My Favorite Table in Aix-en-Provence

My Favorite Table in Aix-en-Provence

Hard to imagine that in the historic center of Aix-en-Provence, where even the tiniest of squares is crammed with bistro terraces thick with tourists, cookie-cutter menus and hurried waiters, there still exist an intimate heaven where you can enjoy imaginative cuisine and considerate service in a relaxed atmosphere.

A Seasonal Feast

France-Aix Table Relaxed Atmosphere.

An intimate heaven of imaginative cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere.

Until I stumble onto La Table des Saisons, an unassuming little hole-in-the-wall on a narrow cobbled lane of the old town, somewhere between the throbbing, cigarette smoke-filled Place des Augustins and the trendy Place des Cardeurs. The jewel-like pastries lined in the refrigerated display case by the open French doors first catch my eye. But before I have a chance to consider skipping dinner and going straight to dessert, the plat de la semaine (weekly special) announced on the blackboard by the door straightens things out. Herb-encrusted filet of cod, served with a zucchini and red-pepper custard, carrot puree and baby string beans? Yes please! My friend, a red meat aficionada, is already sold on the filet of Charolais beef, the most prized cattle meat in France, served en croute, (in puff-pastry, Wellington-style) with shallot and port wine sauce.

France-Aix special cod.

Herb-encrusted filet of cod weekly special.

These simple dishes are flawlessly prepared to order and artfully presented with garnishes of spring vegetable. Because of our disparate choices of main courses we order wine by the glass, pleasing local offerings at friendly prices recommended by our knowledgeablel server. I won’t pretend we’ve left room for dessert, but we indulge anyway. My pistachio Bavarois over a “heart” fresh cherries is pure poetry! And a taste of the exquisite lemon cheesecake earns it top billing on my “next time” list.

A Family Affaire

France-Aix local artists.

The decor makes room for works by local artists.

La Table des Saison is a chef-owned family affaire. In the open kitchen, Lionel officiates with the enthusiasm and efficiently of a one-man orchestra. In the dining room, Martina welcomes guests with all the attention of a gracious hostess. The atmosphere is warm, the décor unpretentious. Comfortable wicker chairs, tables set with casual linen, soft lighting and art by local artists all around the room (yes, it is for sale in case you happen to fall in love with a particular piece).

Filet of Charolais en croute, with shallot and [ort wine sauce.

Filet of Charolais en croute, with shallot and port wine sauce.

The menu, a showcase of ultra-fresh seasonal ingredients from the market and local artisan suppliers, offers a range of options to satisfy the varied demands of the guests. There are imaginative grandes salades: Quinoa taboule with magret de canard (quinoa with grilled duck breast, cherry tomatoes, garden fresh radishes and cucumbers, sautéed baby carrots and black olives, served on a bed of mesclun). Tempting. But so is the Mediterranean-style vegetarian candied zucchini salad, bursting with roasted vegetable, pine nuts and the chef’s own pesto. Then there are the tartes salées (savory pies) that also make for a satisfying lunch or light dinner: red snapper with tapenade or goat cheese and cherry tomatoes. Both are served with a choice a mixed greens or assorted spring vegetable at the time of my visit.

France-Aix Tapenade.

This week’s special is rabbit with tapenade.

But my favorite remains the plat de la semaine available Monday through Friday, a new one offered each week. On my second visit it’s a succulent rabbit leg, in Lionel’s homemade mild tapenade sauce, served with grilled polenta triangles, crunchy string beans, and more of that lovely zucchini and red pepper custard.

 

Guilty Pleasures

France-Aix Bavarois.

Pistachio Bavarois filled with fresh cherries.

By now, La Table des Saisons is my own guilty pleasure in Aix. I stop for coffee and one of their irresistible pastries in the afternoon whenever I am in the neighborhood. And I manage one more visit on my recent stay there, a late lunch antidote to a particularly hectic morning. It’s Saturday, no plat de la semaine today. No problem though, as I have had my eye on one particular item on the regular menu. For me, it’s Gigot d’agneau de Sisteron today, a pan-grilled steak of delicate milk-fed lamb from the Provencal Alps, just one hour north of here, served with garlic cream sauce and eggplant “caviar”. As I pause by the door to let a young woman pass by, she whispers confidentially: “tout est très bon içi ,” and vanishes without breaking stride. The word is out: everything is delicious here!

