I’m writing this on the train from Barcelona to Alicante, so I have a beautiful distraction of the Mediterranean and palm trees, which even as I type out the words amazes me!
The train is a medium speed train with airline seats and lots of leg room. It’s sort of like an airplane because they put movies on and give you headphones (no wifi), and they serve café con leche, so what could be better? We left Aix yesterday and spent the night in a cute little hotel (68 euros!) to break the journey a bit. The blog got a bit neglected due to a deadline for my online poetry course at the Poetry School in London, which I am really loving being a part of, and it adds some internal structure, which I find I need.
Talking of poetry, perhaps I should retire to a small coastal town, like this fellow and make a living writing poems!
Our flat in Aix was a lovely corner first floor flat (yes we got a break from stairs this time) with windows on two sides, a little balcony, and a spacious bedroom and Provence-style kitchen with lots of ceramic tile. Our landlady was very helpful and met us to welcome us, so we felt right at home.
The first night we went to a restaurant that was on her list of recommendations in the Mazarin neighborhood. Since it was quiet the staff were extra friendly and we had a delicious meal including some complimentary limoncello which we have a fondness for after getting a free one at Francesca’s on Bryn Mawr in Chicago one Christmastime. The place we were living was very close to the Cours Mirabeau, which is a main pedestrian thoroughfare and there were decorations up already for Christmas. Also there were wooden stalls for a Christmas market which sells among other things, santons, ceramic figures which it’s a customary to buy a for the family crèches. In addition a sweet little fun fair, with mostly rides for children, and stalls such as catch the rubber duck on a hook! There were also lots of chestnuts cooked over charcoal for sale.
Because of France being on alert for terrorist attacks, the markets were seen as a bit of a target, sadly, so there were often French police in evidence, and the thoroughfare was blocked off with concrete blocks and police cars. The security didn’t seem that intense, definitely less so than in Brussels, where soldiers were on every other corner with automatic weapons.
The other type of market was an ancient outdoor market that takes place three times a week, including Saturday, and brings farmers and artisans from the area to sell their fruits, and vegetables, olives and cheeses. A couple of days our entertainment was to spend time there gathering food for an indoor picnic enjoyed with some local wine. (Provence is famous for rose, and we enjoyed some local rose our first night, thanks to our landlady who had left a bottle in the fridge for us). I had to observe first how people are served at the market, because they have their own way of doing it. You pick up a battered metal bowl or plastic sieve-like container, choose your fruits and veggies and then they weigh it and bag it for you. “Tres simple!”
Aix is a very walk-able city, and we enjoyed just pottering around exploring. It’s also very ancient, and beautiful. We enjoyed some good down time as usual, and found a really good coffee house down the street run by an English couple. It’s called Mana Coffee if you’re ever in Aix. It was nice to be back in France, and I knocked a few more flakes of rust off my French conversation skills.
We had some lovely and interesting excursions outside the town, and traveled by bus, which was a little challenging, as the bus drivers we met did their best not to speak English, so we had a few moments wandering around in circles, trying to figure out what the something on the left was where we were to get the bus. In the end we missed that bus, but were able to get another one which actually turned out to be the better choice because the end of the walk was all downhill! There’s a beautiful mountain just outside the town, called Montaigne Sainte. Victoire, which Cezanne painted a lot.
We had a lovely walk in a valley that is on the approach to the mountain, which included two dams, one called Zola dam, not after Emile, but after his father, who was a dam builder (thanks for the research Sam!). The landscape is characterized by a reddish clay that is seen on the hillsides.
The walk ended up in a charming village Le Tholonet where we watched a few groups of elderly men playing petanque while we waited for the bus.
