I thought the newspaper was asking me questions about my favorite travel destination.
It turned out that the newspaper assumed San Francisco was my favorite travel destination — hey, why else would I live 53 miles south of San Francisco? — so my answers around Aix en Provence didn’t fit.
As public service for those looking for a vacation destination in Europe that’s not Paris or London or the Amalfi Coast, here goes.
What is your favourite travel destination?
Aix en Provence
Why is it your favourite?
For starters, it’s tough to go wrong with any place in France. There’s a reason more tourists visit France than any other country in the world. And Aix en Provence is the best of the best when it comes to natural beauty, people and food. Plus, the location serves as the perfect springboard to so many other fun places.
What makes it so special, and what makes it memorable for you?
There are numerous quaint villages that dot Europe, but they’re purely tourist destinations. In contrast, Aix en Provence brings all the beauty and charm of a village, but it’s more than a tourist destination. There’s a sizable population that actually lives and works in Aix en Provence. That gives me the opportunity to experience the rhythm of French life surrounded by spectacular architecture that goes back to medieval times. Spending a few months with my wife Heather in Aix en Provence last year and earlier this year created an anthology of memories.
How often do you go there/How many times have you been?
I made my first trip to Aix en Provence in early 2015 for business since our European managing director and his family live there. Smitten, Heather and I rented a flat in the town center for 49 days in October/November last year. We returned this past May for four weeks when a friend was kind enough to offer us his flat, again located in the town center.
Favourite hotel? Why is it your favourite? What makes it memorable, unique and worth a visit?
We prefer to rent a flat in the village to feel the cadence of everyday French life.
With that said, I do have a favorite hotel in Aix en Provence called Le Pigonnet — one of the few French words I can pronounce with pinpoint accuracy — a great spot for a meal or an evening cocktail. They make a mean Old Fashioned with a unique glass that does the drink justice.
Favourite restaurant? Why is it your favourite? What kind of food does it serve, how much does an average meal there cost? Any particular dishes you recommend?
I read somewhere that there are more restaurants in Aix en Provence per capita than any other place in France. Still, naming my favorite restaurant is easy, Drôle d’Endroit, which roughly translates into English as “The Funny Place.”And it is a “funny” place in the sense that you’re surrounded by a funky interior that combines wood, iron and touches of undergrad with a menu that I’ll call unconventional French borrowing from neighboring cuisines. Even getting there is a bit funny, taking a back alley that doesn’t appear to lead anywhere until voilà, you’re there:
The chef rotates the menu fairly often. A pork dish with hints of Iberia was one of my favorites. Heather and I always enjoy the café gourmand, a dessert that consists of four mini desserts with a shot of espresso.
Figure 130 euros for a dinner for two.
Best place for breakfast? What is typical breakfast food there and where is a good place to get it?
Beyond the classic croissant, juice and coffee, it seems that as a general rule of thumb breakfast doesn’t rate highly in France. Still, we found one fantastic place for breakfast, The Corner Bistro, which offers egg dishes and a burger worthy of not sharing for weekend brunch. Figure 15 euros or so for breakfast.
What are some must try dishes or food items people should taste while they are there? Please describe what they are. Where is a good place to get it? How much does it cost?
One must-try dish is Bouillabaisse, essentially a fish stew with everything from the sea making an appearance. In Marseille, a short drive from Aix en Provence, the dish is treated like a piece of artwork. Le Miramar right on the water at Vieux Port is a good place to enjoy the dish with the proper setting. Figure 50 euros for the dish.
Favourite museum, art gallery or cultural site? Why is it your favourite? What is special about it?
My favorite place to chill is the Pavillon Vendôme, a gorgeous garden built in the 1660s. It gives off a decidedly French vibe, a certain “je ne sais quoi” (couldn’t resist).
What is your favourite way to experience/get to know the local culture?
I like checking out the local grocery stores. The cheese selections at the grocery stores in Aix en Provence leave no doubt that the French care about their cheese.
What is your favourite neighbourhood or area where you would go to spend a few relaxing hours? Why?
Surprisingly enough, it’s hard to find a good cup of coffee in Aix en Provence. All the cafes seem addicted to automated coffee machines. One exception and a great place to hang out where they hand-draw espresso is Cafeism.
Favourite place for shopping? What items should you (do you) buy while in this destination?
Favourite bookshop/magazine shop? Why is it your favourite?
I would call the “Book in Bar” my favorite book store in Aix en Provence even if it weren’t the only book store with a selection of English titles.
Best place to watch the sunset or for a good view?
Just outside of Aix en Provence sits the Luberon region, the mountain region of Provence that Peter Mayle wrote about in his book, “A Year in Provence.” Once you’re in the hills, virtually every trip around a corner brings another great view. If I had to choose a favorite, I’d pick the village of Bonnieux.
Best hidden find? Please describe.
