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broodings from the burrow

November 11, 2008

france, day 6: now reporting from provence
posted by soe 8:04 pm

Sitting on the high-speed train out of Paris, it doesn’t take long before the city and its suburbs fade away and you’re out into the country. After the U.S., France exports the most food of any country in the world, and it’s obvious when you travel away from the capital region. The rolling hills, bright green fields, and straight rows remind me of driving across the country, particularly the Midwest, and call to mind that France is known as Europe’s bread basket.

That’s not to say that there aren’t regional changes. It’s much flatter in the north. Hills develop in the middle of the country, and by the time you reach the south, you can see some of the Alps. There are more animals as you get further south, and there is clearly a beef region — where herds of off-white cows graze. The south’s building material of choice is a yellowish stone. I don’t know what it is, but I imagine it contributes to outsiders’ positive impression of the area.

Aix en Provence (imagine if the mouthful it would be to say Springfield in Massachusetts every time you wanted to say where you lived…) is a city of 170,000, although I’d be hard-pressed to guess that. The TGV station is 20 minutes outside of town, and Rudi and I caught a bus in. My initial impression was one of dread, as you come in through a suburban sprawl, and the bus deposits you in the area near the police station and psychiatric hospital, with depressing little shops, all of which were closed today. Less than a mile away, though, and you reach the Cezanne fountain, where you begin to realize that life isn’t all that bad.

Given that I only decided at 2:30 a.m. that we were headed to Aix, I didn’t have hotel reservations, although our guide books did offer some affordable suggestions. After stopping at the local tourism office, which generously staffs a person who speaks English, we found ourselves headed to L’Hotel des Quatre Dauphins. Our room is on the second floor (although the French would tell you it’s the first floor, since it’s above the ground floor) and is wallpapered in the same reassuring yellow of the Provencal buildings. The bedspread, the bathroom, and the curtains are a delft blue, and modest white painted furniture rounds out the furnishings.

We arrived mid-afternoon and, after checking in, headed out to check out the town. We toured the Granet Museum, devoted to European art from the 14th-19th century. This hometown of Paul Cezanne houses a modest museum with a surprisingly large collection. From the outside, I would never have guessed they managed to squeeze as many works in as they do. They also get high marks from me for just putting the works up on the wall, where you can get up close and personal with the art (although I did witness one man open up an antique harpsichord, so perhaps I can understand why most museums opt to forgo that policy) and where the lights are surprisingly bright so you can get a real feel for how vibrant some of those paints were.

Ready for some refreshment after our excursion, we ended up on the town’s main drag, a broad avenue of shops and restaurants. We seated ourselves at Les Deux Garcons, an ancient cafe that predates the Revolution and that was a haunt of Cezanne and Emile Zola. Their chocolat chaud was delicious. We wandered some more after sunset and roamed the twisting streets now lined with shops closed for the night. Several squares offer cafes and many of the streets include fountains. Aix was created by the Romans around its thermal spas and its ancestry is obvious. (Aix derives from Aquae Sextius, the town’s original name.) We walked as far out as the ring road around the center of town and then headed back past the cathedral and the city hall. We stopped for another hot drink (it’s warmer in Provence than in Paris, but still nippy after dark) and then went on to dinner. Afterwards, we took in a current movie — Les Bouquets Finals — a funereal comedy.

Tomorrow, we’ll spend some more time in town before catching the local train up to Avignon, the one-time home away from home for the Pope when the Romans chased them out.

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