Aix-en-Provence

I used to pronounce it like Eeks-en-Provence, but if you do that people will just stare at you like you’re stupid.

Aix (said a bit like Axe, but Frenchified)-en-Provence is a must see if you are traveling through the south of France.

There’s a bus that goes directly from La Ciotat to Aix-en-Provence. But when I say directly, I mean it’s about an hour and thirty minutes. However, if you just take a car it’s only about half an hour. Though, when your without a car for a while, you get used to it. It’s cheaper than paying for gas around here. It’s sold by the liter! Quel horreur!!

I started the day early, running into town to add more trips onto my student bus pass and trying to find a package that I was supposed to receive almost 3 weeks ago, but that’s another (and longer) story. Every trip to the post office ends up with me stressing out and buying more wine.

So, package-less but with a bus card full of rides, I stopped by a bakery and got a few pain au chocolats, my favorite, and ate them on the steps of some random old (but not Roman old, sadly) amphitheater that looked out over the marina.

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Like everything else in France other than the trains, the bus was late. I picked a seat in the middle and braced myself for the many roundabouts and twisting mountain roads. Driving in France requires a lot of sharp turns, fast speeds, sudden stopping, and a constant knowledge on how to use the horn.

The bus ride was, and always is, uneventful. Sometimes the driver plays songs over the radio and you never know what you’re going to get. One time, on my way to Marseille, it was soft, and slightly sensual, jazz. Another time it was solely French rap. This time it was an American top 40 dance mix with a few Nicky Jam and Stromae songs thrown in. So, too much Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and The Chainsmokers later, I was finally in Aix.

I couldn’t suppress my amazement. There were stores and not just overpriced boutiques? There were people everywhere! Omg, were those students over the age of 16?

Aix-en-Provence is known for being a university town and the bus drove alongside the campus for a while. It’s a mix of yellowing dormitories and modern faculty buildings sculpted out of shiny steel. College students were all over the place and I was too excited to see people my own age again.

I met my friend, another assistant who lives in town, at the last bus stop and she showed me around for a bit, taking me through narrow passageways between shops and down quaint streets with even quainter cafes. We didn’t do much that first night and took a bus across town as the sun set to go grocery shopping at Casino. Not to be confused with an actual casino.

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It rained every night, but the sun did manage to peek its way through the clouds on Saturday. We explored the famous Aix-en-Provence markets but, because of the rain and chilly winds, most of the stalls were closed or in the middle of closing. I did buy a small jar of Tapenoire, a very popular southern spread made from black olives and herbs from Provence. It’s very salty, but very good, and now that jar is very empty.

Around midday, we stopped by a coffee shop somewhere in he middle of Old Town that had more choices than just an espresso or cafe au lait. Finally! I ordered something new, a café latte viennois, that ended up being more whipped cream than anything else but was also very, very good.

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For the next few hours we wandered the old and winding streets. We found a small boutique that reminded me of a French Vera Bradley. They sold small handbags, wallets, luggage tags, and even scrunchies in quirky prints. They were also having a gigantic sale -50% off the entire store, so of course I left with way too much.

One second you’ll be walking through a tight street bursting with people and then the moment you turn the corner, it opens up into a large courtyard. Sometimes the courtyards will have cafes and cute little touristy shops that sell everything you can think of, and then all those things are lavender scented. Because, you know, Provence and all.

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My favorite place in Aix was the grand Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur. If you walk in the front doors and look to the right, there is a baptistery (which is now just a kinda creepy hole in the ground) surrounded by columns that hold up a domed skylight. It’s the only thing that remains of the original structure, which was a Roman temple dedicated to the god Apollo. And by original, I mean pre-12th century, which is pretty dang cool.

The vaulted ceilings are peeling and the stone walls are eroded. The heavy, yet familiar, scent of frankincense hangs in the air. For a place so dark, it’s surprisingly spacious. Candles flicker in shadowed corners. Stone figures with heads bowed or eyes towards the heavens pray in front of windows dripping with color.

When I think I’m doing pretty well in life, I tell myself to go visit a cathedral.

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It’s a place that’s much bigger than myself, and not just because of religion. I think about the hundreds of years that, while time outside has whirled by, the stone carvings and sculpted statues have stayed constant, forever immortal. So many people have walked the same steps and stared in awe at the same paintings. I think of the thousands of hours that went into building such a stunning piece of architecture, and it’s a work of art in its own right. But, in reality, my visit is just a tiny speck in the history of this gigantic cathedral.

And then I think of my own life and all of the crap I need to get together.

But, usually shortly after this humbling revelation, the claustrophobia sets in or I think about how many dead people are probably under my feet and I get creeped out and leave. 

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Apart from the baptistery, the cloister is also printed on many Aix postcards. I happened to see a tour leaving through large wooden doors that lead to who-knows-where and immediately thought that I had to do that too. So I grabbed my friend and lead her into a narrow passageway that lead into a beautiful courtyard with delicate stone pillars. Sadly, the gates behind the doors were locked, so we didn’t get to explore.

I didn’t eat out in Aix, but I know from word of mouth that there are many good places. Instead, I live on the Language Assistant’s budget which, when there’s two of you, means you can afford that extra bottle of wine and maybe some fresh pastries for dessert.

The first night we decided to bake a pizza. And I was all down for that, since I don’t have an oven in my apartment. Oh, how I miss ovens.

I don’t know how the people who live in the studio I rent function without a oven. There’s only a stove and a daunting microwave that has too many buttons, but still doesn’t seem to do much. I can cook, but pizza is never an option.

We made a list: cheese, tomato sauce, flour . . .

“What about corn?”

“Corn?” I didn’t know if I had heard her right. “We’re eating pizza, no?”

I’m not a big fan of corn anyway but, after some quick research, I realized corn on pizza isn’t totally insane – in fact, it’s actually pretty popular. But back in that moment I remember being so confused. She really wants corn? On pizza? I guess I’ll have to try it next time.

When people ask me what kind of toppings I want, it’s always the same.

“I like pineapple.”

“And what else?”

“Uh . . . more pineapple?”

However, the next night we decided to French it up a bit and make Ratatouille!

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I didn’t know what I was expecting out of a dish that’s literally just veggies, cheese, and some seasoning, but it was delicious.

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’ve been wanting to make ratatouille ever since I saw the movie with the rat who also happened to be a chef. It’s a good movie. But let me tell you, laying out the slices of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato is just as pleasing in real life as it looks in 2D. It was so pretty I didn’t want to ruin it.

We made our own vin chaud, or mulled wine, with a recipe my friend had from Germany.

Sadly, I didn’t take as many photos as I would have wanted. The hours of rain outweighed the hours of sunshine, though I guess that means I’ll just have to go back. A weekend in Aix is definitely enough time to see the all the touristy sights and explore the town.

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