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Wednesday
Oct102012

Aix en Provence: a flaneur’s paradise

The delightful French word flâner could have been created just for the pretty town of Aix-en-Provence.

Flâner means to stroll, to walk slowly and unhurriedly. When you are a flâneur, you wander, you take time to stroll about enjoying the sights and sounds, but always at an unhurried pace. It stands to reason that you usually flane in nice weather, too.

All of which makes Aix-en-Provence a flaneur’s paradise par excellence.

The pretty, elegant, historic (but not too historic) town has enough to charm you, but without leaving you culturally exhausted. You can wander and stroll, take breaks and pictures, and absorb the sights on your own time, never feeling the need to rush around ticking off sights on a “Must See At All Costs” list.

In other words, it’s a great place to flâner.

Aix-en-Provence is situated in the sunny region of southern France known as Provence, and it wears its centuries of history lightly. From the Romans onwards, successive generations of invaders and conquerors have shaped the history of Aix.

In the 12th century it became an important center for the arts and learning. In 1409, King Louis II of Anjou granted a charter for a university, and the town remains an important university and college town today. This artistic and educational background has left its mark, most notably in the various and frequent festivals, exhibitions and exuberant cultural performances. There is a palpable feel of culture.

Aix-en-Provence is inextricably linked with two giants of the 19th century, Paul Cézanne and Emile Zola.

Paul Cézanne, the master of Impressionism, was born there in 1839 and immortalized the city in countless masterpieces.

To the east of Aix is the Montagne Sainte Victoire, which at 1,011 meters hardly qualifies as a mountain; yet many know it well, since it was a favorite haunt of Cézanne. He painted it many times, making it a leitmotif in so many of his works.

The novelist Emile Zola moved to Aix as a child, and was a contemporary and school-friend of Paul Cézanne. It is these 2 men who dominate the spirit of Aix, one through his paintings and the other through his writing.

To get into the ambience, or the “feel” of Aix, take a leaf out of the locals’ book and stroll along the famed Cours Mirabeau, a wide street lined with elegant 18th century homes, and tall shade-giving plane trees.

The center of town is dominated by a large square with a huge fountain, the obligatory swirling traffic, and, tucked away in a corner, a statue of Cézanne. Shops, cafés and restaurants line the square, and everyone sits outside, lingering over drinks, watching the world go by.

Nothing is hurried. Life is enjoyed and savored.

Office workers go out for a proper lunch, sitting at pavement restaurants in the sun, eating, drinking carafes of rosé wine, smoking, and then after a quick espresso, heading back to work.

This is most definitely not a place for fast food.

Wander through the narrow streets of the old town, where the houses and shops are tightly packed, and many buildings have little statues of the Virgin Mary set into their walls, personal little shrines. Street names are written in the native language, Provençal Occitan, a relative of the Catalan language and a descendent of Roman Latin. Gurgling stone fountains in nearly every tree-shaded square add to the palpable sense of history that surrounds you at every step.

If you are there over a weekend, head for one of the popular open-air markets, prime candidates for sensory overload. There will be stalls offering fabulous looking fruit, vegetables and cheeses, jostling for space next to lavender, olives, locally made Savon de Marseilles soap and saffron.

Aix is known all over France for calissons, small, sweet, almond-shaped pastries that are an Aix specialty. They are an absolutely obligatory purchase – possibly the only “must do” in an otherwise delightfully relaxed town.

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