Twenty Years Living in Aix-en-Provence

by M. L. Longworth

Twenty Years in Provence: A Tribute to the Classics

The chapel of Sainte Catherine de Sienne, where our daughter went to elementary school.

Our decision to move to France was fueled by wanting our then three-year-old daughter to grow up bilingual, as my husband had, and partly by some words left in the guestbook at the Hotel Cardinal in downtown Aix-en-Provence, “Une nuit, une femme, chambre 11, le bonheur…” I knew enough French to get the romance in that elegant script, and shoved the page into my husband’s face. “We have to move here,” he said in agreement. We were in Aix, on holiday, for a week, and my husband managed to get an interview with a local French company that needed a bilingual Web engineer with Silicon Valley experience. Two days later he was offered the position, and in the rest of our photographs from that trip we look dazed and confused, or at worst moments, as if we had been punched in the gut. “Be careful what you dream for,” my mother said, laughing. That was late November, and by mid-February, two weeks after our daughter’s fourth birthday, we were living in Aix.

Aix in 1997 was a sleepy provincial town. You could park your car on the Cours Mirabeau, which at that time still had some mom-and-pop shops. Nowadays, only international chain stores can afford the rent of one of France’s most beloved main streets, and the obligatory underground parking garages can be full by noon. Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” was only eight years old (I devoured it on the plane moving here), and Occitane didn’t yet have a shop on the rue Espariat, nor in airports around the world and in downtown Dubai and Tokyo and Helsinki.

Twenty years later, here’s a nod to nine Aix classics that are still going strong:

 

1) Two Cafés: Le Grillon and Les Deux Garçons

The faded and elegant Les Deux Garçons, with mirrored walls lined in gilt, has been a café since 1792. Cézanne and his best friend, Emile Zola, were regulars, and the café with its over-priced restaurant was visited by Churchill, Picasso, Edith Pïaf and Catherine Deneuve. Newcomers to Aix inevitably drift to Les 2 G’s, as I did, where I’d sit on the terrace and imagine MFK Fisher here in 1960, chatting with her girls after they got out of school at Ste-Catherine de Sienne. She wrote, “The little girls drank lemonade and I beer in complete and sudden ease: we were in the right place at the right moment, and we knew it would last.” Nowadays I prefer Le Grillon down the street (Le Mazarin in my books), where I began writing my first novel in the early mornings after dropping my own daughter off at Ste-Catherine. Mornings are best here, inside its elegant interior of ochre-painted patina walls and saw-dust covered tiled floor, under the hush of clients’ whispers and the thudding noise of the espresso machine. Local lawyers arrive before 8:30am and throw their black judicial robes over the backs of chairs before heading off to court. And one of the best things about breakfast at Le Grillon, despite the mediocre coffee, is the fact that they serve buttery moist croissants from Béchard across the street.

 

2) Two Shops: Patisserie Béchard and the Fromagerie Savelli

The best pastries in Aix are found at Béchard’s, and the best cheese at Savelli’s, and I defy anyone to challenge me on this. Béchard’s, on the Cours, is an institution, as the queue that flows out of the shop and onto the street during certain fête times will testify. I love their springy brioches glacés for breakfast, and for dessert the simple Chantilly-filled sponge cake Le Tropezienne. My friend Philippe once found in his 17th century home’s attic a receipt from Béchard, for two brioches. It was handwritten, of course, and dated 1902. Cézanne himself might have been in the same queue along with Philippe’s ancestor. On the other side of town, near the town hall, is the Fromagerie Savelli. Sylvie Savelli, a dark beauty, is a cheese affineur, meaning she ages her chevres, bleues, and tommes in three separate subterranean cellars beneath her shop. I never buy cheese at the supermarket anymore—it’s just never as flavorsome, or perfectly aged, as Sylvie’s—essentially, not worth the calories.

 

3) The Fountains

Philippe (the same) remembers his grandmother filling up jerry cans with the healing waters of the Quatre Dauphin fountain, then lugging them, no matter the weather, back to the family mansion on the south side of the Cours. There are 23 fountains in Aix, each one has its own story, its own charm. The fountain Des Neufs Canons in the middle of the Cours was permanently damaged in 1944 by an Allied tank; its neighbor, the fountain d’Eau Chaude (La Moussue to locals as it is covered in moss from which steam rises up in winter) was also once damaged, in this case by “young imbeciles drunk on wine.” That was further back, in 1670. The most photographed fountain must be the one in the Place d’Albertas; it’s not a particularly old fountain, but the square, paved with small rounded river stones and lined with charming 17th century mansions, is one of the city’s most beautiful.

The Place d’Albertas

4) Cathedral Saint-Sauveur

Aix’s cathedral may not be the city’s prettiest church (that prize goes to the smaller Saint-Jean de Malte) but it’s the oldest, work having begun in 500AD on the site of the abandoned Roman forum. Slender red Roman bricks, and tall columns from a temple, were reused in building the Cathedral; the columns are now in the baptistery, the bricks on the exterior façade. Saint-Sauveur also houses one of the city’s most tranquil spots: a 12th century cloister that is lined by twin sets of columns, each capital exquisitely carved with biblical stories. There’s a restored sculpture of Saint Peter that is almost identical to one found at Saint-Trophime in nearby Arles. Here the Saint, who holds the keys to heaven, is full of personality; his face, hair and short curly beard are finely carved; his robes a mass of crisp vertical pleats from the layers of fabric he wears. It is assumed that the talented 13th century sculptor travelled from parish to parish, working freelance. He would have trudged up these same neighboring streets, narrow and twisting, that remain unchanged since his time.

