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Beautiful Aix-en-Provence, Paul Cezanne + Cassis: a great area of France

NOTE: THESE POSTS WERE FILED TO MY TORONTO STAR BLOG IN DECEMBER 2010.

AIX-EN-PROVENCE, FRANCE  – Walking into town from my hotel it didn’t look like much.

But once I got past the garish kiddie rides that have taken over the main square here for Christmas (they did the same thing in Paris at the Bastille, which is another matter entirely) I was suddenly in a charming, ancient city.

Aix was founded by the Romans back in 122 B.C. after a convincing military victory over local Ligurian tribes, and it’s filled with lovely squares and limestone buildings in various Provencal shades of yellow, pale white and various hues of ochre.

IMG_6851 The Hotel de Ville is on a beautiful square (see left side of photo) with a tall tower that features a “window” with changing displays. There’s a revolving mechanism and the scene changes with the seasons, moving four times a year.

It’s still set on fall, this technically being autumn. But the rest of the city clearly is gearing up for Christmas, with small, chalet-like buildings lining Cour Mirabeau, known around here as the Aix version of the Champs Elysees. They sell lovely lavender soaps, churros dipped in chocolate, lovely candles, warm Alsatian wine (handy given the temperatures in France of late) and other local specialties. Off to one side is a market that specializes in tiny clay figures painted to look like everything from the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus to the wise men, as well as camels, local farmers, breadmakers and other village folks (my tour guide said they looked like the village people but I don’t think she meant it in a “YMCA” kinda way).

The story goes that local religious types were worried about having their Christmas IMG_6783figures destroyed by French revolution activists, so they created small figurines made out of clay that could be easily hidden or destroyed. The tradition carried on and now you can buy an entire population of small figures. They’re pretty cool mementoes and cost only about $10 to $15 each.

There are tons of nice-looking shops all around town, everything from Apple and Bang and Olufsen to fine lingerie shops, of which there is no shortage anywhere in France I can see.

There’s an old cathedral with stones taken from the edge of the Roman Forum and fifth century mosaics, as well as medieval paintings, Romaneseque and Gothic influences and a soon-to-be-restored cloister.

I got a quick glimpse of the cloister but it was nearly dark and the construction work prevented a good picture. But it looks lovely and well worth a look if you ever come this way. Be warned, however, that it’s not part of the regular tours so if you’re interested, just stop at the main desk on your way in and say you’d like a peek.

I stopped for an al fresco lunch of pizza and green salad with garlic at a sidewalk spot called Il Palatino. Quite good, but when they say salad with garlic they mean it; there had to be two tablespoons of chopped garlic on a small serving of mixed lettuce.

The town is home to painter Paul Cezanne, and you simply can’t get away from the guy even if you IMG_6805 wanted to. They have small, metallic markers in the sidewalks for people to follow the Cezanne route, which takes you past his school, a couple of his houses, his favourite pub (see photo of Les Deux Garcons, a lovely spot), the church where he got married, a fountain named for him, and more.

Maybe we could do the same for Mike Myers in Scarborough, I dunno…

Off today to check out some surrounding villages and maybe sneak a peek at the Mediterranean….

CASSIS, France – Every once in a while, you get really lucky in life.

As Travel Editor at the Star, I’m pretty lucky every day, to be honest. But Wednesday was just a shade above the norm. For the most part.

I left Aix-en-Provence a little after 10 and, after getting stuck on crazy/slow roads outside Marseille,IMG_6932  arrived in Cassis a little after 11. The sun was struggling to come out after some rain overnight, but the harbour looked lovely with multicoloured boats bobbing in the water in front of typical Provencal-style buildings lining the waterfront.

I grabbed a coffee at a waterfront place called Le Grand Large Café, which I found rather amusing, and watched a fairly angry Mediterranean roll in. The waves were pretty big crashing on the shore on an overcast morning, but it was still a joy to be overlooking the beach.

Cassis isn’t as well known as Nice or Cannes or Marseille, even, but it’s a nice, manageable town with some lovely shops. They had a lot of Christmas stuff out for sale, but I also managed to find some great fruit stands and a guy from Corsica selling Corsican sausages and sheep’s cheese, which I couldn’t resist. Not to mention the luscious tangerines, apples, and other stuff on display.

I drove out of town a couple hours later and headed up a snaky road called the Route des Cretes. I heard IMG_6952 it led to a nice overlook but I had no idea the sun would suddenly come out and that I’d quickly climb hundreds of meters above the crashing Mediterranean, perched on a high overlook of white and yellow stone with seemingly all the world stretched in front of me.

It was an absolutely glorious drive, topped by a few minutes sitting and watching the coast far below as I snacked on a typical picnic lunch of fruit, cheese, sausages, fresh French bread – and a coke. (Hey, I wasn’t going to go driving around the south of France with a glass of wine under my belt).

