It’s 9 degrees Fahrenheit (-13 Celsius) here in NYC and, I literally just almost froze my eyeballs walking home from work. With the wind chill, the real feel is -12 °F (-25 °C). I’m considering wearing snowboard gear as work attire and having HR lecture me later. At least I’ll be reprimanded in warmth, with all limbs still attached and still functioning, eyeballs still able to roll readily in annoyance.
You can imagine how difficult it will be writing an entry about my end-of-summer getaway to Provence, when the sun didn’t set until late into the evening and when beads of sweat still formed despite wearing an airy sundress. I’m already falling into depression writing this preface. Please wait a moment while I cry frozen tears and slip in a Prozac with a double scotch.
Okay, I feel better now. And, warm.
It’s funny how certain events that you find initially devastating turn out to be necessary in improving the circumstances. After months of speculation that my old boss would quit, he finally broke the news to us after we had celebrated the completion of a major busy season. The news met very disappointed ears. But, after his departure, we cleaned out a lot of inefficiencies, became stronger technically and more outspoken, took on more leadership and grew closer as a group. My old boss is now living a happier life and everyone is in a better place, in a very fantastic nutshell.
One very specific perk was taking the place of my old boss in a business trip to Paris and Frankfurt back in September. All expenses paid business class flight and hotel room, complete with cloud-fluffy pillows and comforter. Traveling itself makes me feel alive but, something about traveling in Europe specifically makes me feel warm inside. It’s something that feels so innate to me. If only driving a car felt that way to me…baby steps, I suppose.
(from top to bottom: in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower (as if that wasn’t self-explanatory already), the Louvre as seen from the Jardin des Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, Shakespeare and Company)
I was lucky to have caught Paris on one gorgeously sunny day and three semi-sunny days. Since I’ve already been here a few times, my list of to-do’s was short and sweet:
– Walk around aimlessly
– Eat anything that involves baguettes, croissants and/or foie gras.
– And, macarons. From local bakeries, not Ladurée.
– Monet’s water lily murals at Musée de l’Orangerie
– Shakespeare and Company bookstore
– Catch up with my friend Grace who was living there at the time
– Meet my friends Liz & Hyung (who were in town for vacation) for dinner at Le Tir Bouchon and drink lots of wine. Lots. It felt like we were just casually meeting up in NYC. But, no. We were wining and dining in Paris, bitches!
– More baguettes.
I will skip Frankfurt for now and fast forward. At the close of the business segment of the trip, I took a few extra days for myself to unravel, meditate and just plain have fun.
Note that if you’re taking a train into Aix, there are 2 separate train stations within Aix which are not connected to each other. If you’re coming in directly from Paris, you will most likely be arriving in the Aix-en-Provence TGV station from which you can take bus line 40 into the city center (about a 15 min ride). You can find the bus stop all the way down below the main level of the train station (follow the signs with the bus icon), in a small area that seems to run off the highway. A one way ride cost about 3.80 EUR and is payable on the bus. I believe this bus also takes you to the airport. If you’re going back to the Aix-en-Provence TGV station from the city center, the bus station is where you were dropped off on the way in. You can find a link to the timetable here.
The second train station is called Aix-en Provence (without the ‘TGV’ at the end). This train goes directly into the city center but really only travels locally (short distance) within the region (e.g. Marseille, Cassis).
Place du General de Gaulle, with a nearby tourist office that seemed modernized and newly renovated.
Walking down Cours Mirabeau, with its many restaurants and high-end shops. Most of the restaurants along this street are tourist traps. For better choices, venture into your left (back facing the fountain at Place du General de Gaulle), towards Place Forum des Cardeurs (pictured below).
Aix is definitely the place to walk around aimlessly and is the epitome of ‘quaint.’ Big enough to offer good shopping and good eats, and small enough to feel like you’ve escaped the overly modernized big city. You’ll find an assortment of shops selling fragrant hand soaps, sauces, jams and honey (particularly lavender honey). Don’t need any more soaps? You will make a need. Have no more space for jars of jam and honey in your pantry? You will realize that those jars are, indeed, stackable.
The view of the church, walking towards Musée Granet from the ticket office.
I spent at least a half hour walking around in circles trying to find this museum using the map. It literally looked like it was placed in some unknown gray-shaded area, enclosed by other buildings, reachable only by believing in Willy Wonka, Santa and the tooth fairy. After a few attempts, I ended up finding a private office of the museum down rue Roux Alpheran, a parallel street, and had to make my way back to rue d’Italie to start again. Finally, I made my way down rue Cardinale towards Église Saint-Jean-de-Malte (a church) and found the museum situated adjacent to it. Thanks Mr. Wonka! I will make sure to purchase more gobstoppers in your honor.
The ticket office is in a separate office further down rue Cardinale (a 5 min walk away). I was able to catch the “From Cézanne to Matisse” exhibit which made the whole confusion of a morning worthwhile. Hooray for leg exercise?
