Aix-en-Provence, France – Put It On Your Bucket List
The fountains really do “cast their lazy spray”
I’ve only been to France once. It was August 2011, I was in the throes of my master’s thesis and desperately needed a get away. Last minute I booked a flight with Ryanair to Marseilles, France. It was the cheapest flight available that was going somewhere warm. Having never been to France I was beyond excited and immediately began planning the four night trip. I didn’t want to spend all our time in the city, I was looking for a getaway so I could clear my mind and relax. I jumped into planning mode, opening two browsers side by side with multiple tabs. Reading as much as I could about the area around Marseilles, to see where we could go without spending a lot of money. I came across a New York Times article called “36 Hours in Aix-en-Provence” which said “Like a portrait of laid-back leisure, museumgoers and market shoppers amble through lanes where venerable fountains cast their lazy spray.” Nearly the same distance from the Ryanair airport as Marseilles, it sounded perfect.
Aix-en-Provence is a small town in the south of France, about 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) outside of Marseilles. The site was first founded in 123 BC by the Romans, and became a part of France nearly 1500 years later in 1487 AD. The city’s storied past dances on the warm breeze through the mainly pedestrian streets. Provençal in name, location, and style, Aix-en-Provence is famous for its markets. Go in the summer and there is no end to the ripe fruit and vegetables that you can buy, fresh fish for sale, or bright and beautiful sunflowers you can pick up for your hotel room.
The markets are a must see
The gorgeous buildings are enough reason to visit
The city center is primarily composed of pedestrian streets, with the roads further out being reserved for vehicles. While the many squares in town are filled with locals and vacationers milling about, take any turn down a side street and you will find yourself in a quiet and picturesque movie scene. Narrow streets are flanked by tall yellow residences with working blue shutters. Plants hang on the french balconies and once in a while ivy grows up the side and around ornate wooden doors. Other buildings have ornate green windows and flowers on windowsills.
Explore the side streets
Of any town I have ever been in, Aix-en-Provence is the best place to just wander. You’ll find yourself in a beautiful spot wherever you end up. The markets that populate the squares in the morning clear out and are replaced with outdoor seating for the many cafes, bars, and restaurants. Music is usually playing down any number of alleys and in the center of the squares.
This gentleman was playing classic French tunes
The wine from L’unic
Take a seat and you’re sure to be brought out olives to snack on by a cheerful local, be sure to ask for advice on which wine to get. We ordered the cheapest bottle one night after dinner and our waiter stopped us and said, in his romantic French accent, “No no no. I cannot let you have that wine. It is no good. You must have one from Aix-en-Provence, from here. I will bring it to you and you will love it. You come all this way and want that wine? No no. I will show you real wine.” He wasn’t kidding, it was the best vin rouge I’d ever had. I can’t tell you what it was called, because I cannot remember, but it was from L’unic Bar on rue de Vauvenargues.
Salmon, wine, and pastis
Bring some extra Euros for a fancy dinner at one of the many wonderful restaurants in town. I had a delicious dinner of salmon, rice, and amazingly soft zucchini (courgettes). If you don’t speak French learn a few key phrases and if you attempt to speak a little French to people in town, they always appreciate it, reply with a big smile and humor you a bit for your efforts. If they speak English they will launch into it for you. There is a really happy air about town, everyone is in a good mood. Well, why shouldn’t they be? They live in one of the most picturesque places in the world, where the sun shines, the wine is good, the summers are hot, and time calmly saunters along.
Mmm, pastis, très bien
No post about Provence would be complete without talking about pastis. Pastis is the drink of southeastern France. A strong spirit with 40-45% alcohol by volume, pastis is served alongside water, which you use to dilute the drink. People tend to either love or hate pastis. Tasting strongly of aniseed and licorice, it’s refreshing on a hot summer day. I loved it and drank my fair share on my mini-vacation. Whether you think you would love it or hate it, you have to try it.
Be sure to visit the Cathédrale d’Aix-en-Provence. Located atop a 1st century Roman forum, the current church replaces an ancient chapel that was destroyed by the 9th century. What stands today was constructed and improved between the 1100s and 1800s. When it opens for viewing every day, you will see a crowd gathering outside the doors, awaiting their chance to see the national monument. It’s intricate design is composed of multiple architectural styles including Roman, Gothic, and Neo-Gothic. There is an absolutely gorgeous organ inside the church, located above the main floor. If you’re lucky you’ll be there when they are practicing, as I was, which adds to the heavy and powerful atmosphere of the cathedral.
The entrance is actually to the right of the fancy doors
Every alleyway holds its own secrets in this Provençal village. I tell everyone who is going to France to visit this hidden gem. At night you can sit outside in the warm Mediterranean weather or find a hookah joint to drink tea and smoke shisha. Whatever you fancy, you’re sure to find it in Aix-en-Provence. Time slows, smiles get bigger, and the style more fashionable. Put Aix-en-Provence on your itinerary, I promise, you will not regret it.
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