A history lesson

What a day. My day started off with one hour of conversation class reviewing the various past tenses in French. Then I went to a yoga class, probably the best I have ever been to, and I left a hot, sweaty mess. Then in the afternoon I went on a guided tour of Aix led by one of the university professors. Then, to top off the day, Patricia’s first exchange student came to visit for the weekend! Ten years ago Patricia first started hosting students, and it’s really sweet to see how close the family is to Margaret. Finally, after much champagne, wine, and grilled duck, I had a chance to get on the computer. (Obviously I need to run tomorrow. Badly. However I tend to get stared at like I’m crazy when I go running here. Jogging n’est pas chic en France.)

So here’s a history lesson for you with as much as I can remember from the tour this afternoon. Unfortunately by this point it’s all kind of a blur. Here goes.

Not part of the tour, but this morning I killed time before class by wandering around the daily market near the school. I love to go walk and smell everything for sale.

Le Marché

Le marché

Our tour began at the Cathédrale Saint Sauveur. I think I had a picture in an earlier blog post. It was on this spot that the city of Aix was founded in 123BC by the Romans. To go back further in history, this area of France was originally settled by Greek settlers long before the Romans arrived. For example, the city of Nice was named for the Greek godess Nike. Intéressant, n’est pas? By 123, however, the area had been mostly taken over by the Romans, but there were some other tribes in the area. At this time, these tribes were jealous of the Roman life in Marseille and decided to launch an attack to win over the city. The Roman leader Sextius Calvinus officially founded the city of Aix in 123 BC in order to have somewhere from which to defend the area, which he did by quickly crushing the attack. The name Aix came from a combination of aqua, water in latin, and Sextius. Aqua+Sextius= Aix. Voila!

Here’s the best map of the old city that I could find online. Find St. Sauveur near the top left. That’s the cathedral (my school is one Rue du Bon Pasteur.) When you look at the old city, all the streets are squiggely and all over the place- that was from back before urban planning. As you go farther out from the center, you’ll notice the roads become more regular- that’s where better planning in later centuries kicked in. Every Roman city had two main streets- one running north-south, the other east-west. These roads were Rue du Bon Pasteur and the one running directly in front of Aix. I really could not be more in middle of things!

la carte

The Cathédrale was built on the former Roman Forum, the heart of a Roman city. When Rome converted to  Christianity in  the 300s, the original church was built on the site. When you look at today’s cathedral, you can see that it was built over thousands of years. You can see that the right side of the church is much more plain than the left side with is newer.

la cathédrale

Inside, you can see the site of the original baptismal font surrounded by original roman columns. The next section of the church was built in a gothic style, so the columns are thick and heavy, giving the impression that the church is forever tied to the ground. The newer section of the church was built later and has high, arched ceilings and daintier columns, giving the impression that the church is growing into the heavens.

very old

just old

The outside of the newer part of the church is ornately decorated, but some of the figures have funny faces. That’s because during the Revolution, people went around cutting the heads off statues and defacing churches as a way to demand the separation of church and state. Although the church was restored, the faces don’t match the rest of the body very well, and the heads were set on top with no necks!

previously headless statue

As time wore on, Aix became a divided town. Half the town belong to the Bishops of the church, so the part of the city near the cathedral was walled off to protect the important religious figures. The other half of the city was ruled by dukes, and that part of the city was too walled off. Apparently the two didn’t trust each other very much.

This is the tower that marked the end of the city of dukes. Today there is a bell that chimes everyday. There is also a figure that is hard to see in the picture. There are four figures, one for each season, that change throughout the year. Just within the past few days the figure for fall (holding a bunch of wheat) started being displayed.

fall in the bell tower

This is the inner courtyard of the Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall. It’s a busy place on Saturdays because in France, you have to get married at City Hall, then if you want to get married in a church, everyone walks over to a church for a second ceremony. If you ever go to a French wedding, be prepared to watch the ceremony twice and wear comfortable walking shoes for trekking across the city from City Hall to the church.

outside of City Hall

Outside City Hall, there are always three flags flying. The first is the blue one with yellow stars representing the European Union. The second is the French flag. The third, the red and yellow one, is the flag of Provence. It’s said that the red stripes represent the bloody fingerprints of a soldier from Provence fighting til the death for the area.

les drapeaux

I found out that there is a cool natural history museum in Aix. In prehistoric times, dinosaurs roamed Europe, and this part of France was the mating ground for one particular type. Archeologists and paleontologists have discovered thousands of fossilized dino eggs in the area, and many are on display in the museum. I’ll have to check it out!

This next one is not the greatest picture, but you’ll get the idea. All around the city, there are small figures of the Virgin built into the corners of buildings. Many were put up during outbreaks of the plague when rich families would put Mary outside their homes to watch over them and protect them from the plague. It was also a status symbol if you had the money to pay an artist to make one for you. The street signs that are visible in the bottom right mark the courtyard where the market is held everyday. The top sign is in the local dialect and means “the ancient market place,” and the bottom is the square’s current name in French.

The Cours Mirabeau is the most famous street in Aix. This street has during the most recent centuries been the chicest part of town. The residents used to get all dressed up Sunday afternoons to strut their stuff down the street. Huge trees were planed along the edges to provide shade for the walkers. Today there  are many expensive cafés. In the middle of the Cours, there is one remaining fountain in the city that still runs off of the underground springs. In years past, Aix was the hot spot to go in order to take the healing waters of the springs. Thomas Jefferson came to Aix one on of his trips to France to take the water. Since this last fountain, covered in plants, runs off the hot spring water, during the winter it apparently steams against the cold air.

la fontaine

I could go on and on about everything I learned today. I’m a huge nerd and tried to absorb every word the guide said. Maybe being a tour guide would be a good career for me to pursue. But since I have been working on this post for an hour now, I think it’s time for bed. Writing a blog is much more time consuming that I ever thought!

This weekend is the Journées du Patrimoine, or the days of heritage. That means all the museums and churches are open for free, and little tents were set up this afternoon across the city where there will be demonstrations tomorrow on traditional woodworking, metalworking, etc. Plans to go to a bull fight in Nimes were scrapped in favor of this. I’m very excited to continue my history kick this weekend! And in the afternoon Patricia is having friends over because she needs help cutting all the lavender that grows all over the yard. This means, bien sûr, there will be a barbeque and lots and lots wine. (Did I mention yet that I need to go for run?!)

I love this city so much already and am very grateful for this great opportunity to experience life here! Vive la France!

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