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Simple Pleasures in Aix-en-Provence

200904-a-pleasures-in-aix

Photo: Max Kim-Bee

We ate dinner at Les Deux Garçons, the famous (and these days quite touristy) café on the Cours, a place M.F. spent hours watching the comings and goings, and never a place one came for the food, but rather for the ambience, as my grandmother pointed out. My daughter ordered a hamburger, and was of course dismayed when it failed to arrive with a bun. She soon managed to polish it off, however.

Not far away, on a quiet street just off the Cours, we paid a visit—we paid our respects, I want to say—to the fountain of the Four Dolphins. This fountain was my grandmother and M.F.’s favorite, my father and his brothers and cousins’ favorite: our family favorite, in other words. As advertised, the fountain consisted of four stone dolphins, smiling and cheerful but each with a slightly different expression, spouting thin streams of water into the basin below. “This fountain is great,” said my father definitively, expressing neither a strictly aesthetic judgment nor simple, unbridled enthusiasm, but rather something more transcendent, a serious claim of affection, and one that he wanted us to share. (And which we did.) He remembered the Four Dolphins so well from when he was 13, and here it was, 50 years later, and still wonderful.

But of course, some things do not survive, some things become unrecognizable. A few blocks away was the Hôtel Roi René, where we now thought we’d go for an after-dinner drink before heading back to the house. The Roi René was once the hotel in Aix, the epitome of elegance and so forth, the place where M.F. had stayed for weeks at a time in the early 50’s, where she and my grandmother and the kids would check in every so often for a weekend in the late 50’s, to take hot baths and order room service, and where my father remembers a sprawling suite with a balcony overlooking the Boulevard du Roi René, and watching the Tour de France whiz by below.

As we walked in we were confronted with a beige-and-pink color scheme and a collection of hyperbanal corporate furniture. The place had none of the glamour my dad and grandmother remembered—not an iota.

My father looked puzzled, studying the angles of the walls and wondering if the original hotel had been torn down and completely rebuilt. No, he and my grandmother decided, but significant structural changes had been made at some point or other. We were directed to a table with a view of the inner courtyard.

“Well, too bad,” my grandmother said.

Yup, I said. But we might as well have a drink, right?

Sure, everyone agreed. We looked around for a few minutes at the perfectly pleasant and yet perfectly uninspiring hotel lobby.

After a while, no waiter had appeared.

Well, I said, I guess we may as well leave, right?Everyone agreed, and we quickly departed.

There was plenty of time, over the course of a lazy two weeks in July, for a few road trips. One day we drove to Cassis, about 40 minutes away on the Mediterranean. We wanted to swim on a beach, in the waves and among the sandy crowds. The coastline here was nothing if not dramatic, the drive down into town a series of steep switchbacks, the blue expanse of the ocean floating in the mid-distance like a dream. The town itself was charming and picturesque in the way that only a fishing village can be—with narrow streets and dockside restaurants, cliffs looming in the background and a blazing sun overhead. We sprang for the 15-euro-a-day chaise longues and beach umbrellas, and watched the kids splash around in the surf. Every 45 minutes or so I would dive into the water to cool off, floating on my back and staring at the sky.

Another day, we made our way to L’Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de la Celle, a small country inn and restaurant owned by Alain Ducasse, for a long afternoon lunch. La Celle is a tiny village about 45 minutes from Aix, and the inn incorporates a former Benedictine abbey, a 12th-century building that extends on one side of a back courtyard, where tables are set on the terrace under large canvas umbrellas. We ordered prix fixe tasting menus in the absolutely serene garden: artichoke hearts and mushroom ravioli, red mullet with tomato, basil, and balsamic reduction, veal loin roasted with sage, and so on and so forth.

A far less elaborate meal awaited us at La Pitchoune, Julia and Paul Child’s onetime house in Plascassier, 95 miles east of Aix. This was the vacation house Julia built on Simone Beck’s family estate in 1962, a place where she cooked and entertained. Today it’s home to Cooking with Friends in France, a culinary immersion program run by Kathie Alex, a former student of Beck’s. The kitchen is as Julia left it, with the outlines of her utensils stenciled on the Peg-Board wall.

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