16 September 2011

Two Places That Feel Like Provence

Provence’s coast can feel like a long line at the post office. The prettiest interior towns can be overwhelmingly full of tour busses and gift shops. Unfortunately, the region can’t be written off. Despite all the hassle, the high prices and the swarms of tourists, Provence is as elementally beautiful and charming as any place on earth. A great way to appreciate it is in a small city, places often forgotten about in the rush towards villages and sea; two great towns are Apt, capital of the Luberon, and Aix-en-Provence, one of the most exciting cities in France.
Provence is much like the American southwest. There is an otherworldly purity of light, a dry heat, a smell of wildflowers and scrubby earth. When it rains, the ochre dust is mixed into a red clay that coats shoe soles and splatters car doors. Pinion pines are scattered everywhere, crouched low to the ground. Walking the narrow streets of Apt, passing local cafes and bars, the town feels soaked in the regional elements. At Le Fournil du Luberon, a great bakery in the center, the pine-nut cookies are reminiscent of shortbread and fragrantly nutty.
A new discovery for us, Apt is small and satisfying. The succinct old town is labyrinthine and many-alley’d, with a blue collar sensibility that has been smothered in other Provençale towns. Cafes and bars are friendly, restaurants are cheap and low-key, the paint and plaster is chipped and bleached. It's an overlooked spot, perhaps too rough for the guidebooks, all the more appealing for it.
At Resto la Manade, on a small side square, the food was a hearty mix of Provence and regions further west, with touches of Basque influence. A wonderful take on Bouillabaisse, the fish stew was served familiarly in a bowl with a rouille, but each component was allowed to shine on equal terms. Instead of the often muddy heaviness of similar dishes, the dish was light and heady with saffron. The taste was reminiscent of the land – an herby, red earthiness on the edge of the sea.
Aix-en-Provence is different from forgotten Apt. There are tourists and throngs of University students, boutiques and Irish pubs, scores of restaurants and a constant, thrumming energy. Most small cities would be engulfed and left soulless by the crowds and cameras, but Aix is too vibrant for that. It's cosmopolitan and sure of itself, and remains exceptionally pretty.
The central town is reserved for pedestrians, with narrow medieval streets and creaking, ancient buildings. A town of fountains since roman times, there is splashing water everywhere and a multitude of tiny courtyards and squares. Cafe tables flood the plazas, where tourists and locals mingle to sip pastis and rose from morning until midnight.
Perhaps what has kept Aix-en-Provence so pleasant is its lack of beaches. Not far to the south, the Côte d'Azur stretches, with overdevelopment either rampant or fanatically (artificially?) kept at bay. Aix is also a large enough town that tour groups can dissipate into the crowd, and the university ensures a perennial youthfulness. Awash in color and light, filled with trees, it remains the city of Cézanne, but is less museum-like than it could be.
It's hard to argue with driving or cycling through Provence's countryside. It's inarguably beautiful. Drifting by olive groves and vineyards, a timeless quality can overtake the senses. But stopping in the wrong place can be stifling. In Roussilon, we lasted only fifteen minutes, in Cassis, we felt hemmed in by the horde. It's a sad fact that Provence is almost too beautiful - everyone wants to see it, and it can look tawdry under the onslaught. That's why its so easy to fall in love with Apt and Aix. Instead of exploited, they've either been neglected - to great effect - or thrived, and feel so perfectly Provençale.

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