It was making lavender ice cream that did it. Next thing I knew I was booking a Eurostar mini break to Aix en Provence in search of lavender, Cezanne and Provençal cooking. Not to mention sun. I do love sun and hot weather. I know we’ve had quite a lot of it in London recently but the trouble with English weather is it changes dramatically from one day to the next. And I wanted to be somewhere where I knew it would be hot and sunny every day.
I haven’t travelled by Eurostar for a few years; once only from St Pancras. I arrived ridiculously early. I’m always early but London is empty so I whizzed across from SW to North London extra quickly. With extra time on hand I decided to have some coffee and a croissant at Le Pain Quotidian before going through security. And I’m glad I did too. It’s not that great ‘the other side’.
I had to take two trains. The first to Paris and then the second from Gare de Lyon to Aix. I had an hour and twenty minutes to manage it. Very fortunately as it turned out, I found a good article on the Internet yesterday saying taxis could take a long time and the best bet was an RER express metro. The article also advised to allow up to an hour for transfer. Mmm. Not much room for anything to go wrong then. It was a nightmare. Eurostar info at St Pancras told me I could buy a metro ticket on the train. I imagined it would be like a plane where nice stewards walk along asking if you needed anything, any transfer tickets. No way. Once at Gare du Nord I was grateful I had the RER information. I followed the signs but it was chaotic and no sign was there to help what must be thousands of travellers a year making the same transfer. Lots of signs. None indicating a link to Gare de Lyon. I went to the taxi rank worrying about time ticking fast. The queue was so long, that was no option. Then, thankfully I found an English speaking station attendant. I needed Platform 44. Then it was a 15 minute wait. It took me an hour in total but I did catch my next train so all was OK. That is until I got off at Aix. Again, no signs to help the traveller. Finally I found someone to help me. A shuttle bus takes you from the TGV station the 15 km into Aix. And drops you off with no indication of where to go next. I thought of a taxi but despite a promising sign there wasn’t one in sight. I found a ticket office. For what I wasn’t sure but the woman told me I needed a number 2 bus. I wandered round finding a few bus stops but no number 2. I asked a bus driver who said he couldn’t stop and rushed off. Wondering what the hell to do next and trying to decipher the little map in my Lonely Planet guide I realised a woman was calling to me from a car. Could she help? I showed her the details of my hotel. Get in, she told me, and doing what my mother always told me never to do, I got into this stranger’s car and she drove me round the ring road to the other side of Aix, as we conversed as best we could with her little English and my bad French. She dropped me right outside Hotel Aquabella and gave me a big hug and wished me a good holiday. Wow! What an affirmation of the goodness and kindness one can sometimes find in life.
After a rather stressful journey, the kindness of the lovely woman was followed up by a friendly welcome at the hotel. By the time I’d freshened up and charged my phone it was 8.00. When in a new place after travelling all day, there’s a lot to be said for a guide book. At Reception I spoke to the helpful Thibaud again who helped me choose where to go and marked the route out on a map for me, telling me it was only a 5-10 minute walk. It was such a lovely evening, the sky a glorious blue and the dying sun lighting the rich stone of the buildings.
I walked through Place des Cardeurs (top photo) and through the narrow streets to Jacquou le Croquant that Lonely Planet describes as a ‘low-key joint’ with ‘home cooked, wholesome basics’. Perhaps Magret de Canard and Foie Gras are ‘wholesome basics’ in Provence!
There was a wholesomeness to it though. It was very informal and bags of organic grains and their home-cooked foie gras was on show for sale in a small cupboard. The atmosphere was friendly and almost had a feeling of entering someone’s home. There were three others waiting for a table. A couple came in soon after me. We were all given Kir to drink while we waited. The wait wasn’t long. Soon I was shown to a table in the walled garden restaurant and was choosing from a menu full of gamey and bird specials and plenty of foie gras. I chose a simple Magret de canard with orange sauce.
There was a certain homeliness to the presentation but the food was wonderful. Gorgeously tender pieces of duck on a rich orange sauce and some lovely vegetables. It was just right for my first evening. I followed it with a clafoutis of seasonal fruit – which, I was told, was apricot.
I traced my way back to Hotel Aquabella in the warm night air, loving my surroundings but slightly concerned not to lose my way in the maze of narrow streets. I had a couple of hesitant moments but finally, there it was, my hotel.
It’s amazing how you can spend a long day travelling but then a lovely evening wipes out the hassle aspect and you’re left with just a great experience. My first evening in Aix en Provence had been very good.