“You will think that nobody works in Aix because the cafes are always filled” laughed local guide Marie Gutton. “It’s not true but that’s how it seems.”
She was right. On the square all around us were cafes, each with only a few open tables.
And in its ambiance the little square was the modern incarnation of Renoir’s “At the Moulin De La Goulette”--without the frilly dresses, dancers and Parisian setting, of course. The faces at the tables wore the same graceful smiles. Sunlight washed over all, keeping the tiny cups of espresso warmer a little longer than usual, inviting a luxuriant procrastination from all the daily cares.
I hate to use that clichéd phrase, but there are few places in France as overbrimming with “joie de vivre” as Aix en Provence. A university town, with the youthful energy of 40,000 students (in a city of 140,000 total), it may not have the top-drawer museums or Roman ruins of nearby burgs, but it boasts an openness towards strangers, a lightness and happy charm that makes it an immensely satisfying place to visit.
Part of that charm, of course, is in its looks. Ochre stone plates the 17th century buildings of the old town, giving the streets a soothing glow. Aix’ famed promenade, the Cours Mirabeau, wide as Jim Carrey’s grin, is a parade ground for trendy locals, strutting their finest under the sheltering plane trees. (In a piece of ironic symmetry, the cafes fill the sidewalks of the sunny side of Mirabeau, while banks and lawyers offices take up the shady side.) Just off the Place du Ville, a daily open market dazzles the eye (and nose) with voluptuous strawberries, spiky purple and green asparagus, cheeses, charcuterie and the region's specialty: lavender. Lavender, lavender, everywhere lavender--in sachets, dried stalks, soaps, perfumes, you name it. And this being the city of water (Aix comes from the Roman word “aqua”), mannerist fountains speckle the landscape, each more elegant than the next.
“Fun” would be the word that best describes the museums and other sights, especially the Fondation Vaserly (www.fondationvasarely.fr) which houses the optic art experiments of Victor Vaserly. These consist of 42 massive (8 meters high, 5 meters wide) paintings of optical illusions a la M.C. Escher, but in buzzy, primary colors. Viewers do a slow tango back and forth in front of the works, watching the psychedelic shapes shift.
There’s also a pretty cathedral (www.cathedrale-aix.net) with but one major painting to study; a well-respected Tapestry Museum; The Musee Granet (www.museegranet-aixenprovence.fr) which is notable for its exquisite canvasses by Ingres; and the preserved painting studio of native son Paul Cezanne (www.atelier-cezanne.com). The last is a moody place, containing most of the master’s original furnishings but no paintings.
Where Aix excels is in its cuisine, and that holds in all price categories. At a tiny basement restaurant like L’Alcove (www.lalcove-aix.com) one gets a chatty welcome from the owner/waiter and a daily menu of refined takes on typical Provencal cuisine for 20-35 euros per meal. Venture into one of the town’s temples of fine dining and you’re in for the meal of a lifetime…at prices a third of what you’d find in Paris. At Restaurant Pierre Reboul (www.restaurant-pierre-reboul.com), for example, that might mean a starter of arugula ice cream pops followed by ecstatically delicious “Provencal fish soup” served in solid form, like an energy bar. Its “molecular gastronomy” at its tastiest, with visual effects that make you feel like you’re at a magic show. And the “Express Menu” starts at just 45 euros (spring for the 84 euro one, though, as this is a meal you won’t want to end too quickly).
Though you may have trouble leaving your seat at that sidewalk café to go and get a real meal. Lingering in the sunshine over a café au lait in Aix is sublime. And one of greatest people watching experiences in a country where staring at strangers is an art form. Try it, you’ll see what I mean.