Tuesday, August 2, 2011

STAMP #3: Aix en Provence, France

Put my walking shoes on early this morning. Today was reserved for the Tuesday market in the heart of old Aix, a thorough look at its cathedral, and some serious people-watching while enjoying lunch in a street cafe by the market stalls. Parking is very difficult here, even on non-market days, but not at 8:30am.

Caius Sextius Calvinus                                         Image via WikipediaIts my 7th or 8th visit here and I never tire of Aix - masses of history, no cars in the old town, stunning architecture, honeyed stone, and friendly locals. Must have walked several miles as I hunted for the pix I need. Aix was an old Roman town named Aquae Sextiae then. The Consul Sextius Calvinus destroyed the original settlement of the Salyens and established a permanent garrison here in 122 BCE. He loved the hot water springs, hence the new name, and they still run at 34C. The famous fountains in Aix that are fed by this hot water are covered in moss and ferns, resembling huge green balls (see below). I found remains of the town's walls and ramparts close by the cathedral, along with a defensive tower called Torreluque.


St-Sauveur cathedral is built on what archeologists think was either a Roman temple or forum and has a portion of a wall exposed to show visitors. Christianity arrived in Aix in 312CE. Outside on the West face are stone sculptures and one of the two universities in Aix is opposite. Inside, it is small as cathedrals go, but full of art both ancient and modern. For years I've tried to see the cloister close up but it had been closed on all my visits. Today, open! With a young guide I toured this small but comforting space that's like a quad. The columns' capitals were carved in the 12th century and show Roi (King) Rene de Provence, St. Peter, the nativity complete with donkeys and cows, and Roman eagles, all in miniature. In the centre are herbs, boxwood hedges, and an olive tree. Tours start at 10am and run every half hour, though not when the cathedral is closed for mass or at lunchtime.

Old Aix is peppered with squares and on non-market days they are filled with tables and chairs under awnings and umbrellas that spill from the cafes. But on market days (x3/wk) they are completely taken over by stalls selling everything. There are fruit and veggie markets, flower markets, clothing, antiques and junk markets. Provencale goods of all kinds, fabrics, china and pottery, leather, bread, charcuterie, and remarkable fish and cheeses are sold. By 11am every market is seething with people - mostly locals and a few of the many tourists. This is where I prefer to do my food shopping. Prices have gone up since my last visit, but are cheaper than supermarkets, and the local bounty was probably picked yesterday. It's tomato season and there are tiny sweet cherry ones and some as big as my fist; yellow and white peaches are huge and juicy ripe. Had to buy a bucket of fromage blanc to have with them for breakfast - as close to divine as I'll ever get!

While I had lunch, within ten feet of the stalls, I got whiffs of spices on the breeze - curry, cardomom, and others I didn't recognize. I watched the shoppers and learned a few things:
  • When it's hot French women wear loose dresses - I saw only two of hundreds in capris.
  • Both men and women wear sandals.
  • Everyone carries a basket for their purchases.
  • North Americans stick out in their jeans or cargo pants and runners. Each carries a bottle of water.
  • French casual fashions are so much better than ours because no-one looks the same. They have style+.
  • All the cafes serve what I call "bowl salads" that are big and filling. Healthy too. No burgers and fries here!
  • Coffees are small and strong.
  • Everyone drinks bottled water with meals, in addition to wine.
  • Oh! And nuns here have denim habits!
I was home with a bulging shopping bag by 2pm and ready to start work again. Tomorrow my big expedition ....

 
IMAGES: (c) Julie H. Ferguson 2011

OTHER POSTS ABOUT AIX EN PROVENCE:
STAMP #8
STAMP #7
STAMP #6
STAMP #5
STAMP #4
STAMP #2
STAMP #1
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