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An Aix-ellent experience

A month in Aix-en-Provence, belle of the South of France? Mais oui: The idea of actually settling into a European town for a bit was top of the bucket list, in fact. 

I’m too old and too poor for a gap year abroad, but when Smithsonian Journeys announced its new month-long visit to a single city abroad, I was quick to sign on. Sure, you could do this solo, if you had the energy to arrange apartment rental, air tickets, language lessons, and weekend excursions, but—no stranger to stress—I opted for the ease of simply packing my bag. Plus, I liked the idea of spending time with 20 like-minded people of a certain age (both couples and spirited singles).

Why Aix? Because it fit those three must-haves: location, location, location. It’s in the heart of the fabled hill towns of France, half an hour from the Mediterranean at Marseilles, and only a bit longer to Arles, Avignon, and Cannes, where the famed film festival was unspooling. 

The city of 150,000 itself, livened by lots of University students, reached its golden years in the 1700s under the reign of Good King Rene, whose statue oversees the grand Cours Mirabeau, a gracious promenade—the Champs d’Elyssees of Provence, legendary even by French standards—dotted with mossy fountains and gnarly plane trees shading open-air cafes like Les Deux Garcons, launched in 1762 and bustling ever since. Aix boasts no grand historic sites, few must-see museums—a Roman bath here, a cathedral with Roman mosaics there—so the pressure is off. Simply enjoy exploring a tangle of cobbled streets knitting hidden squares that serve as markets by morning, outdoor cafes by noon and night.

We could cook in our miniscule apartments, but also became devotees of the city’s restaurants—from haute to homey—with their value-priced set menus. Each morning, after jogging the Cours, I’d stop at the neighborhood bakery for a warm-from-the-oven baguette. After weeks of a daily “Bonjour…Merci….Au’voir,” I finally made the cut. The owner, at last, greeted me with “D’habitude [the usual], Madame?” 

True, the French are more stand-offish than we glad-handing Americans, but that’s the joy of a month in one spot—being finally acknowledged as a local. Even tossing a smile to the resident beggar, jangling his cup on the sidewalk, became part of my daily routine.

To give structure to our days and minds, we studied French half the day in small groups, divided by ability—none to lots. Christine and Solene, our patient profs, fast-forwarded us from one conjugation to another, from present tense to past and future, peppered with rules made only to be broken. (Christine: “Of course there are irregular verbs! This is French!”) Each morning we parlayed, in baby French, our experiences of the day before—a restaurant visit, a musical performance, an excursion—giggling in solidarity at our mutual faux pas. Frequently we left the classroom to practice practical French by ordering in a café, shopping with street vendors, asking info at the tourist office, choosing a favorite work at the art museum, and defending our selection. No textbooks—instead, trial by fire.

Some group members signed on for optional painting classes, others for cooking lessons. Me, I’d hop a bus. 

Tour time

Two hours and two euros took me to Apt. The rain coursed as I patrolled the ancient town, peering into the cathedral’s 11th-century crypt below the glow of its stained glass windows. Then lunch of rabbit terrine and poached salmon with a kiss on both cheeks from the patron as I paid my bill.

Pont du Gard—one of the “seven wonders of the world”—is the countryside site of a famed Roman aquaduct—three stories of amazing, graceful arches (never mind the engineering marvel) spanning a river where kayaks flutter past. It’s near Nimes, a city of more Roman souvenirs, starting with the Temple of Diana of 100 B.C., festooned by graffiti from 1725; the amphitheater where gladiators tussled; and the Maison Caree, a glowing, marble-columned temple built by Emperor Augustus. After sightseeing, we devoured a Croque Monsieur aside those gleaming pillars, then invaded the Contemporary Art Museum to explore Nimes’ distinctly modern treasures, from Henry Moores to David Hockneys.

In Arles, more Roman masterpieces: amphitheater, theater, obelisk that once centered the circus racing track, the former forum, and a vivid archaeological museum tracing what our guide called Arles’ “brilliant” period, 122–49 B.C. Then fast-forward to the Arles of Van Gogh, who produced 100 paintings in his 444 days here.

Marseilles is France’s second-largest city, a gritty, lively port settled long ago by Greek traders and still home to colorful immigrants enriching it with Arab markets and fishing boats. Its landmark cathedral draws many a visitor, but for me, a greater lure was the teeming harbor below, crammed with pleasure boats and seaside cafes offering the famous bouillabaisse. After darting among the craft galleries, vintage shops, and indie boutiques of the arty harborside district called 
Le Pannier, filling our backpacks with handmade trinkets, we settled in for a final lunch of fish soup and aioli—that supremely garlicky mayo—with artichokes and potatoes as sidekicks to an ivory slice of cod. And a last glass of rosé, of course. Easy to love, hard to leave. 

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