Aix-en-Provence, casually known as Aix, is a Provencal city of fountains, museums, mansions. It’s also famous for former inhabitant, master artist Paul Cézanne. The wide leafy Cours Mirabeau and the back streets of the Old Town are shopping heaven. The cafés dotting the sidewalks invite people watching at all hours of the day. Aix delights the visitor all year round, but it is at the holiday season that the city offers its unique charms.
Aix-en-Provence for the holidays
The Winter Solstice is celebrated with the Bravade Calendale, a long-standing Christmas festival. Townspeople dress in traditional attire, dancers, musicians and flag throwers parade through the streets on their way to the town hall. A fun and festive atmosphere permeates the city. I was surprised and then delighted to be pulled into the street by a “chivau-frus”(a gentleman dressed as a dancing horse) and invited to join in the merriment in a sign of friendship. The event concludes with the presentation of the “pompe a l’huile,” a tasty olive oil and orange blossom flavored brioche that only makes its appearance in December.
The pompe a l’huile, also known as fougasse, is symbolically offered as a gift to the city leaders. Bakeries throughout the city start selling the pompes in early December. It’s one of the chosen 13 desserts of Provence (see below). The sweet aroma and buttery goodness tempt even the strictest dieter.
In fact, it is best to leave all thoughts of dieting at home – at least until after the New Year. Visitors to Aix will certainly want to eat their way through the annual Festival of 13 holiday desserts. In addition to the fruits and biscuits, the 13 desserts include the famous Calisson d’Aix, made from ground almonds, candied fruit and covered with royal icing. Try this tasty tidbit at the Leonard Parli stand. Dating back to 1874, Parli is one of the oldest caisson makers in Aix.
Black truffles are in season and restaurants throughout the city feature this delicacy on their menus. If you are planning to indulge in a truffle tasting menu, consider Les Caves Henri IV by le Formal. The elegant restaurant, housed in a building dating back to the 15th century, also offers a well-priced, “best of 20 years” 5-course menu.
Provence certainly doesn’t lack for souvenirs. Lavender sachets, fine soaps, herbes de Provence are all well and good. Nothing says Provence collectibles like santons, those charming hand-crafted, clay “little saints” figurines often displayed in Christmas nativity scenes. Aix is home to a marvelous santon festival every December. The fair is a wonderful opportunity to meet the craftsmen (les santonniers) and understand their traditional techniques. Make your selection from a myriad of village figurines – a baker, a shepherd or a quadrille dancer. Santons are also on display in a large crib on the Cours Mirabeau.
Still looking for souvenirs? The 50 chalets of the Aix Christmas market along the Cours Mirabeau are best visited at nightfall when the twinkling lights, cups of hot mulled wine and friendly merchants create a magical and unforgettable holiday atmosphere.
Martine Bertin-Peterson of Gout et Voyage, runs cultural and gourmet tours of Provence, including at Christmas, where you’ll make heart-warming memories and visit the most magical markets, villages and sites…