On my CV, it says that I spent a year in Provence. Technically, it was more like nine months, but ‘nine months in Provence’ sounds more like a gestation period than a reference to a famous book (and a dull TV series). Between the 2001 and 2002 I lived in Aix-en-Provence, the ancient Provencal capital, teaching at the university, eating poulet-frites, losing at the French language. Most importantly, it was during that year in Aix that I met my lovely wife. We visited a few more times in the following years, visiting old friends and old favourite places, but I hadn’t returned to Aix since moving to America ten years ago. So you can imagine my excitement as my navette from the airport pulled into town, Mont St. Victoire looming in the distance. This was only to be an overnighter, just a couple of days to check out the old place, see what has changed, explore shops I used to love, eat some of my favourite food – and SKETCH! One of the other things I must mention about my time in Aix: it was here that I rediscovered drawing.
The first thing I sketched was one of the old moss-covered fountains on Cours Mirabeau, above. This is the main historic thoroughfare of Aix, dividing the old town from the slightly less old but still historic Quartier Mazarin. The fountain sketched above is called the Fontaine des Neuf Canons, which dates from 1691. I stood on the less busy side of the Cours, which was actually part of an ancient road running from Arles to Italy. The fountains are important; Aix gets its name from the Latin for ‘waters’, and was founded by the Romans in 122 BC as ‘Aquae Sextiae’, after the thermal springs named for the Roman consul Sextius Calvinus. All of that information leads us into the next sketch, which was made in Cours Sextius itself. Below is the fountain at the junction of Cours Sextius and Rue Van Loo (presumably a reference to another water spring). Now, I’ll provide the map of the town when I make the final Aix-sketches post, but Cours Sextius is a busy tree-lined road that runs up the eastern edge of the old town. I stood outside what was once upon a time the Bistrot Aixois (or Bistrot d’Aix), which as I recall was one of my least favourite places for a night out in Aix when I lived there. Now, it was all boarded up, oh what a shame. This view however, this will be so typical and familiar to any of you who have spent time in Aix.
While Aix hasn’t changed much, I was impressed with what changes there were. The old closed-down Casino at the Rotonde has now made way for a beautiful and aesthetically sound new shopping district, with the tourist office relocating to a fancy building next door, while the old tourist office building has been knocked down in favour of, well, an Apple store. Little has changed in the old town itself however, and I wandered up the long and narrow Rue des Cordeliers, which is where my wife lived when I met her. This leads up to the Place de l’Hotel de Ville, Aix’s famously photogenic square, but I wasn’t going to sketch the big clock tower just yet (I did it next day). Instead I stood and sketched Chat Rêveur, a shop I always loved in Aix. It always had lots of funny cat-themed items (I remember years ago buying a wooden cat-shaped coat-hanger, I think it was for my sister). Well it didn’t seem to have so much of that now, mostly general cards and souvenir stuff, but I was so glad it was still there that I sketched it, albeit without the full colour it deserves. It’s a beautiful shop front. The cat theme is relevant though because this square was always where we would see the ‘dog people’, who would tend to gather in the square being a bit scruffy and letting their dogs run all over the place. Sometimes they would play hand-drums (the people, not the dogs). I knew one such drummer actually, Corentin, he was a lovely bloke but he wasn’t a dog person (no dog), though he did like to climb trees if I remember correctly. Well on this evening, there were no dog people, no drums, no old friends dans les arbres.
The shop closed up while I was sketching, and as the warm evening drew in I wandered through old Aix, a head full of memories. Stay tuned for more sketches, stories and aix-periences to come…