Aix-rated

Day one in Provence and so far, so good! Much of yesterday was spent just getting here. We took a taxi to Charles de Gaulle to bid my mother-in-law a fond farewell before she caught a flight back to Ireland, then cabbed back into town to Gare du Lyon train station to await our carriage south. The weather, still rainy, took a turn for the colder and we had to really bundle up to ward off the chill.

Boarded our train due south and settled into our luxuriously large first-class seats (thanks, honey! I hereby defer all responsibility of booking train tickets to you from now on.) Soon, we were underway, looking forward to an uneventful three-hour express ride straight into Aix-en-Provence. Halfway there, the train came to a screeching halt and I feared our travel plans were going off the rails yet again. Turns out there was a problem with one of the exterior doors coming open, which required the attention of a mechanic before we could continue. Being stopped in the middle of nowhere meant the best solution was to travel backward to the closest train station. With our being on a busy track such as this, we had to just sit there and wait for the traffic to clear enough for us to make the return. So wait we did.

An older woman sitting in the seat across the aisle spent the entire trip wheezing and struggling for breath, making me question whether she really should have been traveling at all. I couldn’t determine whether the constant grunting, gasping and throat clearing was really a serious medical condition or just a nervous tic. This woman sounded like she REALLY needed some oxygen; I nearly leaned over and offered her the toddler’s inhaler at one point, the poor gal.

Finally, we backtracked, the problem was fixed and we went on our way. We arrived in Aix about an hour and a half later than anticipated, well after dark and starving. The next hiccup to be addressed — taxi after taxi refused to pick us up, the drivers taking one look at our collection of bags, stroller and baby and pleading not enough room in their cars. It was no problem for the cabbies in Paris, but here, our accoutrement was providing a problem. A kind soul eventually agreed to give us a lift to our hotel.

We’re staying in the Citadines, a hotel/apartment-type setup with locations throughout Europe. Our digs are basically a glorified dorm room – lino floor, a tiny kitchenette and a fold-out sofa. It’s not as bad as it sounds, though, we have a balcony overlooking some lovely mountainous scenery and the location is far enough outside the main drag to be fairly quiet, but only a 10-minute bus ride away from the center of town. There’s actually a full swimming pool under our balcony, but I can’t imagine anyone having the balls enough to face that chilly water this time of year.

By the time we got checked in, it was getting on to 8 p.m. and we hadn’t eaten since a lunchtime snack at the airport. Our rations for the little guy were running dangerously low and there aren’t any restaurants within quick walking distance, so hubby set off to find something to tide us over until morning as I stayed behind and unpacked. The toddler was NOT happy after falling asleep in the cab and then being unceremoniously woken up to unload. About 45 minutes later, hubby reappeared with pizzas and wine and we relaxed with slices of cheesy pepperoni, olive and mushroom pie and some delicious local red. After waging yet another nerve-jangling bedtime battle with the toddler, we all finally drifted off to sleep around 11:30 p.m.

This morning dawned bright and sunny, at long last! Whereas Milan made a scrappy first impression on me, I must say, Aix-en-Provence is proving impressive from the get-go. For starters, the climate here is fantastic. Hubby has spent a little time here before and described the area to me as vaguely northern California-ish. And he’s right – the mountainous scenery sort of calls to mind the California wine country region where we used to live. Of course, this is also a wine-producing area with the same kinds of indigenous vegetation. The sight of wild-growing rosemary and lavender brings a smile to my face.

Having no food in the room apart from the tuna-and-olive-topped pizza we didn’t touch cooling on the balcony, we hurried through our morning preparations and headed into town on foot as soon as we could after getting up. The section where we are staying is filled with nice-looking, well-kept apartment buildings sporting balconies filled with lovely plants, miniature bushes and trees.

After a short while, we came into the center of town. The city seems to radiate out from Le Rotunde, a roundabout distinguished with an impressive large fountain. Aix is known as the “City of Fountains;” to be fair, there are a lot of water features, but many are not all that. A trickle of water squirting up through a large bush does not a fountain make, but whatever.

Le Rotunde

The main thoroughfare is called Cours Mirabeau and shoots off directly from the rotunde — a large, mainly pedestrian street full of shops, banks and quaint restaurants. The whole joint is beautiful really, very clean and well maintained. The crowds aren’t too bad; then again, we are here during low season. The city population hovers around 125,000 normally, and it’s a university town. I can’t imagine how crazy busy it must be during the summer. Paris is hectic and churning all the time; in Provence, the pace of life seems a little slower and more forgiving. People actually stop their cars here to let us cross the street. In Paris, you have to hold onto your ass and run like hell.

We settled on a café right on the rotunde for breakfast/lunch — Nutella crepes, coffees and fruit salad. Slightly overpriced, but delicious. The gooey chocolately crepes were a huge hit with the toddler, as evidenced by the little brown fingerprints he left all over my cream-colored turtleneck. After fortifying ourselves, we took a stroll down the Cours Mirabeau checking things out. I’ve made contact with an English-speaking ex-pat group and found out they have a weekly coffee chat on Thursday mornings, so we sorted out the location — a beautiful tiny restaurant/café on a side street off the Cours Mirabeau. Also nearby, an English bookstore with a great vibe and hearty selection of tomes in my native tongue. Score!

Cours Mirabeau

The rest of the afternoon was spent stocking groceries for the room, first at Aldi and later at the charming market shops downtown. Trying to save a little money, we’ve decided to eat in the room when we can this week and I needed to prepare. For dinner tonight, I was in the mood for pasta and therefore, bought macaroni noodles and ingredients for a pseudo-ratatouille with salad and baguette. Unfortunately, the cooking equipment in the room leaves something to be desired… I tried to view the whole experience as a Top-Chef challenge, and after hubby finally figured out how to get the two-burner electric cooktop going, we were off and running. The finished product? Not one of my best efforts, but it was nice to dine Chez Nous as opposed to taking turns simultaneously subduing the toddler and trying to wolf down our dinners as we’ve been doing in restaurants for the past week.

Hubby is flying off to Wales tomorrow for a few days of professional networking at Rally Britain, so the toddler and I will be making our appearance at the first of two ex-pat coffee klatches tomorrow morning and hopefully gain some ideas for fun things to keep ourselves occupied. I’d love to get down to take a look at Marseilles while we’re here, maybe check out some of the countryside and taste some local wine, olive oil, what have you. A bientot!

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