Good to Know

  • La Table des Saisons, 6 Rue Lieutaud, Aix-en-Provence, France, latabledessaisons.com, is open 12:00 noon to 5:00 pm on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, 12:00 noon to 10:00 pm on Friday and Saturday, and 12:00 noon to 6:00 pm on Sunday. It is closed on Wednesday. Reservations are prudent on weekend. Contact: e-mail contact@latabledessaisons.com. Tel: +33 (0)4 42 22 97 07.
  • The overall menu is seasonal, updated every couple of months to take full advantage of local offerings at their prime.
  • Lionel, who originally trained as a pastry chef, creates some of the most tempting desserts ever, showcasing local seasonal fruit. His creations can be enjoyed on site, or purchased to go.
  • In addition to featuring vegetarian options on the menu, Lionel is happy to recommend choices and substitutions for gluten-intolerant guests.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

La Table des Saisons

Aix-en-Provence Baroque Landmark Reborn as Art Center

Aix-en-Provence Baroque Landmark Reborn as Art Center

In Aix-en-Provence, where a stroll along the narrow streets of the historic center reveals a gem of French Baroque architecture at every turn, the Hôtel de Caumont still stands out as a unique treasure.

France-Aix Caumont Garden

A classic Jardin à la Française welcomes visitors of the Caumont Art Center.

That was exactly what François Rolland de Réauville, Marquis de Cabanes, had in mind when he commissioned Robert de Cotte, the principal architect of King Louis XIV (think the Royal Chapel of the Versailles Palace and Grand Trianon) to design a mansion that would befit his position as President at the Court of Auditors of Aix-en-Provence. The first stone was laid on April 4, 1715, in the center of the fashionable new Mazarin district.

 

A Baroque Masterpiece Reborn

France-Aix Caumont Foyer

The entrance foyer

Construction was to span three decades and ownership change a couple of times until the end of the century when the superb mansion became the property of Pauline de Bruny, Marquise de Caumont. Born in 1767, during the reign of Louix XV, she had grown up at the court of Versailles and acquired its taste for luxury. The mansion, by now known at Hôtel de Caumont became the setting for lavish receptions, plays and concerts. Then the aftermath of the French revolution extinguished high society life.

France-Aix Caumont Facade.

The sober stonework of the facade and the elaborate gilded ironworks are prime exemples of Aix-style Baroque.

Fast-forward a century and a half during which the property experienced varied fortunes, including serving as a sanctuary for members of the French Resistance during the Second World War. It was then purchased from its last private owner by the city of Aix in 1964 to house the Darius Milhaud National Conservatory of Music and Dance. Finally in 2010 the mansion, by now a historic monument since 1987, was acquired by Culturespaces, a foremost private organization for the management of French monuments and museums.

The Caumont Art Center

France-Aix Caumont Music Room.

The exhibits space is entered through the music room.

Several years of planning, 18 months of intensive work and 12.6 million Euros later, the newly minted Caumont Art Center was revealed in all its restored eighteenth century glory on May 6, 2015. The ground floor with its soaring central foyer houses to its right a remarkable bookstore and gift boutique reminiscent of the libraries and cabinets of curiosities that were de-rigueur in such homes at the time. To the left, the inviting formal dining room leads to the upper terrace of a classic jardin à la Française (formal French garden). The grand three-story central staircase of the 2,500 square meter (27,000 square foot) mansion leads to Pauline’s recreated apartments that mark the entrance of two stories of temporary exhibit spaces.

Turner and Color

France - Caumont Calais

JMW Turner, 1830. Calais Sands at Low Tide.

The current exhibition, on view until September 18, 2016, is a breathtaking retrospective of the giant of nineteenth century English painting, Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851). This exceptionally rich exposition of over 120 watercolors, sketches and oils includes over thirty paintings from London’s Tate Gallery that were bequeathed to Britain by the artist, as well works from the London Royal Academy of Arts, the Oxford Ashmolean Museum and the Dallas Museum of Art, plus a number of rarely if ever seen pieces from private collections.

