Friday, May 17, 2013

Aix-en-Provence, Maius MMXIII



Buried under the cobblestones and concrete of Aix-en-Provence are the hot springs that give the town its name, the Aquae Sextiae discovered (so Wikipedia tells me), or at least named, by Roman consul Sextius Calvinus in 123 BCE. The hot springs are now a super-fancy spa. Water spills out from fountains around the town, and occasionally fell from the air as we drove there and back, though the rain thoughtfully held off for our actual visit. We found a spot in a parking structure and went to the Cours Mirabeau to see the weekly market.



Not a food market (that was elsewhere) but a cloth-and-clothes market, for the most part. Mom eyed the scarves, having realized as I did that without a scarf one is not au courant with French style, but she didn't find one. We bought sachets of lavender in cloth bags, and I bought an apron with chickens on it. Yes, a chicken thing, but I don't have an apron, and I found that I prefer cooking in one. I might eventually end up in an apartment again in Pau, with roommates or otherwise, and it's best to be prepared. Plus, chickens!


And then, having nothing particular to do and specific landmarks to look for, we just started wandering through the streets. Aix-en-Provence is a good town for wandering; there's a university there, and a big library, and I'm sure more that we didn't get around to seeing. I could go back. I could live there. I wonder if they have an interesting continuing education program at the university? Let me check ... hmm, IT systems administration, library science, marketing - no, nothing about food, dairy or otherwise. Ah, well, there will be another reason to go back to Aix-en-Provence in the future, I'm sure.


We stopped for lunch at one of the many bistros on the Rue d'Italie; John had rabbit in mustard sauce, and Mom had a salad with warm chèvre, and I had some frites with the rough garlicky tapenade that came with Mom's salad, and we split a small carafe of local rosé. And then we started walking again, heading towards the old Roman hot springs and public baths.



We stopped at a bakery on the way, and I wish I'd written down the name of it. This young man makes the pastries and breads himself, including the seasonal Provençal specialty, the gâteau de Pentecôte (Pentecost cake) called a colombier. A colombe is a dove, and this represents the Holy Spirit descending on the apostles 50 days after Easter, causing them to speak in tongues. The cake is made of candied melon and ground almonds and sugar (and he said no wheat flour, so I'm holding him to that, though an online recipe calls for it) and inside there is a small figurine of a dove. Whoever finds the dove in their slice will be married within the year, he said. We're saving it for Sunday on the boat - I think it will go well with champagne.



We were constantly peering up alleys and into courtyards, and found an interesting outdoor art exhibit with a large papier-mâché skull, and a set of three spindles with pages from books stacked on them. We passed by several churches, though we didn't go in to any of them, and looked for scarves and dresses for Mom. She didn't go for the jewel-belted belly-dancing outfit we saw in one shop window, but even I was tempted by that one.


The Thermes Sextius is now a huge and expensive spa, and the last bits of the Roman baths are set behind glass windows both inside the spa building and outside in the parking area. The outer windows are all covered with moss and condensation, so we went gingerly inside the spa - I mean seriously, the place looks as if they'd charge you to breathe, it's so fancy - and considered the rocky pools surrounded by ferns. The spa offers massage services and water-bath options, and it might be fun to have a Roman-style hot-and-cold-bath-with-massage treatment some day. Another reason to go back; there are always reasons to go back, but so much to see still in the future!


It took us a while to find the parking structure again, but that meant we got to see even more interesting streets and structures. A pair of women were carrying a mirror along the sidewalk and when they stopped for the light, I asked them if they'd tip it forward a bit so I could take our picture. They glanced at each other with the "oh dear, another weird tourist" look I'm getting used to when I make these requests, but then smiled and did so anyway. Then finally we were back in the car, giving thanks that there was a public toilet on site, and programming the Garmin to get us back to Le Paradou.


But we told Garmin to take us via some of the villages in the foothills, rather than by the autoroutes, so we saw the area around Pertuis, and went in and out of the village of Cadenet; we'd given that as a "go by this place" point but that meant the GPS insisted on taking us into the center of town and then turning us around to go back the same way to get to the next spot we'd specified, Cavaillon. It took us quite a long time to get out of that town, because there was road construction near the center of town, and the GPS kept directing us in circles. We crossed the river Durance five times in succession, and did a few circuits of the roundabouts before we managed to escape. I keep thinking that if we had a line connecting all of the places we drove, the scribbles and loops we make when we get stuck in situations like this would be pretty funny to see, afterwards.


The towns are built up on the hilltops, often with ruined forts or castles crowning the summits. Houses seemed to be built wherever there was enough of a flat place to hold them to the side of the hill, sometimes, as well as down in the valley. You could see traces of possible cliff dwellings, maybe dating back thousands of years, or maybe just a convenient place to store your wine, after you'd carved out a few hundred blocks to build your house below.

We stopped at an organic winery, the Domaine de Valdition, which has been in the same family for over five centuries (the original land grant was given to a bastard daughter of Francis I by her royal father, according to the website). They produce both wine and olive oil, and we tasted some of each. I liked the single-varietal green olive oil from the Bouteillan olive, which was grassy and fragrant and left a scratchy feeling in my throat afterwards (totally normal, said the vendor - that's what it's supposed to do). Mom bought a bottle of the oil pressed from black olives, and we bought a bottle of an exceptionally good white, the "Vallon des Anges" made of Grenache blanc, Clairette, and Vermentino grapes. I don't know my cépages but those are ones to remember, especially when combined by experienced winemakers. I would go back there, too. They tucked a small jar of green-olive tapenade in the bag as we left.



All of the fields are spattered with poppies in deep reds or bright red-oranges. Cézanne and Van Gogh came here to paint, and if I could paint I'd pick this spot, too. On our drive to the coast earlier this week we passed a man setting up his oils and canvas, his wife settling into a folding chair in the shade with a picnic basket by her side and a book in her lap. And I could come back here to do that, too.

I could live in a place surrounded by fields of poppies, and ancient ruins, and modern vineyards, and good cheese that I can't eat. But there's always the bull sausage from the Camargue (I'm really digging that sausage - we need to get more before heading north tomorrow). And now it's 10am and we're heading out for a quick trip to see a Roman aqueduct and to get lunch, after which we'll spend the afternoon doing laundry, shopping, and packing for an early start tomorrow.

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