Arles, Vincent van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, a psychiatric asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence.  The year was extremely difficult for Van Gogh.  Although he was incapacitated at times,  it was also one of his most creative periods and he produced over 150 paintings during his year at Saint-Rémy.  When he was able to paint, he produced many of his best works.  His landscapes from this period are particularly groundbreaking.

As long as he remained stable, the doctors allowed Vincent to paint and he converted an adjacent cell into a studio. Initially, he was not allowed to leave the asylum grounds.  He painted what he saw from the room (minus the bars on the window).  We saw the asylum’s walled garden replete with irises, lilacs, and ivy-covered trees. Having seen Van Gogh’s paintings, it was hauntingly familiar.

Although it’s not fancy or high-tech, the exhibits teach you about Van Gogh’s life, his mental illness, how he came to Arles, his treatment there, how mental illnesses were treated at the time and his painting.  On our way out to walk the grounds, he said that Van Gogh is now his favorite painter (I’m not sure that he had one before).

Irises exemplifies Van Gogh’s trademark vivid colors and daring brush strokes.  It was one of his early paintings there.  Influenced by Japanese wood blocks, it lacks the higher tension in his later works.  He called it “the lightning conductor for my illness” because he believed that he could avoid further breakdowns by continuing to paint.  Unfortunately this was not so and after painting this, he suffered his first major “attack” at the asylum.

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles

Irises, 1889, Getty Center, Los Angeles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When he was permitted to leave the grounds, he painted the nearby wheatfields, olive groves, and cypress trees of the surrounding countryside.  The Olive Trees, by Vincent Van Gogh, depicts an olive grove just outside the grounds of the asylum in Saint-Rémy.

The museum has plaques at spots where Van Gogh painted, explaining the painting and the view.  They make well-known spots easy to find.  Some spots are so iconic you immediately recognize them even without the plaques.  Seeing the olive groves or the beds of irises, we were filled with awe at Van Gogh’s ability to capture the feeling and essence of them.

Olive-trees

Olive-trees (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We went to St. Rémy not knowing what to expect.  Although it was raining to hard to see much of the town, it was a wonderful surprise and a powerful, moving experience (kind of like Van Gogh’s paintings).  It was something we will remember forever and we even learned a little something.

 

Breaking Wind – Le Mistral

Provence was windy.  I’m not talking about a slight breeze.  I’m talking about a fierce, howling, incessant wind with giant gusts.  Provence is known for its ferocious, cold wind known locally as “Le Mistral” (or mistrau in Provençal).  It blows for days at a time, reaching speeds of 100 km/hr (62 miles/hr).  Some have described it as a hurricane with sunny weather.

WARNING! Please be careful during your visit, particularly if it is windy, especially near the edges of the cliffs, the Sarassine, the Paravelle towers and the Dunjon. Please keep an eye on your children! Culture Espaces accepts no responsibility. – Sign in Les Baux that translates into “if you get blown off the cliff it is your own fault.”

The result of an atmospheric phenomenon, it usually develops as a cold front moving down across France. Winter’s cold air piles up in the Alps before spilling over the mountaintops, down into the Rhône valley to the Mediterranean (towards Marseille).   It works to blows away clouds and moisture, providing towns like Aix-en-Provence with an average 300 sunny days a year. In our two trips to Provence, we experienced two rainy days.  Go figure.

Le Mistral is the single most important factor in shaping the Provence’s trees are  Provençal landscape.  Trees are permanently bent in the wind’s direction.  Vincent Van Gogh’s  swirling landscapes depict the the effects of the Mistral on the countryside.

Le Mistral flattens the grasses in the field, bends the top of the cypress trees and even in knocks over flower pots, tosses patio furniture around, tears the washing off the line, tosses garbage cans blocks away and pretty much sweeps away anything that isn’t tied down.    The howling wind even blows doors wide open and people off their feet!

When the Mistral blows, no one goes out unless they really have to.  People huddle indoors with their shutters battened; the streets are empty.  The wind becomes the topic of every conversation.   Legend has it that the Mistral will blow for one day, three, six, nine or even as many as twelve days.

Like the Föhn, people claim that Le Mistral can cause headaches, restlessness in children and even affect pets.  It makes everyone bad tempered and exasperated.  Some even claim that it causes mental instability, making people mad.  That was probably great for Van Gogh.

Le Mistral’s has positive effects on Provence and not just if you want to fly a kite, windsurf, or sail.  It blows stagnant waters dry and stopping disease from spreading.   Locals call it “mange fange” which translates into swamp eater. The Mistral’s winds drying effect on the area keeps the Rhône vines, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, free of mildew (great for wine lovers).  The humidity in the air is blown away, leaving things dry and the view crystal clear (great for artists).

Arles, Better Than New

After our whirlwind tour of France’s Côte d’Azur (Cannes, Antibes, Villefranche, Nice, Eze, the Grande Corniche, St. Paul-de-Vence, and Vence), we headed back from the coast to Provence.  Arles was a cultural and religious centre during the late Roman Empire.  During the dark ages, it fell under the control of the Muslim Saracens, the Franks and even experienced Viking raids.  The turbulence didn’t last and the town regained political and economic prominence.  For centuries Arles was a major port on the Rhône.  With the advent of the railroad in the 19th century, Arles became something of a backwater while nearby Marseille (with it’s seaport) exploded. Today, Arles is gently loved and its decay is part of its charm.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Arles is that even though it is filled with old, even ancient buildings and surrounded by history, it doesn’t stay rooted in the past.  It isn’t, nor does it want to be, a time capsule.  The ancient buildings house very current shops restaurants and exhibitions.   Arles is vibrant.  It manages to be lively and active without being stressful.  We loved its relaxed vibe.  After having been in the Cote d’Azur, it was a nice change to visit a town that had more locals than tourists.

We weren’t the only ones who fell under Arles’ spell.  Our friend, Hokie, at The Swiss Watch Blog, recommended it.  The movie Ronin was partially filmed in Arles.  It stars Jean Reno (an iconic French actor who you probably know from The Da Vinci Code, Mission: Impossible, and Hotel Rwanda) and Robert De Niro.  This caper film has wonderful cinematography an unforgettable car chase.  John Frankenheimer filmed Ronin’s shoot-out in Arles.  Vincent Van Gogh lived, painted, drank and cut off an ear here.   There are placards all over the city at sites where Arles appears in his paintings.  Who hasn’t seen the painting Cafe Terrace at Night which the cafe below?

We walked along the Rhone River from the Roman Museum into town before losing ourselves in its history and narrow alleyways.  Thanks for the recommendation Hokie.  We loved Arles.