Day 1 in Aix – walking, squares, cafés
Once we were settled into our hotel – big room, king-size bed, view over the old town – we decided to go for a walk. Once again, it takes a while to get oriented. We took the long way, going around the whole hotel, walking alongside a very busy thoroughfare and eventually took a side street that got us into the heart of the town. The next day, we’d learn the direct route around the back of the hotel right into the town. But it didn’t matter, we were blessed with perfect weather in a truly historic city.
So first things first…. it was afternoon, so it was time for lunch and a pastis. We came across a little grocery store that had tables in the back. It wasn’t even a real restaurant, but somehow the charm of it all convinced us to sit down for a meal of simple pasta and salad. Two young kids worked there – owned it? – and we watched them cook the pasta fresh, get the sauce, make the salad…. It was nearly like being in someone’s kitchen at home. Anyway, it did the trick. Gave us a rest and a chance to find our bearings.
This wasn’t the place for pastis. That demands a café with a view. We figured, quite correctly, that if we just kept walking along the street we were on we’d come to a postcard-ready square with a café, a fountain and some trees. Which is exactly what we found.
The squares here are sublime… the beauty of the surrounding buildings, the inevitably charming fountains (why don’t we spend more money on fountains, or indeed plan more squares?) and the casual grace of the waiters, bartenders and the laid back customers. No one seems to be in too much of a hurry, but everyone is taken care of. It seemed like a nice pace.
We’re in Cézanne’s town
Here’s the funny thing – in the art world, Aix is well-known for Cézanne. He was born here, spent many years here, many of his most famous paintings are of local scenes, especially his series of Mount St. Victoire and finally he died here and is buried nearby.
He’s the recognized link between the 19th century Impressionists and the cubists of the early 20th century. When you look at early Picasso, you can clearly see what he took from Cézanne. And yet, although I’ve seen his work in many collections, it has just never moved me. I can admire it, see the obvious skill in the composition, realize how important he is in the scheme of modern art, but won’t really go out of my way to see it. So, we kind of ignored him while we were here.
The unfortunate thing about the way the French handle their cultural resources is that anything important gets shipped to Paris. So, although you might expect a significant collection of Cézannes in a gallery in Aix, you won’t find it.
After our pastis, we walked under the plane trees along the Cours Mirabeau, past yet more fountains (they build round-abouts in the street only for the purpose of having another fountain in the middle) to the Musée Granet.
This is the biggest museum in Aix, and as it goes, it’s fine, but it’s a weird jumble of a place. It’s dedicated to both art and archeology, so in addition to paintings and sculpture, you also get skulls, Roman coins, pottery, kitchenware and dinosaur bones. Among the salon style paintings are masterpieces by Ingres, an authentic Rembrandt self-portrait, a few muddy Giacometti’s, and as a nod to their famous son, some minor Cézannes.
But still…. it seems churlish to have expectations that they never promised. It’s a regional museum in a town of less than 150,000 people, nothing more.
From the Granet, we made our way slowly back through town to our hotel. Once again, it had been a lot of walking. We had looked at the hotel restaurant on the way out and decided for our first night in Aix, that would be it for dinner. We weren’t disappointed. Although it was all a bit formal, hotel-style, it was delicious. Duck with apples, a bottle of the local Cotes du Rhone. Quite wonderful.