SLEEPING BEAUTY NO LONGER
The attractions of Provence are many, but for the culture vultures among us Aix is particularly satisfying. This city of one hundred forty thousand inhabitants houses a large university, a conservatory of music, the French national dance center, an opera festival in sum- mer, the only permanent Nô theater outside of Japan, numerous bookstores (one English-language book- store where you can drink coffee or tea while browsing The New Yorker) and three multi-screen movie houses in the center of town (two of which show all movies in their original language with French subtitles), a mu- nicipal library which holds the manuscripts of Nobel- Prize winners Albert Camus and Saint-John Perse and contains an amphitheater and a movie theater for con- ferences, exhibits, and retrospectives of movie-makers such as Roberto Rossellini, Werner Fassbinder, Alfred Hitchcock, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, Gus van Sandt, Woody Allen and others.
The best thing the library organizes, however, is La Fête du Livre which takes place in October and features major writers during a three-day encounter. In the past ten years, we have had the pleasure to meet and hear there Philip Roth, Antonio Tabucchi, Toni Morrison, V.S. Naipaul, and Russell Banks with Michael Ondaatje and half a dozen others whose work reflected “Une Autre Amérique”—a thought-provoking series of readings and discussions, punctuated by German actress Hannah Schygulla (think Fassbinder) reading a speech by Susan Sontag who was too sick to attend. [She has since died.] More recently, we have had Nobel- Prize winners Günther Grass, Kenzaburô Oé and Wole Soyinka, as well as Salman Rushdie.
Coming back to the Nô theater for a moment, it was very surprising to discover such a thing in Aix. This authentic Japanese wooden structure with open sides, built according to the very exacting rules of the art, is a gift to the city of Aix-en-Provence from Nô master Kano, a “living monument” in Japan. On two occasions several years apart I have been able to see Master Kano and other Japanese professionals per- form the ancient art of Nô here with its magnificent costumes, masks and (to my ear) strange music, and with the help of a three-hour-long Introduction to Nô I am beginning to get the hang of it. Who would have thought that the city of Aix-en-Provence would hold the secret to this exotic form of art so very different from our own?
This cultural diversity keeps city dwellers like us happy and occupied, but foreign visitors need a wider spectrum and here our task as hosts is greatly facilitated by the proximity of a number of places of interest in the vicinity of Aix—such as Arles, Nîmes, Avignon, and Marseilles—that are well served by public transportation. A guidebook goes a long way to taking your visitors off your hands and gives them a chance to entertain you at dinnertime with their adventures and discoveries of the day.
For nature lovers, there are a number of treasures to be found within an hour’s drive from Aix-en-Provence. A boat trip to the beautiful calanques in Cassis, for ex- ample, or the nearby Luberon mountain range dotted with attractive villages such as Lourmarin, Bonnieux, Ménerbes, and Lacoste where the Savannah College of Art and Design has established an outpost just be- low the chateau of the Marquis de Sade. Or, just a bit further, the marshy Camargue—a nature reservation known for its wild horses, its pink flamingos, its salt flats, and its birds—the antithesis of the flashy, crowd- ed Riviera and, sadly, fighting for survival against the threats of global warming.
By the way, did you know that M.F.K. Fisher used to live on my street? Perhaps one more reason why I felt attracted to the place. In “Two Towns in Provence” she describes the years she spent in Aix-en-Provence, where she raised two daughters, and in Marseilles. And in a series of stories collected in a book entitled As They Were she even devotes a lengthy chapter to my street. She doesn’t have much good to say about it, however, and complains bitterly about the noise. With her bedroom on the front of the house in this narrow street, she might still be bothered by night noise today, mostly coming from diners spilling from the two restaurants on this block. Gone, however, are the big gar- bage trucks of old that would collect and loudly crunch garbage (metal, glass, wooden crates and all) right un- der her window at dawn. Gone also are the sidewalks, replaced by stanchions to prevent illegal parking, and gone is much of the traffic that has found bigger and better roads around this narrow street.
But one of M.F.K. Fisher’s “noises” that remains is the high-pitched whistling of the martinets (small swallows) at sundown as they whoosh by in our court- yard at incredible speed, wave after blurry wave, eating their body weight in insects in the process. It’s a fasci- nating spectacle, lasting less than an hour, leaving you awed at the navigation system that allows such speed and precision without a cras h.
Another seasonal “noise” may occur at festival time when students vacate their apartments for the summer and musicians rent them for a couple of months while they perform at the opera festival in Aix or the piano festival in nearby La Roque d’Anthéron. As you walk the city streets during June and July you are bound to hear some singer vocalize or a pianist limber up with rapid scales, and with a bit of luck you may be treated to an entire aria while you sip a drink at a café. I am sure M.F.K. Fisher would have liked it.
If at one time Aix was referred to as La Belle En- dormie (Sleeping Beauty), she is wide awake today and endowed with everything her bigger sisters offer, espe- cially when close neighbor Marseilles (France’s second biggest city and a scant twenty miles away) is added to the mix. An international airport and a TGV railway station midway between Marseilles and Aix provide easy access. The sleeping beauty of Aix-en-Provence with her bourgeois refinement and the rugged long- shoreman of Marseilles with his feet in the Mediter- ranean have given birth to a fine mix and an enviable quality of life along these ancient shores.
If in spite of that you still need a big-city fix now and then, you are only a three-hour train ride from Paris, a bit more than a four-hour drive from Turin, Italy, and some five hours’ driving distance from Barcelona or Milan. All beautiful, all different, and all worth a visit before happily returning to the cozy bosom of Aix-en- Provence.