On All Saint’s Day – known in France as La Toussaint – we ventured out of Marseille once again, this time to Aix-en-Provence. It’s the epitome of classy, understated chic: leafy boulevards studded with fountains, sunshine-hued buildings with wrought iron balconies and an undeniable Belle Époque aura.
To tell you the truth, we hadn’t expected a fat lot to be happening – the French take their jours fériés (bank holidays) very seriously, and honour them as they would a Sunday. In other words, everything shuts down. Though not, it would seem, in Aix-en-Provence. Spreading out in all directions from the Fontaine de la Rotonde was a large open-air market; a speciality in France, and one I’ll miss when I move back across the Channel. Meandering among the stalls, we spied truckles of cheese, baskets of saucisson (accompanied by signs bearing amusing little cartoon animals for those who don’t know their sangliers from their cochons) and piles of fougasse, stuffed with olives, slivers of bacon and assorted cheeses.
Since we had no map, we decided to simply pick streets at random and meander round the city at our leisure, with no fixed agenda in place. Wandering the narrow streets, lined with buildings in faded hues of butterscotch and burnt umber, it was easy to see why Aix-en-Provence was frequented by the likes of Zola and Cézanne. Emerging into Place Richelme, we pottered around the fruit and vegetable market before stopping off for a drink at Pâtisserie Weibel. Although the hot chocolate was lovely, our experience was somewhat tainted by the abysmal service. The cherry on top of the cake was when they presented us with a bill for drinks we didn’t consume, demonstrating exactly why you should always double-check it before paying up. Luckily, it was easy enough to resolve – and we were far from the only people having this issue.
After many not-so-subtle hints from Laurence, we tootled back over to the market near the Fontaine de la Rotonde to pick up some goodies for lunch. I bought some clementines and a selection of traditional biscuits provençaux, before we sought out the stall selling rotisserie chickens. At €4.50 for ½ a chicken, served with a hefty heap of cubed roast potatoes, it was an absolute steal; we paid an extra €0.30 for it to be packed in a polystyrene box (as opposed to a paper bag), as it was much easier to consume this way! Trotting back across town, we settled down on a bench in Place Bellegarde to devour our rotisserie feast.
Whilst culture vultures descended on Cézanne’s studio and other landmark museums, we simply spent the afternoon pottering around in the sunshine. Laurence had his customary crêpe; as far as he’s concerned, a trip to France without one isn’t a trip to France. I had two delicious scoops of gelato from Giovanni Gelateria, and tried not to end up with dark chocolate gelato all over my face. (I have a poor track record on this front. I doubt I’ll ever live down the blackcurrant ice cream episode. Picture a small child, wearing a once-white but now-purple dress and you’ll get an idea of the situation.)
Here and there, faded advertisements could be seen on the walls. These peintures publicitaires advertised anything and everything from clothing to curtains, their muted colours a testimony to the changing habits of today’s advertisers.
Although there wasn’t an overwhelming amount to do, this wasn’t a problem; simply wandering the streets, ice cream cornet in hand, was enough for us on this occasion.
- Aix-en-Provence is served by two train stations: Aix-en-Provence TGV and Aix-en-Provence Centre. The latter is, as its name suggests, better positioned for day trippers visiting Aix from nearby towns on local trains (TER).
- For a reasonably-priced lunch, pick up a picnic from one of the local markets instead of wining and dining in the nearest restaurant. You’ll be able to sample regional fare for a fraction of the price.