October 1, Aix-en-Provence

I was eavesdropping on a tour guide talking to his group, and the answer to the question about the population of Aix-en-Provence was about 140,000. And I swear, every one of those souls was out in force on Saturday for my visit. I saw a wedding group, a group of young women celebrating the upcoming marriage of one of them by wearing weird clothes and yelling “Fumer tue!” (smoking kills) at the many smokers around.  There was a big crowd of well-dressed folks at a reception at the Maison de Ville (city hall.) There was also a huge farmers’ market, and everyone not already mentioned, was there. And the tourists. But Aix isn’t that big a town, and I was pretty much able to get around with the little map I had in the guide book, and an occasional question.

And if there’s a theme from today, it would have to be doors and doorways, as this was a most charming place I entered into. Alas, most places I visited didn’t allow photography, so I had to content myself with photos of the marvelous buildings that held the exhibits. So, just as an earlier post had a theme of angels, let’s go with doors here.

My first stop of the day was at the church of St-Jean-de-Malte. There, I was befriended by a middle-aged woman whose English was about equal to my French, and we had a good visit.  She told me that much of the church had been destroyed in the Revolution, which explained why the statues of the son and wife of the Comte de Provence were new-ish, as was the comte’s (empty) tomb. So, what we really enjoyed was a genuine plaque from 1323 or so, honoring a local bishop. I was pleased to be able to read some of the Latin, and it had a wonderfully earthy feel to it.

Then across the square to the Museum Granet. Monsieur Granet was a local painter who bequeathed his impressive collection to form the basis of the museum. The museum boasts eight Cezanne paintings, as he also lived in Aix for a while. To my sore disappointment, the greatly-anticipated exhibits of archeological artifacts and XIV-XVII Century paintings were closed. I must confess that much of modern art underwhelms me. I felt I should be impressed, but was rather disappointed, by the Picasso of a woman in a chair holding a cat. I mean, a cat, and I wasn’t thrilled? I dutifully looked, then moved on. But I was moved beyond tears in the gallery of sculpture by a bas-relief piece titled “Phalante et Ethra” carved in 1814 by Girard de Luc. I carefully wrote all the information down, hoping to find a photo to show you, and I can’t find anything about it on the net, the legend (I presume Greek?) or the sculpture. But it was a middle-aged woman, in profile, in a tender, awkward embrace of a very tall young man, who appears to be setting off on a journey. I immediately pictured myself with my very tall young son, and every emotional cell in their postures and expression rang completely true. I loved it at first sight. Nina Rowan, one of my clients, is an art historian, and found a photo of the relief for me. I’m so glad to see it again.

I continued on my quest, with the problem that it was now lunch time, and things were closing for two hours. I spent part of that time on a discarded chair by some dumpsters, reading. It all felt eerily like the intersection of 5th Avenue and Willamette Street in Eugene. Don’t know why. Should I have gone to lunch? I ate my two clementines, and decided to splurge at dinner.

I had hoped to visit the Cathedrale St-Sauveur, but the first time I found the door there was a notice that they were closed for lunch, two hours. Then, when I went back, there was a notice that a special event was happening, so no visitors, despite the woman who was using both hands to try to pry the door open . The woman at St. Jean-de-Malte had scoffed at it as being so stylistically confusing–they spent almost a millenium building it–that it wasn’t worth the visit. Elsewhere I read that visiting it was like taking a course in art history–every major Western style was represented. I preferred the latter. I’ll never know.

So, then on to the Tapestry Museum. It was housed in the archibishop’s palace. Indeed, it was probably the only building big enough for the huge hangings. They were in a succession of public room, all with 20′ ceilings, extraordinary wallcoverings, incredible chandeliers. It certainly makes one understand why both the Catholic Church and the king were rejected by the Revolution. Many of the tapestries illustrated scenes from Don Quixote, which I’m not that familiar with. The workmanship was astounding, the overall effect amazing. I best remember a cute little kitty in one tapestry. How I would have loved a photo. The museum had a special exhibition of the work of Lotte Reiniger, who filmed entire Mozart operas using just silhouette cutouts of all the characters.