Hotel tip: I recommend Hôtel Artea Aix. It was close to the tourism office and, given that most hotel rooms in Europe are small, this one felt pretty spacious. I also had a little balcony where I could sit and relax.
Since the season for visiting lavender fields had passed, the only things on my agenda were to visit vineyards and a beach, emphasis on the former. I was a little worried about finding a local wine tour as a solo traveler. Then I googled “Provence wine tours,” and wham bam the first listing is http://www.provencewinetours.com/, the wording down to a T. The second listing is a link to TripAdvisor, showing 5 stars and a total of 200+ reviews. Sold! Easy peasy, pizza extra cheesy.
Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence & Luberon, France
I booked a half-day trip on a Saturday afternoon to 2 vineyards. A group of us met our tour guide, Marie-Noëlle, at the tourist office in Aix after which she took us to a large minivan and drove us through the gorgeous scenery of Provence. I know I probably mentioned a few other golden days in previous entries but, I have to say, this was one reallllly golden day. Like, really really. A leprechaun must’ve tripped and shattered his pot of golden delights, and the wind must’ve scattered said delights all about the region. Yes, that’s what most likely happened. There is no other possible explanation.
With a smile plastered on my face, I couldn’t help but just stare out the window as we coasted through verdant hillsides and endless vineyards. Throughout the tour, Marie talked about the wine regions and the different wines they produced in great detail and in her perfectly understood English. I can see why this tour company received so many 5-star reviews.
1. Château Vignelaure (in Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence)
The owners are very much into artwork and have made sure that each room was adorned with at least one piece.
Provence is mainly known for their production of white wines and rosés and, as a red wine person, I’ve found new respect for these wines, particularly for rosés. For some reason, I always associated rosés with cheapness and cloying sweetness. However, the rosés from Provence seem to be on the dry side and still very refreshing. If you’re more into the sweetness of, let’s say, a Riesling, then these wines are probably not for you.
2. Château La Dorgonne (in Luberon)
I bought a bottle of truffle olive oil which I’m sure was the ketchup of the Greek gods. You can’t have any.
I squeezed in a day trip to Cassis, which was about an hour train ride from the Aix-en-Provence station (no ‘TGV’ at the end) with a brief layover in Marseille. From the train station in Cassis, you can take a bus into the center (about a 10-15 min ride, depending on how many stops it makes) which cost only a few euros. A bus was already waiting outside when I exited the train station (this was early September). However, I decided to walk to the center since the weather and scenery were gorgeous. I walked on a tree-lined path alongside vineyards at the pace of a stroll. It probably took me about a half hour to get to the city center, and some practice, practice, practice (music reference).
Once I reached the harbor, I bought a ticket at a nearby booth for a 45-min boat excursion to see the coves along the coastline (les calanques) for 15 EUR. I chose the shorter ride to see 3 coves due to the interest of time. There are longer boat ride options that take you to see either 5 or 8 coves but, some reviews I’ve read were that it was too long especially since the commentary from the guide was mostly in French. On the other hand, other people have enjoyed the relaxing nature of the longer rides so, it’s all personal preference. I was the only English speaker on the boat and, the guide tried his best to squeeze at least one English sentence per cove. I found his struggle so cute because he genuinely wanted me to understand something, especially since he’d run out of brochures translated in English. He gave me one in Spanish which I still greatly appreciated.
All in all, the coves were beautiful and the boat ride was pure relaxation for me. I love to sit and stare out into the endless sea. On this particular day, the winds were a bit strong and the boat swayed against a few large waves, spraying the salt water onto the deck and passengers. I loved it. But, maybe not for the faint in stomach. Keep in mind that I thoroughly enjoy turbulence on airplane rides.
After the boat ride, I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the small town, drinking a few glasses of rosé along the harbor and relaxing on the beach, Plage de la Grande Mer (next to the harbor). The water was a beautiful aquamarine and it lured my feet onto its edges until it shocked my system with its icy temperatures. I saw one couple count to 3 and jump in together, only to pop back out with shrieks and chattering teeth. That vicarious experience was enough for moi!
I wanted to stay in Cassis for dinner and eat the delicious seafood at La Vieille Auberge, a family-owned restaurant which was recommended on another website as a place where locals eat. However, I had to wait an extra 1-2 hours for the restaurants to open, and as a solo traveler, the thought of making sure that I don’t miss the last bus on my way back to the train station (or, I’d have to walk in mostly darkness), laying over in Marseille close to midnight for a half hour, and reaching the Aix-en-Provence station at midnight (the area around it looked pretty shady) was daunting to me. I choose safety first.
I didn’t get to spend much time in Frankfurt. Although there really isn’t much to see, I’ve eaten some really great food here – wiener schnitzel at Oscar’s and really great Italian food. I don’t remember the Italian restaurant but, from what I hear, Frankfurt has some of the best Italian cuisine in the world. Who knew? Above is the view from the office.