It’s probably hard to believe, but despite visiting Provence for so many years, I have only been into Aix-en-Provence a handful of times. So when my friend Marina (who runs her local French Language School Learn French In Provence) suggested an afternoon out in the town, I leaped at the chance as she knows it like the back of her hand, having spent her childhood there and also studying at the University. The thought of exploring the ‘rabbit warren’ of golden stone buildings in the heart of the Old Town with someone who could show me round was just perfect.
So after a brief, but beautiful early-morning ride I hopped in the car and we headed off to Aix.
It was one of those stunning January days in Provence with bright blue skies and the early-season warm sun encouraging us to find a sunny café terrace for lunch before starting to explore.
Simply just walking through to the Cours Mirabeau from the car park I saw more of Aix than I have seen on previous visits, with the beautiful market place where the stalls were just being packed away, leaving large glass panels in the pavements, revealing remnants of the town’s Roman past below.
We passed through the narrow Passage Agard, emerging onto the Cours Mirabeau near to the sad sight of the blackened shell of the historic Café Des Deux Garçons, which was recently destroyed by a fire. Marina explained how this had been the café traditionally used by her grandparents, parents and also her and her friends when she was a child. On the hastily constructed hoarding protecting the building there are reproductions of comments from famous people who have used the café over the years (including Pagnol, Cezanne & Picasso) showing the critical part of life it had been in the heart of the town. So sad to see it in its current state and I hope it will be restored and given a new life.
We searched out a sunny table on the terrace of a nearby café for lunch, deciding to forgo dessert there and head to the nearby Hotel Caumont to visit its current exhibition and have tea and a pâtisserie there instead, as Marina explained it’s quite an experience.
I had read about the Hotel Caumont, but had never visited so this seemed an ideal way to pass a couple of hours.
Built in the early 1700s the Hotel Caumont is a stunning building with an elegant facade and pretty gardens, tucked away down a street just off the Cour de Mirabeau. Acquired by the city in 1964, it was then rented to La Poste before being used as music school from 1970 to 2010, when it was bought by ‘Culture Spaces’ and underwent a huge programme of restoration, recreating its glory and turning some of its principal spaces into a Gallery, where it hosts regular exhibitions.
The current exhibition is of works by Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro, the masters of Japanese Art from the 18th and 19th centuries, which is taking place until the end of March. Despite it being early January, there was quite a queue for tickets, but we were soon inside and (as we had promised ourselves) headed straight into the café for tea.
This is no ordinary Art Gallery Café, but an elegant space across a series of rooms that have high windows and doors opening onto the pretty little garden. The dramatic rooms with their high ceilings, sparkling chandeliers and exquisite hand-painted wallpaper are the perfect setting for the comfortable seating that is perfectly suited to its surroundings.
We installed ourselves on a pretty sofa, with a view of the garden and had our ‘petite causerie’ or what we felt is best translated as our ‘Afternoon Tea – French style’ sharing a large and rather superb slice of Gateau St Honore, a wonderful collaboration of choux pastry, creme patissiere, chantilly and caramel. If the truth be told, I could have sat there all afternoon, in these beautiful surroundings, drinking tea, eating cake and of course chatting.
Eventually though we dragged ourselves away and took the stairs with its incredible leaded window to enter the gallery area….
… which is accessed through 2 rooms that have been recreated to show how the ‘Hotel’ may have looked when it was first built and decorated. The first room is the Music Room, with a harp and exquisitely painted Harpsichord, offering an insight into the stylish lifestyle that would have been lived by the original occupants of the house.
The second room is lavishly decorated with fine furniture and paintings with the centre-piece of an elegant canopied bed.
From here you move into the gallery space, set across 2 floors and the Japanese art on view was utterly stunning.
The detail in the works is incredible, with the fine engraving clearly evident in the paper, adding unexpected depth, including this beautiful White Rabbit emerging from its cage
Some pieces appear to have been painted much more recently, with their vivid colours and portrayal of fabrics that look far more contemporary, such as here where the simple floral design could have been used in a 1930s tea-dress rather than a Kimono from the 1800s
I think it was the detail of the fabrics that I found so beautiful. The different designs & colours painted in such detail, with the folds and pleats giving glimpses of yet more patterns beneath.
Then there were the fabrics themselves, with beautifully embroidered Kimonos on show, from detailed flowers cascading on pale blue silk…
To the beautiful Irises amongst the blossoms here…
Each detail is finely stitched by hand in jewel-coloured threads combined with gold. I can only imagine the time it must have taken to complete each piece and also how heavy such pieces must have been to wear.
There is also an exhibit on the Shogun warriors and examples of their armour on show too.
Again the detail in the pieces is exquisite and in many ways very unexpected, with fine floral details, combined with heavy golden embroidery, beadwork and overlay…. a far cry from the brutal and harsh imagery I had expected.
The final room is a son et lumière, which when we visited was based on an iconic painting of Mount Fuji in a storm by Hokusai, which was on display there too.
This final display will change a number of times during the period of the exhibition with the beautiful and incredible Hokusai painting of the wave being on show here from early March… Something I would love to see so perhaps a second visit will be needed.
When you leave this final room you are directed down a beautiful staircase…
… With a stunning collection of black and white photographs taken during the renovation of the property, showing the work being undertaken with wonderful images of the Artisan builders involved in the transformation
Once we finally emerged (a few hours later) back into the Hôtel’s courtyard, the sun had dropped and the sky was starting to change, tinted with a soft pink as the sun set, adding an even deeper glow to the golden buildings of Aix
As we ambled back to the car we started planning our next visit to Aix, as we really hadn’t got any further than lunch and the exhibition…..but at least I have a great excuse to go back…
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