France-Caumont Vermillion Towers.

JMW Turner, 1934. Vermillion Towers.

Here the exploration of Turner’s works adopts a unique new point of view. Although still mainly chronologic, it invites the viewer to discover the evolution of this self-taught genious’ relationship with color, from his early days influenced by the great colorists of the past, from Rembrand to Poussin and Titian to Claude Lorrain, to his ground-breaking use of newly synthesized pigments (such as the whole range of yellows that had just become available through the isolation of the metal Chromium).

Journeys around Europe

France - Caumont Ball San Martino

JMW Turner, 1846. Going to the Ball (San Martino).

An important section illustrates Turner’s journeys around Europe through his travel sketches and watercolors as well that the ensuing paintings. Another thread of the exposition follows his relationship with the coastal village of Margate in Kent, which he had discovered as a child. He would then pass most of his later years there and realize his most incandescent color experimentations. It is especially eye-opening for me to detect in his bold use of color the seeds of the Impressionism movement that would flourish a few decades later.

Cafe Caumont

The Café Caumont terrace is a serene retreat on a beautiful Provence afternoon.

The serene Café Caumont terrace is a favorite with visitors.

After a dazzling afternoon in the company of Turner, I linger in the mini-Versaille vignette of the Café Caumont. The weather being its usual Provence gorgeous, I forgo the elegant eighteenth century atmosphere of the dining room for tea-time on the upper terrace, in the shade of a white canvas umbrella within earshot of a discretely gurgling fountain.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Aix-en-Provence is easily reached by train, with several direct TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours). The Aix TGV station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the bus terminal in the center of town. The MarseilleProvence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle bus as the TVG station.
  • Getting Around – To explore the historic city, walking is definitely the way to go. Road signs at the approaches to Aix direct motorists to large facilities where they can park their vehicles for a nominal daily fee that also includes free round trip bus tickets to the center of town for all their passengers.
  • Each year, the Caumont Art Center features two large-scale temporary exhibitions. In parallel, a 20-minute film depicting the life of native son Paul Cezanne (1839–1906) is shown at intervals throughout the day in the basement projection room. From May to September, Café Caumont also features occasional Jazz evenings performances.
  • Visiting – Caumont Art Center, 3, rue Joseph Cabassol, Aix-en-Provence. Caumont Art Center. Contact: message@caumont-centredart.com. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 20 70 01. Open daily from May 1 to September 30 from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, with late opening hours on Friday until 9:30 pm during temporary exhibitions, and from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. From May to September, Café Caumont remains open from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm from Tuesday through Saturday and offers a wine and light snacks menu. It’s the perfect place to stop for a drink in a serene al fresco atmosphere just minutes away from the bustling Cours Mirabeau.
  • If you miss this landmark exhibition, which was realized in cooperation with the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, don’t despair. After Aix-en-Provence, the exposition will be on view there from October 8, 2016 to January 8, 2017.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Caumont Art Center

From Roman Spa to Contemporary Cultural Center – Aix-en-Provence

From Roman Spa to Contemporary Cultural Center – Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-Provence is a remarkable center of European history that has managed to preserve the integrity of its rich architectural and cultural heritage while evolving into a thriving, highly livable contemporary city.

Always the Romans!

FR-Aix Fountains.

The many fountains of Aix are fed by thermal springs. The mineral content of the water spurs the growth moss and ferns.

When contemplating the development of the Mediterranean basin around the time the tide of history turns from B.C. to A.D., it’s usually the Romans that get the credit, or the blame depending how you look at it. And Aix-en-Provence is a vivid illustration of Julius Ceasar’s “veni, vidi, vici,” doctrine, although not quite in that order.

Roman Consul Sextius Calvinius comes in 122 B.C., promptly lays waste to Entremont, the iron-age capital of the Celtic-Ligurian Confederation (now an archeological site three kilometers north of the city), and decimates its population. Back on lower grounds, abundant thermal springs bubbling out of the earth catch his eye and Aquae Sextiae (Waters of Sextius) is born.

