“Fruits… like having their portrait painted. They seem to sit there and ask your forgiveness for fading. Their thought is given off with their perfumes. They come with all their scents, they speak of the fields they have left, the rain which has nourished them, the daybreaks they have seen.” – Paul Cezanne
After several days exploring the area around Sablet, we journeyed into Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. While Avignon is a historic treasure, Aix (as it is sometimes known) is the town that I found most interesting. I had previously heard about Aix after reading the life story of my favorite jazz vocalist, Nina Simone, who lived near there during the last years of her life. She bought a house in Bouc-Bel-Air, just south of Aix in 1992, and remained in the area until her death in 2003.
Aix is an ancient city. A Celtic-Ligurian capital from the 3rd century BC, it was originally named Entremont. In 122 BC, the Romans, under Sextius Calvinius, conquered the city and renamed it Aquae Sextiae which is often shortened to Aix.
It is a city of art with many art schools and several universities. Paul Cézanne was born, studied, lived and died in Aix-en-Provence.
Cours Mirabeau, a beautiful tree-lined avenue, is the center of the city. It is lined on one side with wonderful terrace cafés, fashion boutiques, and bookshops, while the other side is overhung with towering plane trees stretching as far as your eye can see. All of this is punctuated with large and small bubbling, spraying or splashing fountains.
M.F.K. Fisher observed, “It is a man-made miracle, perhaps indescribable, compounded of stone and water and trees, and to the fortunate, it is one of the world’s chosen spots for their own sentient growth.”
The day we visited, the air was warm, and the light sublime. The sidewalk was alive with wonderful and interesting people, from toddlers (wearing the de rigueur neck scarf) holding hands with their fashionable young meres to a group of street musicians playing gypsy jazz to elderly couples strolling and window shopping.
While exploring side streets that peeled off Cours Mirabeau, we happened upon a terrace café at the end of Rue des Chapeliers.
Red umbrellas and a bright orange awning displayed the name: Polo Bar. Out front, an enterprising young man stood behind an aluminum worktable. A blackboard announced Oursins Cap Corse, 15€/dz. We discovered he was Corsican and had come into town that morning bearing burlap bags filled with fresh sea urchins still dripping salty, sea water.
Sea urchins are black spiny spheres about the size of a baseball with segmented insides (similar to an orange) filled with a red-orange pulpy flesh. The Corsican simply cut the top off of the urchins and plopped them onto a paper plate. Since a good sized crowd was beginning to fill the tables, he was barely able to keep up with the demand.
We decided to start with some of their local white wine on ice (yes, it came on ice) while we watched locals around us diving into what appeared to be a great treat. Pairs of older men and a few women were each devouring entire plates and asking for seconds.
None of us had ever eaten sea urchins so this seemed like an opportune time to rectify that shortcoming. I asked if we could purchase just a half dozen and was told that I could and that ½ dozen was €7.00 (do the math!). After an initial glass of wine, we egged each other on to sample this critter of the sea.
A pert young gamine (vaguely reminiscent of a more worldly Leslie Caron from the 1953 movie Lili ) served our order along with paper plates, small plastic spoons, and slices of warm baguettes.
OK, I have to tell you that this was not the best seafood that I have ever tasted. To me, it was somewhat like a briny, smoky oyster but with the consistency of a viscous puddle. To be open-minded and kind, I am sure that it must be an acquired taste. We decided to stop at 1/2 order.
Mother taught me to always say something nice at the end of a meal, so since we were in France, the bread was quite good, the wine was refreshing and the company superb.