March 17, 2009
A week in Provence
At the start of the year I had a phone call from my mother to ask if I would take her on holiday for a week at the end of March. Although widowed twice and in her late 80’s she is still in good health, and with her travelling companion George takes regular holidays, until recently all over the world. They’ve now decided not to do any more long-haul trips as it’s getting too uncomfortable for them, and instead they visit parts of Britain and Europe. On this occasion they wanted to see Provence, and since neither of them are keen on coach tours asked us if we’d accompany them as driver and guide, all expenses paid. Yes, I know, it’s dirty work but someone has to do it. It was my birthday during the week so she wouldn’t have to worry about what present to buy me, always difficult as I already have everything (I jest, naturally).
So we met them at the airport on the Monday morning and set off in a rented car for Aix-en-Provence, where they’d booked a room for themselves and another for us. By happy fortune it was to be a week of sunshine and light winds, an antidote to some of the recent weather and ideal for touring around.
We headed along the coast road as far as Cannes, stopping at Juan-les-Pins for a pizza, the first of a seemingly endless succession of giant-sized snacks. From there it was an hour and a half to Aix, followed by at least as long again in finding the hotel. Some kind of mental failure – early senility maybe – had made me forget to print off a map, so we got comprehensively lost in the centre of the Old Town before being rescued by a friendly local and pointed in the right general direction. This was to be the first of about three failed attempts to find the hotel before the general geography of the place finally sunk in. Looking back it seems incredible we found it so difficult as it’s actually not a bad place to get around. For anyone who cares, the Best Western “Le Galice” hotel is half a kilometer west from the big fountain that fills the biggest roundabout at the Place General de Gaulle in the town centre. I’m glad to have set that straight.
With only four days of visiting and there being an awful lot of Provence this was not to be an in-depth study of the region, so anyone expecting that kind of detail should avoid disappointment by heading back to the guide books. With two octagenarians in tow there’s little scope for striding the hills or hitting the night-spots, so our visits were based on driving to the nearest car park then taking a short stroll, with particular emphasis on finding somewhere nice to eat. Oh, and I suppose I should admit, finding public toilets. Not just for our charges, I have to concede; it’s gradually becoming a preoccupation among people of my age group too. Neither France or Italy are big on adequate provision and it has crossed my mind more than once to embark on research for a Good Loo Guide.
We spent the first day in Aix itself, wandering around the Old Town. It’s quite a pleasant place; a small enclosure of antiquity in the middle of a modern city, itself surrounded by acres of business and commercial parks. Plenty of opportunity for tiny shops selling antiques of dubious provenance or home-made comestibles, with a plentiful supply of life’s other necessities such as unisex hair salons. Up at the university a couple of ping-pong games were taking place in the sunshine and students milled everywhere. Opposite was the cathedral, dating back to the early Christian centuries with the usual more recent additions. Inside it was a little disappointing; rather plain, but on one side is a well-preserved early baptismal; circular with a ring of stout stone columns supporting the domed roof far above.
Eventually the time came for lunch. This week I’ve formed the impression that the French don’t really do snacks. At the centre of Aix is the Cours Mirabeau, an attractive tree-lined avenue with many restaurants spilling out onto its generous pavements. A three-course full dinner is easy to find but if your requirement is a sandwich with somewhere to sit and eat you’re much less well catered for. I found my hotel breakfast was still keeping me going well into the afternoon. Well OK, maybe I did overdo the bacon and eggs, but in any case two full dinners a day is a bit much. It’s also a bit expensive in these days of reduced financial circumstances. We did eventually find some decent sandwiches at the Festival bar, at one end of the Cours Mirabeau right next to the main roundabout with its giant fountain.
Most evenings we went back into town to eat, choosing from the many restaurants along the Cours Mirabeau but settling on two; the Caffé Rotonde right by the roundabout and the Bistro Romain a little further along the street. Of the two I preferred the Bistro as the Caffé goes in for “lounge music” at a level higher than I find likeable, but both offer good food with friendly and efficient service. At night a side fountain at the Place General de Gaulle puts on a coloured display that looks much better in reality than in a photo.
Here’s a tip for finding one’s way around city centres, for those owning modern high-resolution digital cameras with large screens. Rather than hunt for the Office de Tourisme, look out for a city map on a large placard. Every town and village has one. Take a picture of it and use the zoom on your camera to pan around the picture as you explore the town. It saves carting around awkward paper street maps. I’m starting a collection of these plans with the thought of maybe putting them here on this website so people can research before they visit. Would anyone else contribute some, I wonder?
That’s enough for one day; look out for two more pages covering the rest of the week.