FR - Aix cathedral baptismal fond.

The baptismal fond is surrounded by Roman columns.

As the first Roman city founded in the newly conquered Roman colony of Provincia, it quickly grows as a thriving urban center and spa. Then, with the spread of Christianity after it is declared the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D., Aix-en-Provence becomes the seat of the ecclesiastical province, making it the de facto capital of the region.

 

The Dark Ages

FR - Aix Saint Sauveur Cloister.

The early medieval cloister of the Saint Sauveur cathedral.

A cathedral rises from the Roman forum. Soaring columns that once graced a Roman temple now define the octagonal baptistery, and the baptismal pool is fed from the nearby baths. However, while full immersion is an accepted rite of early Christian baptism, the Catholic Church takes of a dim view of public baths. The vast pools and the sources that feed them all but disappear under new monasteries. Stripped of its antique luster, Aix morphs into a typical medieval city constrained within its protective fortifications.

Unfortunately, these are not sufficient to deter the successive waves of the invading Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Saracens and other “barbarians.” Provence remains a highly contested province through most of the medieval period, and Aix continues to deteriorate. It is not until the twelfth century that it begins to shine again.

The Reign of the Counts

FR - Aix Clock Tower.

A clock tower tops the medieval belfry of the town hall.

In 1182, the Counts of Provence who, through judicious moves in the great chess game of history, are by now issued from the Aragon (Spanish) and Anjou (French) royal houses, make Aix their permanent residence. An era of development ensues that will shape the future city, starting from three key areas that are now the core of the historic district: the Saint Sauveur Cathedral, the Counts’ Palace and the thriving artisans and merchants district. Soon Aix spills out of its ramparts with the southward construction of several large monastic institutions. The most important, the Prieuré des Chevaliers de Saint Jean de Malte (Priory of the Knights of Saint John of Malta) becomes the burying place of the Counts. New walls are erected to encompass the expanding city

The Age of Mansions

The Fountain of the Four Dolphins is a landmark of the Mazarin Quarter.

The Fountain of the Four Dolphins is the Mazarin Quarter.

The last phase of Aix’s growth comes in the seventeenth century, during the reign of Louis XIV (1638 – 1715, the Sun King of Versailles fame). By now, Provence has been annexed to the kingdom of France for over two centuries. Louis takes a shine to the judiciary and religious capital of Provence. He mandates Archbishop Michel Mazarin (who happens to be the brother of his prime minister) to oversee the further southward expansion of Aix.

The crumbling twelfth century ramparts are dismantled and replaced by the tree-shaded boulevard dotted with fountains that we enjoy today as the Cours Mirabeau.

FR=Aix Mansion.

Seventeenth century mansions are a common sight in Aix.

To the south and west of it, the Mazarin Quarter flourishes. The cream of local society vies for land along the neatly laid out grid pattern of streets to build their elegant mansions of ocher-colored stone. One last time, the ramparts are expanded to include the “new town,” only to be replaced in 1848 by the wide boulevard that now encircles the city.

 

A Tradition of Culture

FR-Aix Musee Granet.

The former priory of the Knights of Saint John of Malta is home to the prestigious Musée Granet.

Along with prosperity the Counts introduce culture and refinement to their court. In 1409 the founding the university opens the door to a Golden Age that firmly establishes Aix as a center of artistic and intellectual creativity that will flourish until the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789). In the aftermath of the political chaos it unleashes, Aix loses its administrative powers, and is mainly bypassed by the great nineteenth century industrial revolution. But it remains a center of learning, art and culture. In the latter part of the century, its native son the great post-impressionist artist Paul Cezanne elevates the city’s artistic prestige to new heights.

FR - Aix Warriors Heads.

Sculptures of severed heads from the Celtic-Ligurian settlement of Entremont  on display at the Musee Granet.