I tried to find the village of Rousset but the highway I took wouldn’t let me off until I was 20 km past. I ended up checking out a village that had been recommended to me. It’s called Vauvenargues, and it’s IMG_6970 pretty for sure, nestled in a valley with a large rock mountain/hill flanking it to the south. But at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday in December it was completely and utterly deserted. Not a single shop was open, and I only spotted one person and two dogs out and about, so that was too bad.

Still, it gave me a chance to wander about in Aix-en-Provence and to relax a bit at Les Deux Garcons and at the Hotel Pigonnet. It’s a nice, quiet spot a few blocks outside the main part of Aix, and it has lovely gardens and a great dining menu. The bathrooms are nice but the rooms are a touch tired and fairly small. That’s not a big deal in the scheme of things, but the coffee, mon dieu, was rather weak, and that simply won’t do for visitors to France!

Finished it off with a remarkable dinner at a very modern spot called Le Passage, across from Le Cezanne Theatre (on the other side of town from Lycee Cezanne). It’s a French restaurant on one floor and Thai on the upper floor, with a kind of old-factory feel to it. There’s a central atrium, if you will, surrounded by seating that feels like you’re almost suspended in mid-air. That’s a lousy description, butLepassage  it’s a very fun and enjoyable place to eat; a modern spot in a relatively old part of town with exceptional food. I tasted a sort of pumpkin cake served with creme fraiche mixed with goat cheese, as well as a lovely pork terrine with onion confit; always a popular choice. They do a pretty good job with flank steak and duck, too, plus a nice raspberry/rhubarb tart and other desserts.

A DAY WITH CEZANNE

I’ve been gently poking fun at this town for its fascination with Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne, noting how there’s a Cezanne Theatre and a Lycee Cezanne and a bunch of Cezanne homes you can visit and fountains he either used or were somehow connected with him.

I was hoping a visit to his studio in the hills above town, known as Atelier Cezanne, would put more of a human face to this Aix legend. And it did.

I had a 10 a.m. appointment with Marie Chantal Moreau, who had given me a tour of the town of Aix on Tuesday. She took me up to the studio, and it was a wonderful 45 minutes.

Cezanne, like many artists in the area, built a huge “window wall” on the north side of his studio to take advantage of diffused light. He also had two smaller windows built on the south side, which was a tad unusual, Moreau told me.

She pointed out the studio walls, which originally were white but interfered with the light, causing Cezanne to mix enough colours so that he came up with the perfect shade of deep grey. He also had wooden floors but left them unpolished so they wouldn’t reflect the sunlight.IMG_7005

All interesting, but what was best was seeing many of the items the artist used in his everyday work; his easel, a row of skulls, a small table, an overcoat (still spotted with paint) and, best of all, a crockery jar used in a couple of his paintings and a creamy white bowl that he often used to hold the fruit he loved to paint.

There were brushes and wine bottles he used, as well as other items from his painting life, as well as numerous photos.

Cezanne loved to paint fruit, especially apples. I was told it was partly because his childhood friend, Emile Zola, once gave him a present of apples as thanks for Cezanne keeping bullies away from Zola at the school they attended together. A nice story.

On the other hand, it seems Zola later wrote a book about a failed painter called “The Masterpiece.”  Cezanne apparently thought it was modeled after him and was angry at his childhood friend for a number of years. Zola died a few years prior to Cezanne, who is said to have hidden himself in his atelier all day and cried over the loss of his former pal.

Good stuff, and there’s a nice gift shop (naturally) and a pretty garden if the kids get restless.

I had a chance to wander back into the old part of Aix for a while before popping into a place called Bistrot des Philosophes for lunch. It was a treat for the eyes, with old, wooden tables of different styles and mismatched wooden chairs, as well as a patchwork layout with stone steps and tiny, hidden rooms. They keep the cutlery and serviettes in a green file cabinet, which is a fun touch.

IMG_7043More important than funky décor, however, is some serious Provencal food. I tasted a superb local fish topped with stewed tomatoes and a side dish of thinly sliced zucchini on top of more tomatoes, plus a wonderful ravioli dish with mushrooms and a champagne crème sauce that was good enough to lick the bowl.

They both were beautifully prepared, with just the right angles and arrangements and tiny drabs of thick, rich balsamic vinegar lined up along the sides of the plate. Even an appetizer serving of Serrano ham from Spain was lovingly folded with a sprig of fresh herbs and accompanied by a small salad in a tiny, clear mason jar; a very cool effect.

They also serve tiny sticks of spaghetti or linguine that have been cooked in olive oil until golden brown. They taste delicious and snap like a razor-thin breadstick; a nice crunch after a few bites of green salad with a mustard vinaigrette.

I still haven’t managed time to wolf down a Croque Monsier, which I never quite understood the meaning of until the other day, when I spotted a translation at the Aix-en-Provence TGV train station that called it “Crunch Mister” in English. I guess that’s correct. On the other hand, they also offered up a “salted tart of the day” and translated flan patissier as “blank pastrycook,” which is rather hilarious.

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