It's been 25 years since Peter Mayle wrote the charming, international best-selling novel "A Year in Provence," which inspired a huge movement to visit the ancient region and seek the good life there.
Today, the Provence region of France is as magical as ever and the French are unforgettable, even if our sojourn lasted a week instead of four seasons among the stone mas and lavender.
It was while doing business in Italy's Emilia Romagna that my family decided to visit our French neighbors, basing our visit in the city of Aix-en-Provence (pronounced "Ex,") an eight-hour drive through about 150 tunnels cutting through the Italian and French Riviera.
Without a hotel reservation, we found the city's only boutique hotel, Hotel Cezanne, by chance. What we landed in was a charming hotel that offered 24-hour pasta to order, an open cocktail bar and a staff that was incredibly gracious. We also experienced a breakfast that touted lavender pancakes by one of the city's beloved cooks.
Aix, hub to the Provence region, is about 15 miles north of Marseille and home to 145,000 inhabitants. This charming city is the region's educational and business center with eight institutions of higher learning and several American university outposts.
Aside from its well-tuned tourist industry, Aix citizens are busy producing ancient products such as olive oil, chocolate, wine and a number of lavender specialties right alongside semi-conductors, electronics and software. It would be very easy to compare Aix to Charleston, as its layout is similar with its historic area compact and convenient, surrounded by modern commerce.
As most Provencal cities and villages, Aix boasts beautiful fountains, landscaped walkways and open-air markets with vendors selling goodies such as spices in chic glass tubes, antique silver, lavender bath products, exotic slabs of decadent honey nougat and vintage printed linens. But it is here that Paul Cezanne's footsteps are visible by brass plaques placed in sidewalks throughout the city.
His modest home, Jas de Bouffan, offers guests a beautiful presentation of his works that he originally painted on the walls of his salon. Lights are dimmed and before one's eyes' his art comes to life via a film illuminated upon the 18-foot walls. These famous pieces of his artwork, removed years ago and remarkably transposed onto canvas, are now in public and private collections around the world.
We were saddened to find his home in disrepair and later learned that the French do not engage in our successful means of public-private partnerships allowing national gems to stay in prime condition such as Mount Vernon, Monticello and others. Owned by the French government, Jas de Bouffan and many others like it are not national priorities.
Our trip to Provence would not have been complete without experiencing the cuisine. The selections were endless, not just for French food, but a sampling from Middle Eastern delights to exquisite sushi. From mussels dripping in fresh Gorgonzola to steak frites, cream and butter sauces drenched over chicken and potatoes, our senses were delighted.
Our most memorable meal was in an ancient cavernesque creperie, Le Crep Sautiere. Our meal began with a simple crepe dripping with melted butter. We moved on to a buckwheat crepe filled with spinach and local cheeses, and then for dessert, the house specialty, Toblerone chocolate with several "secret" ingredients intermixed.
For gifts, we collected little decadent tins of calissons, the region's famous small iced cake made from almond paste and sold in lavish packaging.
Peter Mayle's characters are alive and well in Provence today. Whether it's a visit to a country boulangerie or an immaculate coin-operated laundry (there's always laundry), the people of Provence go out of their way to be welcoming and informative.
We smiled as the young manager of the automatique launderette asked, "You are Americans?" he said. "Do you need to buy a Rolex?" What we later learned was that another American had recently come in to do laundry and his next stop was buying his bride a Rolex.
The people of Provence's love of culture and their ability to share is just about as close to "Southern" as you can experience whether you stay in the region for a week or a year.
Nike Kern is owner of Nike Kern Public Relations.