An earlier Aixois artist, Francois Marius Granet (1775-1849), has already made a significant contribution to the artistic standing of Aix-en-Provence. A pupil of David and friend of Ingres, Granet is himself a Neoclassical painter and water-colorist. However posterity remembers him best for the bequest of his fortune and art collection to the city of his birth. It forms the basis for the original permanent collection of the city’s art museum, housed since 1838 in the seventeenth century Priory of the Knight of Malta. It will eventually be renamed Musée Granet in honor of its benefactor.

Picasso works from the Planque Collection

Picasso works from the Planque Collection.

In 2010 the status of the Musée Granet rises further when it becomes the beneficiary of the long-term loan of some 300 paintings, drawing and sculptures from impressionists, post-impressionists and leading twentieth century artists, from Renoir, Monet and Van Gogh to Picasso, Braque, Duffy, Klee and Dubuffet from the Jean and Suzanne Planque Foundation (the estate of Swiss art dealer and collector Jean Planque). A new space is created to house the collection in a stunningly renovated seventeenth century chapel just minutes away from the main museum.

A City of Music

FR - Aix Archbishop Palace.

The International Festival of Vocal Arts holds performances at the Palace of the Archbishops.

But in Aix, visual arts are only half the story. Created in 1948, the Festival International d’Art Lyrique (International Festival of Vocal Arts), is now a mainstay of the annual international classical music calendar. Devoted mainly to opera and vocal music, this three-week July event also includes orchestral, chamber and solo instrumental concerts. Performances take place in several of the great classic mansions around the city, including the Archbishop’s Palace, the eighteenth century Italian-style Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, and the new Grand Theatre de Provence (built in 2007).

However, music in Aix is not limited to The Festival. It begins in early spring with the Easter Festival, and continues through August, first with the Nuits Pianistiqiues (Piano Nights) at the new music academy building of the Conservatoire Darius Milhaud (also a native son). Then, to close out the summer in style, the Conservatoire offers Musique dans la Rue (Music in the Street) in late August with dozens of free open-air concerts from Baroque to classical to Jazz, presented all around town in the early evening hours.

The Waters of Sextius

Fr - Aix Thermes of Sextius.

A vast modern spa facility now sits atop the baths dear to Sextius Calvinius.

After days filled with art and music and taking in the fascinating history written in the ocher stones of the great mansions that line the tree-shaded avenues and squares, it’s time to return where it all started. A vast modern spa facility now sits atop the old baths, still visible through the glassed walls of the lobby. But the hot mineral Waters of Sextius still gurgle from their underground springs to be used in treatments throughout the spa. And they seem to have maintained their restorative powers so prized by the Romans.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting There – Aix-en-Provence is easily reached by train, with several direct TVG (high speed train) connections throughout the day from Paris (3 hours) and Lyon (1 hour) as well as Geneva (3 hours) and Brussels (5 hours). The Aix TGV station is located 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) southwest of town, with a shuttle running every 15 minutes between the station and the central bus terminal. The MarseilleProvence airport is 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) southwest of Aix, with numerous flights from Paris, London and other major European cities. It is served by the same shuttle bus as the TVG station.
  • Getting Around – To explore the historic city, walking is definitely the way to go. Road signs at the approaches to Aix direct motorists to large facilities where they can park their vehicles for a nominal daily fee that also includes free round trip bus tickets to the center of town for all their passengers.
  • What to do – With so much to see and do in Aix, it is a good idea to start with a visit to the Office de Tourisme (Tourism Information Center), 300 Avenue Guiseppe Verdi. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 16 11 61. Located just a few steps away from the Cours Mirabeau Rotonde (Rotary) , it is open daily from 8:30 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. The staff is knowledgeable and multilingual.
  • Visiting – Cezanne fans may want to plan a pilgrimage to the Lauves Studio, 9 Avenue Paul Cezanne, where he lived and worked for the past four years of his life. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 21 06 53. It’s a 30-minute walk to the northern outskirts of town, or a short ride on Bus No. 5 (Cezanne stop). Opening days and times vary throughout the year. Check with their website or the Tourism Information Center.
  • Relaxing Thermes Sextius, 55 avenue des Thermes, is a vast state-of-the-art facility offering a full range of hydrotherapy and spa treatments. Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 23 81 82. Appointments a must.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Aix-en-Provence