Today was chill day – we had been flat out for six days after all and we would be on the road again soon enough.
Aix is one of those places that I have heard of so many times but hadn’t got around to visiting – it was worth the wait.
A chilled vibe prevailed, with the city compact enough to see everything in a day on the hoof. It is known as the city of a thousand fountains due to the scattering of them in all shapes and sizes throughout its boulevards, avenues and alleyways. We vowed to see as many as possible in the day and managed a creditable fourteen between cafe stops (I think one thousand may have been somewhat of an exaggeration)!
The highlights of the day were the impressive cathedral with its wonderful ornate cloisters, an impromptu open air string quartet performance from students based at the resident music academy and the flea market stretching the length of the plane tree lined main central boulevard, the Cours Mirabeau.
We noticed that all the street names were in both French and Provençal, reflecting the fact that Aix was under the Houses of Barcelona/Aragon and Anjou before passing to the crown of France in 1487.
This also explained why the city coat of arms has a decidedly Spanish look to it. The older parts of town certainly had more than a passing resemblance to Barcelona’s Barri Gotic district or ancient Cadiz.
We finished the day off in our favourite Aixian way, with a beer in the company of the campus colony.
Wednesday morning was the day we were headed for Avignon, our actual destination being Villeneuve Les Avignon, it’s younger but still historic sibling.
As was becoming the norm, we decided to take a round about way of getting there with first stop set to be a bird sanctuary in the vast Camargue National Park. Apart from that, the other destination of the day was a straight choice between two Roman attractions – the aqueduct of Pont du Gard or the amphitheatre of Arles. We would make our minds up later.
We again packed a picnic, crammed our bags and cases into the compact car and set off. Today was forecast to be a roaster, so the roof came down from the off, Music to Watch Girls By being the music of choice to accompany us.
We arrived smack on midday. We were now only a few miles from the sea and further away from Avignon than when we had started! It really was baking hot, our Boursin cream cheese turning to liquid in the boot of the car.
Suitably hatted and creamed, we set off for our avian adventure. I had attained a liking for casual bird spotting on a safari in South Africa in 2004 and had persuaded Rania that it would be a great way to spend a few hours. I don’t think she was convinced, but agreed to my plan anyway.
In the event, she loved the large gatherings of stork, ibis, heron and flamingo. We both went crazy to try and achieve that perfect shot of pink flamingo in full-on flutter. One of us almost achieved the desired effect, but now both claim the best one as ours!
After a couple of hours, we had our fill of ornithology – it was time to decide between the pont or the amphitheatre. Arles won unanimously, based mainly upon the fact that this was roughly more on route towards Avignon compared to the impressive aqueduct. Another attraction saved for a future trip.
We were to be happy with our choice. Arles had an authentically historical feel, the whole place displaying notable Roman influence. We peered inside the amphitheatre without paying to go in. We got an excellent idea of the structure inside & out and would be following the guide book advice, ‘if you do one amphitheatre in the region, make it Orange (the place not the colour).’
It wasn’t just the star attraction, the whole area had you picturing gladiators, slaves and big cats. The statues, the ancient walls, the scattered columns, the narrow streets and the rocky paving all remained from Roman times, even if no doubt they had been restored on several occasions.
We shunned any temptation to purchase some caesar sandals, a toga or laurel leaf headwear, preferring a large ice cream apiece instead. Urge for history sated, it was now time to head north for our latest accommodation.
In a classic case of déjà vu, directions were discarded as soon as we arrived in Villeneuve Les Avignon. It had a baffling one-way system, so we managed to make the same mistake three times, before finally mastering the tricky maze to find our way to our destination.
It was a delightful hotel set in lovely gardens dominated by a stunning plant clad stone wall and containing a tempting swimming pool. Our room was very ‘Provençal,’ white wooden furnishings, handmade rugs, metal jug filled with lavender, cast-iron bed frame. Wilbur had done well once more and earned a most welcome Leffe Blonde, followed by another soon after. No driving tomorrow!