One of the things that amazed — and continues to amaze — me about Aix en Provence is that you can stop in any bakery and leave with the best baguette on the planet for the equivalent of 75 cents U.S. It’s so unhidden that visitors might find them hidden, if that makes any sense.
I never got tired of checking out my favorite bakery, Le Farinoman Fou.
Even when we strolled by at night when it was closed, there was something uplifting about seeing the tower of bags of flour waiting to be transformed the next day.
Keeping with the cliché, wine shops abound in Aix en Provence. What surprised me and does constitute an unexpected gem is the wine shop Famille Perrin carrying the wines from Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s nearby winery. This is not a celebrity stunt; the wines are excellent. The store anchors one end of the people-watching heaven, Cours-Mirabeau. The people who work there absolutely stay out of the pretentious category. While Angelina and Brad appear to be splitsville, I’m sure the wine shop will continue business as usual.
Worthwhile side trips in the region?
I mentioned the Luberon region where one can pretend to be Peter Mayle for a day trip. There’s also a cool seaside village called Cassis that’s also worth knocking around for a day.
For a longer one- or two-night excursion, Nice and the French Riviera are less than a two-hour drive. We stayed at the Hotel le Negresco, a classic old hotel right across from the water.
And if you’re feeling particularly ambitious, rent a car and make the trek to Santa Margherita Ligure, a seaside village on the Italian Riviera, about a five-hour drive from Aix en Provence. We stayed at the Grand Hotel Miramare, another winner across from the water. Running from the hotel to Porto Fino along the coastline felt like I was in a postcard. If I had a bucket list, this would have earned a check mark.
Event to bookmark. What is a festival or event that travellers can look forward to or should try to attend/experience when they are there?
The largest of the open-air markets in Aix en Provence takes place on Saturday morning. It’s worth planning to make sure your stay includes a Saturday to spend the morning checking out goods ranging from vintage signs to clothes to fresh produce.
Ideal length of stay?
Speaking from experience, there’s something about a longer stay of three or four weeks which allows one to plug into life in Aix. Knowing this won’t be realistic for many folks, I suggest staying at least a week.
What/which guides (literary, digital and/or human) did you use to plan your trip?
We were fortunate that our colleague and friend has lived in Aix en Provence for several years. The generosity of Mike and his wife Toni opened the door to their eclectic mix of friends that go by the names of Gary, Tilly, Ian, Bill, Dada (not a typo) and Gabby who in turn showed us the ropes and took us into their homes for dinner parties that belong in a Gatsby novel (“The French are different than you and I”).
Are there any books you would recommend people read before or during the trip which will amplify their experience or understanding of the culture/lifestyle there?
Beyond the typical tourist books, Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” or watching the Ridley Scott movie “A Good Year” helps set the tone.
What is some advice you’d give to anyone visiting that city?
Before traveling to Aix en Provence, I thought of Paris and France as one and the same. That’s not true.
The south of France — and specifically Aix en Provence — has a distinctively different way of life.
Go with an open mind to immerse yourself into Aix en Provence, and you won’t be disappointed. Even though I don’t speak French and managed to bastardize what little French I know — can still hear the ladies cackling over my use of the Spanish word jamon instead of the French word jambon for ham — I still felt part of the scene.
Is there any unique food item (such as a bread, a sauce, a sweet treat) which would make a good souvenir? If so, what is the item, what makes it special, where is the best place to buy it, and how much does it cost?
It turns out that Swiss aren’t the only Europeans who have figured out chocolate. You can’t go wrong with the many chocolate shops in Aix en Provence. Traditionalists will point you to Bechard on the Cours-Mirabeau not far from the Famille Perrin wine shop. It’s both a bakery and a chocolate shop.
Please provide websites for all hotels and restaurants mentioned, and include costs for any food items/dishes as well.
You’ll need a translation app at your side since some of the sites are only offered in French.
- Official Tourist Site for Aix en Provence: www.aixenprovencetourism.com/en/
- Le Piggonet Hotel Site: www.hotelpigonnet.com/fr/
- Drôle d’Endroit doesn’t have a website but Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Drôle-D-Endroit/120423458136404
- Corner Bistro: www.cornerbistro.fr
- Le Miramar Restaurant in Marseille: www.lemiramar.fr/site/
- Pavillon Vendôme website: www.aixenprovence.fr/Pavillon-de-Vendome-465
- Cafeism doesn’t have a website but Instagram account at @cafeism_
- Book in Bar website: www.bookinbar.com
- Le Farinoman Fou website: www.farinomanfou.fr
- Miravel Provence website: www.miraval-provence.com/en/
- Famille Perrin (wine shop) website: https://perrindirect.com
- Hotel Negresco (Nice, France) website: www.hotel-negresco-nice.com
- Grand Hotel Miramar (Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy) website: www.grandhotelmiramare.it/en/
- Bechard doesn’t have a website but has a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/maisonbechard