We head home to Boston Saturday, and some of my students reiterated after our game of petanque this evening that they just don’t want to leave Aix-en-Provence yet.
My friend Tom, who joined us for our middle week of three, wrote that this was one of the best short vacations he’d ever taken. He promised to consider coming again next spring when we’ll return.
Tonight, after a two-hour dinner, outdoors and beside a fountain at a brasserie at the crossroads of several of the city’s crisscrossed streets, after listening to the laughter of those sitting elbow to elbow beneath the gathering dusk at nearly 9 p.m., I’d have to admit I’m not anxious to leave either.
It’s hard to describe to those who’ve never been here just how enchanting Aix-en-Provence really is. That, perhaps, is what drives me to keep trying. No question it has much to do with the soft, gentle air and ever-changing light, much to do with the markets that spread like organisms through the city’s squares most mornings only to fold up and be replaced at mid-day by umbrellas and tables and laughter and the sound of clinking glasses. But even more so I think it’s the sense of walking through time.
I noticed in a free magazine the other day that the regional government in these parts has set aside 5 million euros — something like $5.5 million — in the year ahead for patrimoine. That might loosely be defined as “heritage” in English. but in France it’s a word more closely connected, I think, to the soul. Heritage isn’t merely history. It’s a lived part of daily life. It’s the acknowledgement, restoration, and celebration of a past that’s part of the present and the future as well.
Just look at Aix-en-Provence’s basic tourist guide for a minute. It will tell you that Cours Mirabeau, the main drag of Aix, lined with plane trees and somewhat overpriced cafes, is also a place of “elegant 17th and 18th century mansions.” It’s possible to duck into the old city from there through a passageway, the Passage Agard, that was part of a former Carmelite monastery. The Palace of Justice on the other side of this passageway is relatively modern: Note the word “relatively.” It was built in 1832. The Hotel de Ville, where you’ll find the mayor two squares away, was finished in 1671. The spa Thermius Sextius, a few blocks further on, was built on the site of former Roman baths and stands beside a 14th century tower. The Pavillon de Vendome, which is graced by beautiful gardens just three blocks from where we are renting an apartment, was completed in 1665. And so forth.
Linking all these ancient buildings is a spider web of small streets shared by pedestrians pulling carts, cylists, motorcycles and the occasional car or truck. The streets are lined with small shops, patisseries and boulangeries, shoe stores and toy stores, chocolateries and fish stores, places to buy Provencal specialities, fancy dresses and — bien sur — sexy sous-vetements and lingerie (this is France). All this amid a melange of architecture that spans centuries, the buildings and their tenants tied together by cobblestones and the fashionable and freewheeling Axois themselves — the residents, who take their time going about their business and do much of it outdoors.
Oh, and let’s not forget the fountains — more than 50 grace the city — and the regular ringing of church bells.
Yes, it is hard to leave this small, warm and vibrant city. Each time. Every time.
At least I know we’ll be back.