Adventures In France: Provence
Last week I shared stories and pictures from the first half of our trip in France, first in Paris, then in Dijon & Annecy. Today picks up with when we left Annecy to head south to Aix-en-Provence for a few days. We ended up only spending about 1 1/2 full days in Aix, and used it as a jumping off point for a few other places in the area. On the way to Aix we stopped for an afternoon in Orange to explore the roughly 2000 year old Roman Théâtre Antique. Much of the original stage wall is still intact and a nearby museum has an impressive collection of other artifacts and visualizations of the theater in its prime. The short drive from Orange to Aix was made about 30 minutes longer when traffic completely stopped on the highway for an emergency helicopter landing at an accident site, but I was impressed at how quickly the emergency crews cleared the road and got people moving again.
The fantastic B&B we stayed at was run by a woman named Marie, which gave me yet another opportunity to make Beauty and the Beast jokes. We began our first full day with a walk out of town to Paul Cézanne’s studio (he was born and died in Aix) and painting ground. After several weeks of seeing his paintings in museums across France it was really wonderful to see what inspired so many (almost 90) of his works.
After walking back into town we found our way to the restaurant Chez Féraud for what ended up being, I think, the best meal of our trip. Though it was 12:30 the place was totally empty, but clearly open (definitely more of a dinner place). Any worries we had by the lack of customers were quickly assuaged by the fantastic older husband and wife team in charge. They cheerfully brought out our appetizer (or entrée in France) orders of beef carpaccio and duck terrine with warm (steam escaped when you opened it) bread. To my surprise this was the only place we went in France that served warm bread, and it had clearly been baked within the last 30 minutes. I had chicken with sweet peppers, a roasted tomato smothered in basil and garlic, and potato & cheese gratin. My wife had a fantastic cannelloni and as we left we saw they had received a Michelin star in 2010. Why they don’t anymore is beyond me!
That afternoon we went to the Musée Granet in Aix, which had a pretty impressive collection housed in a separate building that was donated entirely by one man, Jean Planque. I found his transformation from Swiss peasant to famed art collector fascinating. After World War II Planque made a fortune in selling supplements for hog feed, but an inability to patent his product caused the money to dry up in a few years. But while building his fortune he connected with some of Europe’s finest painters, most notably Picasso, and refashioned himself as an art collector and dealer when his other business dried up. The next day we took a day trip to the hillside town of Bonnieux. I had been looking forward to this not only for the great drive, but because they had a bread museum!
Bonnieux’s museum did not disappoint. They had an incredible collection of different generations of equipment (mixers, lamination machines, wheat harvesters, baskets & pans)…
…displays on the science of bread in France , and posters developed throughout the years encouraging the nation to eat their bread.
The history major in me was intrigued by the 18th and 19th century ordinances from different regions which established strict rules for bread baking including setting prices and ingredient standards.
The following day was our last in the area and we made good use of it by driving to Les Baux and Avignon. We toured the ruins of the medieval Château des Baux and however inconvenient it is to get to now, I can’t imagine what it used to be like! But then again, that’s what made it such a great place to set up, since it was very easy to defend.
After lunch we drove to Avignon to see the famed bridge and Palais de Papes, where the Popes (or at least some of them) resided in the 14th century. This was a very strange experience for me because I was expecting it to be a much more religious site (similar to the Vatican, I was worried about wearing shorts) thought it was anything but. In one of the former audience chambers there was an exhibit of modern art (at least 3 dozen pieces) all of which were paintings of naked women. Not something I would have expected to see in a former Papal residence, but still very interesting nonetheless and the exhibits did a very nice job of documenting the history and evolution of the building throughout the centuries.
The next morning we left Aix after breakfast and drove south to Cassis, stopping there for an afternoon on our way to Nice. More to come Friday!