Provence, Europe’s playground in the sunniest southern part of France, is a study in contrasts. Sometimes freezing cold in winter, it may be insufferably hot in summer. It gets more rain than Great Britain– but over a period of only a few weeks instead of year ’round. Its most recognized feature, after the famous beaches of St. Tropez and and the lovely hill-perched villages above Nice, are its rolling hills, silvery under the summer sun or fragrant fields of lavender, drowsy with olive orchards, almonds, fragrant fields of lavender and vinyards. But there are also forests and green valleys tucked up into secret places that mostly only the locals know about.
The people of Provence have their own ways, less urbane than many other regions of France. At first they may seem a little stand-offish but if you show a genuine interest in their beautiful land and their customs, if you smile and leave your preconceptions and tourist attitudes behind, they will open up like flowers and shower you with congeniality.
It is impossible to describe the colors here: you have to see them for yourself. With so much space and sun, so much waves and wind, the region is a paradise of colors, festivals and scenic beauty. It is full of wild landscapes, cultural heritage, beautiful cities and excitement.
A trip to Provence is incomplete without a visit to its capital, Aix-en-Provence. Nowhere other than in Paris is the cafe life of France as pronounced and prevalent as in the brasseries of Aix, with their sidewalk tables underneath the plane trees that shade the splendid Cours Mirabeau as it slices through the city’s center, like an imitation Champs Elysées. The street has wide sidewalks and is decorated by fountains, the most notable of which is La Rotonde, a large fountain that makes up a roundabout at one end of the street. The street also divides Aix into two portions, the Quartier Mazarin, a.k.a. the new town, which extends to the south and west, and the Ville comtale, a.k.a. the old town, which lies to the north with its wide but irregular streets and its old mansions dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
If you sit at only one sidewalk cafe outside this country’s capital, it should be here in Aix– where the air is warm, the light sublime and the sidewalk alive. People of all ages and circumstances gather at the cafes to chat and eat almond cakes (a specialty of Aix) or quiches and drink grandes crèmes or wine as they while away a lazy afternoon. Les Deux Garçons, the most famous brasserie in Aix, is highly recommended. Built in 1792, it has been frequented by the likes of Paul Cézanne, Émile Zola and Ernest Hemingway, so why not you, too?
Aix-en-Provence is an ancient city– dating back before the Romans– and it blends the ancient with the new in a very charming way. You can find all the beauty of the noble city of the17th and 18th centuries: handsome houses of the upper class, private mansions, city squares bursting with flowers, ancient fountains and shaded narrow streets. It is also a university town, only about an hour away from the main Provencal tourist attractions such as the Camargue and Arles, Avignon, the Luberon and the coast with Marseille, Cassis, Toulon and La Ciotat.
This is the city of fountains and art, a city of light and activity. Cezanne was born here, Van Gogh spent time in a nearby city (in a sanatorium), artists come here still to capture the light and the life of this incredible city. With a population of about 143,000, Aix is more accessible than Paris and less glitzy than St. Tropez. Surveys show that more French people dream of retiring here than to any other place in France.
Some side trips within an hour’s drive or so, which you may want to consider:
- Avignon, a charming city with tremendous personality. The Palace of the Popes is, of course, the major thing to visit. The popes resided in Avignon (the “Babylonian Captivity”) from 1309 when the French king, Philip the Fair, forced Pope Clemens V to move to Avignon, until 1377 when St Catherine of Siena convinced Pope Gregory X to return definitively to Rome. During this period Avignon became the center of the Western World: it took over the role of Rome, the center of Europe was here.
- Arles, where there is plenty to see: the Roman amphitheater (“les arenes”), large enough to hold 12,000 spectators. It is still used for bull fights and other performances. The fine former abbey church of Saint-Trophime with its magnificent porch and wonderful cloisters. Here German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa was crowned King of Arles and “le bon roi” Rene married Jeanne de Laval. And – speaking of History – this is where Caesar made his headquarters when Marseille annoyed him by supporting Pompey. Later Constantine the Great made Arles his administrative center for Roman Gaul. Vincent Van Gogh came here to paint in l888, and you can visit the hospital where he was admitted after attacking Paul Gauguin and mutilating himself. It has now been transformed into a cultural center, l’Espace Van Gogh.
- Marseilles, the famous port city with its great historical artifacts and monuments, and further on along the southern coast the famous cities of St. Tropez, with its beaches and movie stars, and the lovely city of Nice.
Here are a few suggestions for things to do in Aix:
- Walk down the Cours Mirabeau, the charming main street with its eighteenth century palaces, sidewalk cafes, fountains and bookstores
- While away a few hours people watching at a sidewalk cafe
- Visit the Fine Arts Museum of Aix (the Musee Granet ) in the palace of the Knights of Malta (or of St John or the Hospitallers).
- See Saint-Saveur Cathedral with its triptych of the “Burning Bush”, painted in 1474 by Nicholas Froment for Good King Rene.
- Visit the Museum of Tapestries in the old Archbishops’ Palace and admire the Don Quixote series of tapestries.
- And a must-see is Cezanne’s workshop, where modern painting was decisively re-invigorated.
“It isn’t luxurious in the ways you would expect from the best resorts in the USA,” she said, “but it is comfortable, charming and beautifully located just 10 minutes from the center of the city. It has studio and one-bedroom apartments, and there is a phone with a direct line, cable television and free high speed Internet access. This is a ‘location’ resort rather than an ‘amenities’ resort, tho there were enough amenities to suit us. We had a wonderful time there, beautiful country all around and convenient to town when we wanted to go there. I recommend it highly for anyone who wants a genuine experience in this wonderful part of France. By the way, ‘bastide’ means ‘country house’, or so I understand.”
And that is good enough for us.
A little history of the resort: In 1472 King René, Duke of Anjou and Count of Provence, had the Bastide de Pérignane built and from the beginning perpetuated there an ambiance of pleasure and feast.
Later, the Bastide was acquired by the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral of Aix and took on religious functions until the 17th century when the Bastide was transformed into la Bastide, a shelter for victims of the epidemics which ravaged Europe at the time. Though still known as “la Bastide”, the ancient Bastide has become a superb residence welcoming tourists and admirers of Aix-en-Provence.
This lovely property is close enough to the heart of Aix-en-Provence to experience the fizz of the beautiful Provençal city and yet far enough into the surrounding countryside so that you can enjoy the stunning surroundings. La Bastide du Roy René enjoys a super setting, on the banks of the River Arc, with inviting strolls along the tree-lined paths. There are a total of 66 apartments and studios, all of which have been tastefully decorated and furnished, in an elegant and modern style. Next door, the Val de l’Arc sports centre offers you an opportunity to relax with tennis and swimming, and for golf lovers, there are several courses a short drive from La Bastide (pay locally).
Provence, Aix-en-Provence, King Rene’s country house. An unbeatable combination!
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