The Aix Incident
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
When traveling, from one day to the next, you face the Great Unknown. What will the next place be like? Will we adore our new hotel/villa/apartment/teepee or...?
Another thing about traveling – the longer you're on the road the more things you shed. You unpack fewer clothes from your giant oversized suitcase (because god knows you're going to need those two sweaters and wool jacket even though the temperature is – let me check – 27° C, once again) and wear the same things over and over. (During the Alexandre Years the three of us travelled with one large suitcase. Now, as a couple, we haul around two even-larger cases. There's some kind of Principle in that.)
Anyway, a few weeks into the expedition we start asking ourselves if we really needed to to flail our way through French traffic to see another old city with narrow, winding streets? Or, should we stay put and enjoy the benefits of our surroundings – like a spa, or a hot tub, or a swimming pool? Afterwards, maybe lunch on seasonal Mediterranean oysters (surprisingly good) with homemade frites at the estates's poolside restaurant? In the end, we spent four nights at the tony Domaine de Verchant and, though it is very near Montpellier, we never made it into that city.
As we left Verchant and Montpellier for the last time, we wondered what Aix-en-Provence would be like. It was an easy two-hour drive along the autoroute taking us out of Languedoc and into the area we know best – Provence.
Mark had arranged for us to lunch at Le Mas Bottero, located on the Route d'Avignon about 15 minutes from Aix-en-Provence, near Saint-Cannat. Chef Nicolas Bottero has worked with Michel Bras in that chef's famous (and formerly 3-star, before he gave them up, and then he retired anyway) restaurant located in Middle-de-Nowhere, France, and in other Michelin-starred restaurants.
The lunch at Le Mas Bottero was superb. One highlight was the Pommes de Terre Boulangerie, a kind of potato dauphoinse with hints of white wine, garlic, and a touch of cream.
(The Michelin Guide inspectors apparently agreed with our assessment of Le Mas Battero. The restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in the 2020 guide, published a few months after we ate there.)
As we neared Aix we admired the lines of plane trees flanking the road in that typical Provençal way. What we weren't prepared for was the bumper-to-bumper traffic we encountered when we wheeled into the city itself; madcap, with absolutely nowhere to park or even to stop. After our second lap around the tortuous ring road that take you around the core of the city, we found a secret cul de sac and a parking spot close to the apartment we had rented. Here we messaged and arranged to meet our host.
Kim, of Aix City Apartments, was running late and we were forced to to cool our jets for half an hour, just hangin' round the Secret Spot. By the time she finally appeared, we were hot and bothered. But, we regained our composure. (If you know us, you know that's a bit of a stretch.)
We all walked down the narrow Rue de l'Opera to number 24, what looked to be a spectacular 18th-century mansion. The oversized wooden door opened to reveal a grand marble staircase in a 2-story-high entry space, though in some decay. Knowing that our apartment was on the 1er étage (one flight up) we started to scramble up the imposing stairs only be called to a halt on the first landing, where the stairs made a 90-degree turn, and only halfway to the 1er étage above. Kim used a key to open a a small, hidden door. This through-the-looking-glass hatchway was the entrance to our apartment.
Not even a really door, just a panel cut into the wall. The cramped doorway led to a narrow, twisting set of stairs no more than two feet wide that took us up to a basic kitchen. Passing through the kitchen to the apartment, we were suddenly in a large room, which must have been the grand salon a century ago. The ceilings, a good five metres above us, were majestic with perimeter decorative mouldings. Two sets of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked a lovely interior courtyard. This room, in short, was fantastic. However, the decor and furnishings were pure 70s Soviet Modern. There were a couple of EZ-Boyish chairs with tv trays attached, a matching sofa with seats that also tilted back, a battered TV table, and an odd desk set from the 1990s that included a fax machine. The bedroom was just as high-ceilinged and similarly decorated and furnished.
But it was a second climb, up to the bathroom, that unsealed the deal for us. The winding staircase, this one even narrower than the first, consisted of a score of stairs ending in a crows-nest bathroom, that had been installed by same Soviet-trained workers. The bathroom had two tiny windows: overlooking the entry staircase on one side and the bedroom on the other. No natural light. No ventilation.
We glanced at each, knowing without speaking that this would not stand.
Mademoiselle was surprised when we told her we didn't like the place and that the bathroom was just not acceptable. "No one has ever complained before," she told us, but in the nicest way possible.
We know, we know. We're always the first when it comes to complaining. As Alexandre constantly remind us, our family motto is Et Queri Consequi – Complain and Achieve. So, we explained that we would not feel safe climbing the many stairs in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. And, though the garden courtyard the apartment overlooked was lovely, the Alice entry was not at all attractive.
Kim said she understood and graciously offered a full discount. She told us to relax for and let her know in the next hour or so what we wanted to do. Stay one night? Have her help us find a new accommodation? She was obliging and kind. (Although the apartment didn't suit us and our persnickety tastes, Kim was the nicest landlord we have ever encountered and we highly recommend her company, Aix City Apartments.)
We dreaded the job of hauling our suitcases up the narrow stairway for just one night. Plus, since we didn't want to leave the One Parking Place in Aix, we would have to roll our luggage down the street to get to the building door. As we walked to our car, Mark whipped out his cell phone while Diane mentioned that she had noticed a sign for Villa Gallici, a luxury retreat that was on our hotel short list 21 years previously, on our first trip to Provence .
Using a device that 21 years ago would have been the stuff of sci-fi, Mark checked. Gallici had one room left, and at a last-minute kind of price. Although it was after 5 pm, when all good little travellers were safely tucked into their rooms, we were launching our new plan. We texted Kim, waited for her to pick up the apartment key, and off we were to our new adventure.
The approach to the Villa Gallici, just north of central Aix-en-Provence, is steep. Mark lurched the car forward on the cobblestones and left it right in front of the entrance, teetering between the garden wall and the fountain.
At the front desk we were offered seats and refreshing, cool water in crystal wine glasses. The staff was welcoming and helpful, the place was inviting. There was a distinct Provençal feel. We started to shed to the stresses of the streets and stairways of Aix.
We would be in Suite 5 – the room where the owner likes to stay when he visits. This was lucky for us, since it meant that the suite had been left open for the owner until the last moment, just in case. Located on the main level, it was the size of a generous apartment with a bedroom, two complete bathrooms (one is an accessible room), a sitting area, a veranda/tea salon, and a grand patio with flowers and shrubbery. To imagine the decor and furnishings think Louis XVI before those bad things happened to him.
Life's little adventures can end well. Even on the road,
–Diane & Mark
photographs copyright Mark Craft