 

5) The Markets

You know a real food aficionado in Aix if they talk about the market stall of Mme Martin. She doesn’t sell bananas or pineapples; only fruit and vegetables locally grown on her farm outside of Aix. She’s a reoccurring minor character in my books. Mme Martin can be found in the enormous thrice-weekly market located on the Place des Prêcheurs, soon to be relocated for three years, because of construction works, on the blvd Sextuis (sadly one of Aix’s only dingy streets). So instead, go to the daily market, in fact smaller and more intimate, on the Places des Herbes. In spring one producer proudly displays mountains of asparagus, thin and fat, white and green; another, in fall, sets up stacks of wild mushrooms. A group of nuns sell a small selection of dainty floral bouquets and some vegetables, very good quality if over-priced. At 1pm waiters in neighboring cafés hover, until the square is cleared and cleaned, then quickly set up their tables and chairs.

6) Atelier Cézanne

At the turn of the century Paul Cézanne’s art was called, by an influential Aixois, « sale peinture » (dirty paintings), and the Musée Granet’s director vowed never to have Cézanne’s work exhibited in the museum. Aix thus missed out on owning a priceless collection. It’s a shock to think that Cézanne’s widow Hortense sold his work after his death at rock bottom prices, so that she could have a bit of fun on the Côte d’Azur. Nevertheless, Cézanne’s spirit is felt all over town, nowhere more than at his atelier. The dusty studio, located on a hill in the city’s north end, was left untouched after the artist’s death in 1906. The Provençal clay pots, colorful tablecloths, and stone cupids that starred in his revolutionary still-lifes fill the room; his hat and black coat hang in a corner. Up the street, wide stone steps lead through lavender and rosemary to a lookout with a view of Montagne Sainte-Victoire. From here Cézanne painted some of the one hundred-odd versions of the mountain, always feeling he never got it quite right.

 

7) Oratories

Aix has one of France’s largest collections of oratories (92)—niches carved into street corners or façades that contain stone statues, sometimes accompanied by candles and flowers. Their purpose? To ask the saints’ intercession with God to prevent another deadly outbreak of the plague from entering the city. They were also reminders to say prayers, and possibly locations of blessings or even mass. Most of the oratories contain the Virgin and Child; there’s a black virgin on the corner of the meter-wide rue Esquicho Coudre (Street of Squeezed Elbows), carved in 1663, and four statues of Saint-Roch, the patron saint in times of plague. Roch carries a staff, and points to an open wound on his leg. A small dog sits before him; it’s the dog who nursed him back to health. If you’re in Aix with children, the oratories can be used as a game. How many dogs? How many pilgrims? (find the scallop shells).

 

 

8) Montagne Sainte-Victoire

In 1958 Picasso telephoned his agent to tell him he had just purchased Cézanne’s Sainte-Victoire. “Which one?” his agent asked, thinking Picasso was referring to a painting. “The original!” replied the Spaniard. And he really did buy a big chunk of the mountain, along with a château in Vauvenargues. The white craggy limestone mountain, which extends for 11 miles, is a beacon to the east of Aix. “I see it! I see it!” our daughter would call out as we drove home after a holiday. During kids’ camps, in Aix’s museum of natural history, she would be permitted to gently hold large reddish-colored dinosaur eggs that are still found on the mountain. A walk to the top takes about three hours, and for the less sportif there are a few stone tables around its base, perfect for picnics. The air smells of the garrigue—small shrubs of wild rosemary, lavender, and thyme—and amongst the limestone base are bits of Mont Sainte-Victoire’s marble; once it’s polished it is a riot of bright orange and yellow spots. Many of Aix’s fireplaces and kitchen sinks are made with the distinctive stone.

 

 

9) The Cours Mirabeau

Aix’s main street, bordered by a double row of tall plane trees, was given its new name in 1876 to commemorate Count Mirabeau, who moved to Aix in 1772 after seducing a local noblewoman twenty years his junior despite his renowned ugliness (he had a deformed foot and over-sized head). Besides being an infamous ladies’ man Mirabeau was also a politician, gifted orator and writer who criticized the French monarchy but died young, at 42, while Louis XVI was still king. Before being paved in 1899, the Cours was dusty in summer and muddy in winter. Now, it’s best avoided on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, when market stalls selling polyester clothing made in Bangladesh fill its wide sidewalks. But it remains the pulse if Aix (you typically rendezvous with friends in front of Monoprix) and on September 11, 2001, it was there that I headed. I needed to be with my fellow Aixois, surrounded by the rhythm and beauty of the town.

 

Epilogue, 2017: Our daughter is now twenty-four and works in diplomacy in Paris, and we keep on loving our French life. Aix has changed, but it’s still the place where, when we get home late from a weekend away, we sigh on seeing its old fashioned street lamps turning the stone of former mansions into gold. Cézanne wrote to a friend in 1896, “When I was in Aix, I thought I would be better off elsewhere. Now that I’m here, I regret Aix…when one is born here, that’s it, nothing else appeals.”