Thursday, August 13, 2015

Day 3: In the land of fountains, Cezanne and calissons

With the hopes of seeing fields of purple now dashed and having followed in Van Gogh's footsteps as far as I could, day three brought new challenges. What to do?  I had heard of Aix-en-Provence.  I knew Cezanne was from there.  I was now privy to the zone tickets allowing you to traverse southern France for next to nothing.  I could almost pronounce Aix.  The decision was made.

Had I done a bit more research and found out just how proud they were of their fountains, I might have rethought this.  I would have known that the principal thoroughfare is a shopping street with ornamental spouts gurgling every couple of blocks. Not in a Bellagio, choreographed along with lights, pretty, just regular fountains. Some were made of stone, others were mossy blobs kind of dribbling away...none of them particularly remarkable but there they were, the pride of the town.

Across from the largest of the fountains was the tourist information office, where I picked up a map and tried to find non spurting-water related things to do and see.   I quickly came to the realization that I was only left with Cezanne stuff and walk around and admire the pretty town stuff...but not much else.

I did both.  I strolled through the center of town on my way to Paul Cezanne's studio.  Soon, I started spotting the same lavender that just weeks earlier had adorned the countryside.  It was now being packaged and sold on every other street corner.  Of course I was lost, what with all those teeny tiny winding streets, but it smelled divine.

After stopping many locals and asking what most likely translated to "Where house Cezanne?", I made it to his studio on a residential street about 15 minutes outside of town.  It is a two story house with a backyard ample enough that it was set up for that evening's movie screening.

After buying the admission ticket on the ground floor, you are allowed upstairs where- yup, it's an artist studio.  There is no original artwork, no signage,  just many of his original props and artifacts laid out in that single room, presumably as he left them.  Photography is not permitted but to get an idea of what it looks like, you can visit their website.  I figured there must be more exposition in the other rooms so I asked the one guy on staff how to reach the rest of exhibit.  "This is it" he said, for probably the 10th time that morning. (In the ten minutes I was up there, I heard two other people ask variations of the same question).  Had I been more of a fan of Cezanne's (on a scale of 1-10, I probably top out at a solid 6), perhaps I would not have been so underwhelmed, but I felt like the proper response should've been "Yes, we know this is lame.  Go ahead and take all the pictures you like and how about we give you some free tickets for tonight's movie and a ride back into town for your troubles."

The house where Cezanne died and an excuse to take a picture of the man-bunned Frenchman
None of that was offered.  The fountains started to look a bit more interesting.  I walked back to the center, where I spotted a little tourist train making the rounds.  Figuring I had nothing to lose, I jumped on.

They didn't really give Pauly pride of place up in here.
There was a lot more of the same combined with the realization that tourist trains really have no business driving through these tiny little streets- in some places, people had to practically flatten themselves against the wall to not become choo-choo roadkill.  I jumped off the train before someone got either squashed or shoved into a fountain.

There was only one thing left to do, which was to try a calisson.  Rumor has it that back in 1454, King Rene was about to marry a woman half his age who was so delighted at the prospect that no one had ever seen her smile.  Not even once.  The king, showing how truly little he knew about women, ordered the royal baker to come up with a little something to cheer her up. Not the royal jeweler, mind you...the guy in the chef's hat.  The baker came up with the calisson- think a slightly sweeter version of marzipan- and suddenly she was all smiles and all was well in the world.  Twenty bucks says she was boning the baker.

Regardless, since that day, Aix has been associated with the almond shaped treat and thankfully, the official home of the calisson is very generous with the samples.

So, there really was not much more to do in Aix.  It was only 2pm and I was ready to return to Marseille.  This is not to say I regretted coming to Aix.  It was the quintessential charming southern French town.  If my life was a romantic comedy, this would be where I would turn a corner and bump square into Olivier Martinez, spilling maps, brochures and orange Fanta all over the place.  It is just that I was in 150% FoMo mode and this town was forcing me to slow down and smell the lavender. That simply would not do.

The metro station by the harbour in Marseille and its mirrored canopy

Back in Marseille, I decided to give the tourist train as means of transportation a second chance.   This was primarily because the Bailique Notre-Dame de la Garde sits on the highest hill in town and it was hot as balls.  Earlier plans to walk up the hill were easily discarded.

The beautiful Byzantine church and the views it offers would have been totally worth the walk but that is easy to say if you have you just breezed by the sweaty saps doing so.

After twenty minutes at the church, the tour continued through the city.  I hadn't really done much all day but I had somehow managed to wear myself out.  Riding around in an open train and taking in the sights was exactly what I wanted to do at that moment.
A lot of the city's statues were blindfolded.  I have no clue why.

Olives de Provence: aka Chocolate covered almonds disguised as olives
The tour ended right back where it started, by the harbour, which was a fortunate happenstance since that is where the waterfront cafes were.  A couple of glasses of wine later, I was finally in the Aix kick back and relax state of mind, and with a couple of satchels of lavender and a half eaten bag of calissons in my purse, this is precisely what I did.

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