Thursday, September 11
Driving to the TGV station through rush hour traffic to return the car I thought it would be ironic if I had a fender bender now. I made it through the gates of the station then drove through the maze of entrances and exits and barriers and walls several times before figuring out how to get into the car rental return area. I could see it but how does one enter? Eventually I take the correct turn in the maze. I think the French like to mess with us.
So little Blanche is gone, she served me well but now I’m free of worrying if some delinquent will think its fun to run a key down her side while she sat in the huge public parking lot outside the medieval wall every night. I didn’t relish having to deal with a long drawn out insurance claim.
I’m on my way to Aix en Provence, just 20 minutes on the high speed TGV from Avignon, an hour by car. The ticket machines can be complicated and the ticket agents never seem extremely busy so I’d much rather talk to a real person. Using a mixture of their limited English and my limited French they issue me a ticket and verify my track number.
Note: the trains are long but there is a car number indicator that tells you where to stand on the track. Otherwise you have to walk the length of the train inside with your suitcase. There is no time once the train arrives. You get on and it leaves almost immediately.
I’m using the third day of my three day Rail Europe pass. The other two days were my round trip Paris. Not sure I saved much by getting the pass, I need to do some research to compare.
Waiting on the track are 4 women from Atlanta. Speaking English with a southern drawl I can’t resist asking them where they’re from- Atlanta. It turns out they’re in Provence with a guide but taking a day on their own to see Marseille. I almost wish I was joining them, they were a hoot. Unfortunately my train reaches Aix before I’ve had a chance to get to know more about their itinerary.
Arriving at the TGV in Aix I go to the information booth in the station and get a map and directions to the bus that will take me to the city center. It’s about a 15 minute ride, buses come every few minutes. Once in town I head for the first decent coffee shop to lay out my day in Aix.
Aix is known for its fountains and the first thing I see rounding a corner from the bus station is the mother if all Aix fountains, the Fountain de la Rotonde. It sits at the beginning of the Boulevard Mirabeau the main shopping/restaurant/fancy office street. Scanning across the street and what is this glass facade with the big shinny, silver APPLE? I never pass an Apple store without going in. It’s always the same – the smiling Apple person who greets you and tells you of course you can use our WEFE. The confused newbies wandering around in a daze, happy to have their questions answered. The savvy techies buying the latest peripherals and gadgets. The small classes at the long table with primarily over 50 somethings who knew they’d have to join the rest of the planet and get connected at some point. Finally those with their shiny new Apple boxes, all grins, anxious to get home and play with their new toy. Of course there’s me, just happy to be able to check email, middle of the day, in Aix en Provence.
This is a market day on Boulevard Mirabeau and I soon discover it goes on and on up the boulevard and surrounding streets. At the beginning it’s clothes, bags, linens, jewelry, soaps etc. then it continues with food, then flowers, then antiques. The market covers the whole width of the wide boulevard so although there are lots of people, it’s not crowded and I enjoy wandering. Can’t shop, no room in the suitcase – unfortunately (or fortunately for my credit card)
I do have a plan that doesn’t involve markets or shopping. With map in hand I head out of the town center to find Atelier Cezanne. Cezanne’s studio, he’s one of my favorite of the impressionists and I’m anxious to see where he worked and lived. I have no idea how far out of town it’s located, the map is iffy. I walk and walk and periodically see a sign pointing me in the direction. Then the road starts to go up and up and I’m in what’s clearly a residential area of more modern houses and apartments. Just when I start to give up there is the final sign and the gate – and I read that it just closed for lunch 5 minutes ago! My bad, I should know better. France shuts down from 12:30 until at least 2 and often 2:30 or 3. Nothing I can do so I start back, meet another couple, clearly tourists, just starting up the hill and sure enough they were looking for it and are disappointed. I didn’t tell them I saved them a walk up a big hill for nothing. Perhaps they’ll find out later. For me I’ll have to look up pictures of the interior on the net. I have other plans, like lunch.
On my way back to the center I’m stunned to see that the market has disappeared and the boulevard now has traffic. Gone are all the stalls, and some of them were substantial, and the street cleaners are washing the fallen lettuce leaves and other dropped food from the food stalls. The flower shops are just carting the flowers and putting them in vans, the street cleaners are waiting to clean up after them. Amazing. The French can be very efficient when they want to be.
I’m on the hunt for the right cafe for lunch. I always try to find an outdoor cafe and sit towards the back so I can people watch around me and on the street and guess their stories.
Table directly in front are the middle aged lovers, yes, smooching (yuk, get a room will ya), my theory is they are divorced Americans who met through a dating site and this is their first trip together.
Next to them is the American couple with the young child. My story for them is they’ve taken jobs in Europe, then had a baby. They’re going out on weekends seeing the rest of Europe before they quit their jobs and return home because they miss their family now that they have a child.
Two tables over are the giggling teenage girls, they’re putting on a show for the boys on the square hanging around smoking and checking out the girls.
The two elderly woman taking a coffee break after shopping, the dapper old man reading is a retired college professor.
After lunch I go looking for the Museum of Natural History. It’s on the map and I search and search up and down streets I’ve already been on and when I finally find it tucked up an alley that isn’t on the map it’s closed for “works” until Monday. Good god, this isn’t my day.
However, I’ve really enjoyed Aix. It’s very alive and I really liked the market. It’s now 4:30 and I’m back on the bus to the TGV then to the local train to Avignon center and home by 5:45.
Note on coffee. The French make great coffee, I just don’t get why they only give you a spoonful, in an teeny tiny cup, and charge you 3 bucks for it. Brian and I were lucky we had a Starbucks close to our Paris apartment and got our latte tall every morning. Never saw one once I left Paris. In a cafe you can ask for a cafe American which is a somewhat larger cup, half filled, or if you ask for a cafe creme, you get something close to a filled cup but it’s not as hot. Sigh.
Note on wine. House wine is cheap and it’s good, and it often costs less, or the same, as coffee. Not so much in Paris but certainly in Provence wine country.