On another excursion we took an express bus to Marseilles. I think I had a romantic view of it, because of the French national anthem or something, or perhaps because it was a port from which many Jews left the country escaping persecution during WWII. Also, this was to be our first view of the Mediterranean, which we were excited about. Anyway, Marseilles is definitely a very gritty city, and we didn’t fall in love with it. The Vieux Port is a well-documented highlight, but it was a rainy day, and except for the rectangular harbor we couldn’t really see the Mediterranean, so it was a bit of an anticlimax. However, thanks to our Lonely Planet guide book, we found a restaurant for lunch which was off the tourist route, called Malthazar, where mostly locals were enjoying their expansive Sunday lunch. The waitress was very nice, and helped us to choose some local fish dishes, one of which was a local variant on the specialty of Marseille, bouillabaisse. This got us rejuvenated to climb the steep hill (there is a tourist train up it we found out at the top) to Notre Dame de la Garde, a beautiful cathedral, with amazing views of the sea and all around. So between Malthazar and the view of the Mediterranean we were satisfied.
One of the most powerful experiences we had was an afternoon spent at Camp des Milles, which was a tile factory that got converted into a concentration camp where Jews and other marginalized groups were imprisoned during WWII in Vichy France. Although it wasn’t an extermination camp, it was a place of desperation due to the inhumane treatment of the inmates and the weekly selection of hundreds who were transported to Auschwitz. The exhibition takes you through the history of the camp and its context and is very thoughtfully curated. There are different levels of information depending on the depth of your interest. The middle part of the experience brings you inside the factory and the final part is very unique in comparison with other Holocaust sites, (we were told) because it involves an analysis of the circumstances under which such genocide was possible and asks some very important questions that relate to present day situations. We had gone into the site thinking we might spend 90 minutes or so there, and we were there for about three hours, which went very quickly. One thing that struck us was that the museum staff were very sensitive, and kind. It was a contrast to the exhibition at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, which was wonderfully detailed, but there was a sense of detachment that we felt from the staff, which was a little off-putting.
We spent a night and two days in the beautiful little port of Cassis, on the Mediterranean, a little east of Marseilles. Cassis is known for its vineyards that mostly produce dry white wine, as well as the spectacular fjord-like “calanques” that indent the coastline just west of the town and extend towards Marseille. We were hoping to be able to take a boat ride to see them, as they are quite arduous to reach on foot (and Sam has been nursing plantar fasciitis ever since we were in the Lake District, so that wasn’t an option). We weren’t sure that it would be possible so late into the season. But our second day was really sunny and quite warm, so the boatmen were out. We did the five calanques trip in just over an hour. The views were quite spectacular, and we were so glad we got to experience this part of the coastline.
Our last trip of the fortnight was an organized guided trip to the Luberon mountain range which is famous for its stunning peaks, hilltop villages, andvineyards. We had cleverly booked this trip on a day that was to and did rain nonstop, but thanks to a nice lady in the Tourist Information we were able to change the date on the cusp of the deadline for this, and so were able to take this trip on a warm and sunny day two days prior to leaving Aix. We ended up having a private tour because we were the only people who had signed up.
Our tour guide was very friendly and informative, and we stopped off in several towns, spent time on our own walking in them, and taking in the views, and ate our Munster (the real Munster, which only has in common with the American version an orange rind) cheese sandwiches looking down at the town of Roussillon. We squeezed in a visit to a salon de the where we eavesdropped on two posh-sounding English women who were discussing housing prices in the South of France. It seemed that one was a realtor (immobilier) and the other a prospective buyer. It turns out that you can get a nice house with a couple of bedrooms and a pool and garden in this area in the countryside for about a million. We weren’t sure if it was a million pounds or euros…..Ultimately I don’t think it makes any difference to us!
Our last afternoon our walk took us to a cheese shop, in search of a cheese that I had learnt about in my research on French cheese. It’s a raw cows’ milk cheese that is only produced in the autumn and early winter, and we were able to find it in this little fromagerie: Mont d’Or. For the uninitiated, It’s like fondue but you don’t have to cook it! I think it ties for first place on our list of favourite cheeses with Epoisse. And so, on to Spain, and Alicante, where we hope to spend some time on the beach, chilling out with my friend Mink and her family, and perhaps taking a break from high cholesterol dairy products! We’ll be there for a month and then travel back to Barcelona for the month of January. So, Sam will celebrate his birthday in Alicante, and I will celebrate mine in Barcelona. Not sure what our plans for Christmas are yet, but most importantly we look forward to exchanging greetings with family and friends on both sides of the Atlantic.