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Day 8 South of France: Aix-en-Provence and scouting the countryside - 21 May

“I geef yu map en yu can jus wauk for 10 minut tu zee village.” said the “helpful” receptionist at the front desk of Hotel Le Pigonnet after I asked her what good things there were to see in Aix-en-Provence. And so she gave us a map. In Japanese. Then with the briefest of practiced smiles, put her head right back down and pretended to be dreadfully preoccupied with something else..... All this service and more from a 5-star hotel (not). 

Realizing we weren’t going to get too much help out of her, we made our way to the local tourism office which was short walk from the hotel. The delightful lady behind the counter at the tourism office laughed when she saw our map. Not only was it in a language we didn’t speak, but the map was outdated. Giving us a current map, she proceeded to highlight a route for us to follow on foot. Thus began our exploration of Aix-en-Provence, a truly charming city.

The historic center of Aix-en-Provence has the third largest collection of Baroque architecture in France, after Paris and Versailles. Its streets are filled with surprisingly well preserved ancient facades, fountains, former palaces from the 17th and 18th centuries, and superb squares like Place des Cardeurs. A simple walk becomes a journey through time. 

Some of the heritage sites at Aix-en-Provence included:
  • Cours Mirabeau - Lined with plane trees, fountains, cafes and restaurants, ad elegant 17th and 18th century mansions, linking the old city with the Mazarin district.
  • Passage Agard - A former Carmelite monastery, it links Cours Mirabeau with the Law Courts.
  • Joseph Sec Mausoleum - On Avenue Pasteur and dating back to 1792, this is one of the rare monuments of Revolution architecture.
  • Hotel de Caumont - Built in 1720, this is now home to the Darius Milhaud Regional School of Music.
  • Law Courts - Built on the site of the former Sovereign Counts’ Palace and completed in 1832, there are flea markets and collectables for sale on the square 3 times a week.
  • Town Hall - Completed in 1670, remarkable Italian style facade with carved wooden doors and old city belfry with astronomical clock, 1661.
  • Musee des Tapisseries - The former archbishop’s palace dating back to the Middle Ages, the Musee des Tapisseries is an imposing structure made up of four wings framing a courtyard.
  • Churches like Saint-Sauveur Cathedral, with architectural styles from the 5th to 17th centuries, Church of Saint-Jean de Malte, 12th century, Facade of Church of La Madeleine, 19th century, and Church of Saint-Esprit, 18th century.
Looking For The Rough Diamond at Lunchtime:
After 2 hours of pounding the pavement at Aix, a drive through the Provence countryside was in order. After all, this was the land that inspired Paul Cezanne! Heading towards the direction of Puyloubier, we just drove and drove without a plan, soaking up the lush green grapevines that contrasted with iron-rich red earth, rugged mountain ridges atop expansive fields that were dotted with typical Provence farmhouses, some of them hundreds of years old. The Provence countryside took our breath away.

However, after an hour’s worth of driving, it was our stomachs that called for attention. Parking the car at Puyloubier, we got down and walked around the small town. Although a charming little place, there wasn’t a soul on the streets. Calling out to a lady who seemed to be taking her child to school, we asked her where was a good place to eat. “Everything is closed.”, she said. “It’s Monday.”

Jumping back in the car, we headed back towards Aix-en-Provence. Just out of Rousset on the RN7, though, Peter spotted this boring, unassuming building. You wouldn’t look at it twice. Nevertheless, he stopped the car on the side of the road. 

“What are you doing? We're not at Aix-en-Provence yet.”, I said. 

This place looks alright!”, Peter said enthusiastically. To which I responded, “You’re kidding, right?”, while gazing with disdain at this simple block of a building by the side of the road. No geraniums on the window sills, no rustic rock walls, no rose hedges.... In a nutshell, zero exterior charm. 

So Peter said, “Look at all the cars parked on the opposite side of the road, Vic. They’re all locals. And if they’re here, it’s because the food must be good.”

When it comes to food, I always defer to Peter’s judgment, so we went in to have a look. Called Auberges des Bannettes, the front door opened onto a small bar where it looked like several of the local men were congregated. Didn’t look like much was happening here. However, a door beside the bar was open. Looking in, we spotted a spacious and rustic restaurant area that looked out over spectacular fields. Even better, the tables were filled with locals enjoying lunch with copious glasses of house reds or rose. Asking the attendant to seat us down, we looked at the menu which was filled with delicacies of the region. It looked like we had struck gold. 
While Peter asked for a mixed salad to start and an Entrecote de Boef (beef steak) for the main, which they had cooked to perfection. I chose the exquisite cassoulet de trois fromages to start and a wild boar lasagne as my main that blew my mind! And not a commercial ingredient in the whole meal to boot. This, to us, was what eating in Provence was all about.

Aubere des Bannettes, RN7 - 13790, Rousset. www.les-bannettes.fr

Dining tip: Keep an eye out for establishments on the road that may look deceivingly simple and unassuming, but have lots of local cars parked beside it. Go in and take a look to see what the customers are doing. Are they dining or just having a drink? If the patrons are dining, particularly if they are drinking wine, take a look at the menu to see if it appeals to you. The French know their food and wines, so if a place is well patronized, then chances are that you’ve stumbled into a local favorite.

Dinner at Aix-en-Provence:
Later that night, we walked the back streets of Aix-en-Provence in search of a good restaurant. We found a gem of a Morroccan restaurant called Le Riad. Once again, the restaurant didn’t look like much from the outside, but it had some pretty impressive dining recommendations displayed on the front door. Once we were in, we were transported into an exotic world of crimson walls, Persian carpets and pearl inlaid chests, with Morrocan ballads gently wafting through the corridors and rooms. The elegance contrasted sharply with the plain door that we had walked through. Once seated, we enjoyed a mouthwatering vegetable tagine and chicken couscous, enough food for the both of us to share. It was by far the best Morroccan meal that either of us remembered having. With no room in our stomachs for dessert, we simply finished the meal off with a refreshing mint tea.

Le Riad Restaurant, 21 rue Lieutaud, 13100 Aix en Provence. Ph: 04 42 26 15 79. 

Posted by Victoria Ugarte on 21st May, 2012 | Trackbacks
Categories: France

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