And a great doorway:HPIM0387.jpg image by zecainfranceThe doorway also had a plaque that mentions Marechal Bernadotte, whom we idolized last year in Pau, where he went from being a poor humble soldier to the King of Sweden.HPIM0386.jpg image by zecainfrance

Then off to La Musee du Vieil Aix, which was also in a splendid huge old townhouse, and the surroundings were often more informative than the exhibits. This, oddly, was mostly a collection of some lovely faience dishes, and a whole lot of carefully dressed dolls. Obviously from a personal collection, though I got two splendid photos of the dolls, in two of my favorite dress styles:

HPIM0380.jpg image by zecainfrance

HPIM0381.jpg image by zecainfrance

and a great door:HPIM0379.jpg image by zecainfrance

Next up was the Museum of Natural History. I had hoped for details about the area, but it was more aimed at dinosaur excavations and reconstruction of dinosaur skeletons, etc. It would be perfect for grammar school kids, and pre-school dinosaur fans. They did have some lovely stuffed animals, and an owl, fierce and beautiful, that looked like it was out of Harry Potter. This was the only place were all photos, even flash photos, was allowed. But the only thing I wanted to get a photo of was this beautiful door, carrying on the theme.

HPIM0388.jpg image by zecainfranceIt was interesting that it was a French woman, a doctor’s daughter, who contributed the bulk of the first artifacts for this museum. She and her mother collected fossils, shells, and bones. But I did learn something: did you know they were porcupines in Europe? I thought they were just American. They had a most impressive specimen.

My last stop of the day was the Pavillion de Vendome, a cozy little love nest built later in the 17th Century by the Duc de Vendome for his mistress. The duke was a grandson of the fabulous King Henri IV, by one of his many mistresses. No photos inside, but you see the outside, what a lovely little place it was. It’s amazing to think it’s close to the center of the city, it looks so bucolic, and actually is next door to a rather dilapidated grammar school. And yes, another photo of a doorway.

HPIM0389.jpg image by zecainfrance

HPIM0391.jpg image by zecainfrance

On both the way to Aix, and back, I managed to be the next-to-last passenger aboard, with a total waiting time of about two minutes. This good luck came to an end when I had to wait in line almost an hour to buy my ticket to Avignon tomorrow. The machine didn’t like my debit card–didn’t have the fancy chip? So I had to buy it from a person, as did all the dozens of people in front of me, most of whom had long, complicated dealings with the folks behind the counter. Mine, when I finally got to the front, spoke English, good English, which was great, as any French was beyond me at that point. Then, I fled downhill to the hotel, too tired to dare get lost.

So after being out and about the whole day, and tired of the backpack, and desperately in need of a shower, I took the easy way out, and ran to the end of the block, and my new favorite restaurant,  Brasserie Richelieu, and my favorite table, and my favorite waitress. She remembered my thoughtful tip from last night, and brought me a little bowl of truly pungent, salty olives, which made a good start in rebalancing my body’s electrolite level. But I had left the hotel in such a hurry that I left my camera behind, and just brought money, and my passport, in case I was kidnapped. So no photos. You’ll have to just follow the description. I ordered a goat cheese and noodle casserole, pure comfort food, with just enough veggies to make it healthful. I also had asked for a small green salad, all the salads on the menu were complicated and contained protein, so the waitress made one for me, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and some parsley-type sprinkle. You’re kind of getting my level of specialness? After the rich entree, I had no room for dessert, but wanted the decaf. I asked if it could be “to go” but our communication fell apart, and she said she’d surprise me with something. She brought out a lovely little square of slate, dusted with powdered sugar, with a cup of decaf, foaming with hot milk, a little square bowl full of fruit salad, a smaller bowl with homemade ice cream topped with whipped cream, and a little slice of a chocolate and custard cake. OMG. Was I a happy camper! Just as I started on my decaf, a dozen hungry, hearty, thirsty German guys showed up, and the waitstaff hurriedly slung tables together and dragged out extra place settings. I knew she would be busy, so I got my “addition” my tab, and left an even more thoughtful tip. I may be back in Marseille again, and I’ll certainly head to that lovely little restaurant.

Then up the little hill to the hotel, and firmly closed my door on a long, exhausting, sweaty, wonderful day.