Saturday, June 09, 2007

Logbook: Aix - Provence

Aixprovence1Since our only real objective on Tuesday was to transit from Nice to Aix, Kay and I decided to drive the “scenic” route along the coast. After two hours of stop-and-go traffic, we abandoned that plan and took a different “scenic” route across the hills then joined up with the highway for our final approach into Aix. The point of relating this itinerary is to highlight the fact that there are many different kinds of roads in France: The highways are very good and very, very fast but not very scenic; the city roads are congested, often scary to drive and not very enjoyable; the country roads are generally in excellent condition, tend to have little traffic, offer lovely views and are downright fun to drive. If you drive in France, I strongly suggest you spend as much time as possible on the country roads! Upon our arrival in Aix, we easily found our way to the hotel, parked the car in a nearby lot and had a glass of wine while watching the sun set over that old and picturesque little city. We have pretty well gotten into the French dining schedule, so at about nine we wandered into the narrow, twisting streets of the oldest part of town and found an amazing number -- and variety -- of restaurants. Aix is also a college town, and the number of young, pretty people who frequent the cafes and bars is astonishing. We enjoyed doing some people watching while eating dinner then called it a night.

We began our exploration in Provence at a reasonable hour on Wednesday and were in St. Remy in time for lunch. Well fortified, we pursued the first of the town’s two claims to fame: Vincent Van Gogh spent a year in the asylum there and produced hundreds of works, including some of his most famous paintings. A kilometer-long walking tour with sign posts along the way show some of his paintings, including a number at the actual spots where he painted them. It was a nice and informative walk, ending at the actual asylum with a visit to Van Gogh’s restored room overlooking the garden. Not far from the asylum is the second of St. Remy’s major attractions: The Glanum -- an archeological excavation site of ruins spanning many centuries from pre-Hellenic to post-Roman. The self-guided tour is pretty well documented and worth doing. By the time we had finished these two explorations and walked the kilometer back to town, we were ready to head back to Aix.

Aixprovence2Along the drive, we stopped at a farm to try some of what else Provence is famous for: Olives! I was happily gobbling down some tasty little gems when the farmer insisted I enjoy them in the “traditional Provencal way” with an unlikely beverage called “Pastis” -- anise flavored liquor diluted with water. I was a bit skeptical at first, but quickly found that the flavors blended in a remarkably satisfactory way. Ooh la la! Back in Aix, we grabbed a quick bite then wandered into an almost empty little wine “cave” where the bar tender was drying glasses. Now, although we have been in “wine country” for a while, we have made very little progress in educating ourselves as to what’s what in that arena. Frankly, there are so many wines to choose from that we have capitulated at every turn and simply ordered some of whatever the “house” was offering. With Ben -- the bartender -- to ourselves, we delved into the subject. I can’t tell you that I actually know any more than I did before, but Ben served us some truly astonishing wines and did an excellent job of explaining French wine making to us. We enjoyed our visit so much that we pledged to return for dinner the following night! Thus, we ended our first day of exploration in Provence having sampled much of what the area is famous for: Art, archeology, olives, pastis, wine and, of course, food!

Thursday morning we drove to Avignon which is especially famous for being home to Popes during their exile from Rome. The entire old city is a vast fortress, surrounded on the outside by a bustling urban sprawl and containing inside a dense ancient city. Having been in so many charming little French towns and villages, my impression of Avignon was not very positive. I enjoyed the two hours I spent on the self-guided audio tour of the famous Palace of Popes -- mostly walking around gaping at the wealth and power of the church -- and can imagine how folks who are more into religion than I am can spend an entire day on the same tour. The Petit Palace was less interesting to me because, frankly, there are only so many versions of the same religious icons I can look at before it kinda creeps me out. Those two tours pretty much satisfied my interest in Avignon and, while I can see why other people might find the city fascinating, I was happy to be heading back to Aix in time for dinner with Ben at the wine cave. And what a dinner it was! The food was only pretty good, but the wine was excellent and the music was fabulous: Blues! That’s right, while sitting in the cellar of a 14th century building, having dinner and drinking wine, we were entertained by an outstanding blues singer/harmonica player and his band. It was a very different Provence experience!

Yesterday, our last day of exploration in Provence, we drove to Arles which is another popular tourist destination. The size, look and feel of the city was pretty positive for me and we immediately set out to tour the many attractions: There are ruins of a Roman amphitheater, a theater, baths, etc., plus more Van Gogh influences from his stay in the local asylum (prior to his moving to St. Remy). Sadly, I found the whole thing to be kind of a bad joke. Yes, there are ruins from a Roman amphitheater, but the place has been converted for contemporary use as a bullfight ring. Similarly, the theater is Roman in origin, but it is set up for music concerts and the metal scaffolds, seats and light stands pretty much destroy any historic feeling. The baths are just a bunch of holes in the ground with bits and pieces of old stone stacked. In no case is there much descriptive historical information. As for Van Gogh, a quick visit to the garden in which he painted -- surrounded by a mass of tourist shops -- pretty much covers it. We may have missed something important about Arles, but I don’t think so. My favorite part of the day was sitting by the Rhone river, watching the water stream by. Enough said! Happy to be back in Aix, we had dinner and toasted the end of our Provence exploration.

I have now spent more than six weeks traveling throughout southern France and I have enjoyed it very much. By and large, I have enjoyed the smaller towns far more than the larger cities. That may be due mostly to my own nature and personality, but I don’t think so. If you visit “The South of France” you will naturally be pointed to the cities. I recommend you give them as little time as possible, get a car and hit the country roads. You will have a lot more fun and spend a lot less money! Today has been chore day for me (laundry, haircut, pack gear, etc.) while Kay has taken a walking tour around town. In the morning we will drive to the train station, drop off the car and take the fast TGV train to Paris on The Voyage of Macgellan!

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