Historical capital of Provence
Aix-en-Provence is arguably the cultural and tourism capital of Provence. It is a stunningly beautiful university town whose riches are based on agriculture, academia and a long association through history with royalty and nobility. As a result Aix possesses a wealth of superb architecture that has been carefully preserved and restored over the years.
Wondering through the streets and squares of the old town is one of the great pleasures in life. The Cours Mirabeau offers an impressive focal point with the magnificent Rotonde fountain (1860) at one end leading into a grand boulevard of double planted plane trees providing welcome shade for cafés and restaurants on one side and for the former houses of the Aix nobility on the other. It’s hard not to marvel at the rich ochre of the sandstone used in the construction of the buildings, the dappled light from the plane trees and the trickling fountains bringing cool spring water to the many squares and quaint side streets that lead off the Cours Mirabeau.
But it’s not just historic and picturesque – Aix in the 21st century is also affluent and chic, a little piece of the Paris left bank transported to the South. If you are shopping for gifts or souvenirs you might be just as tempted by the designer shops and famous brands for sale in the streets off the Cours Mirabeau as you are to take a home a box of calissons, the famous sweet snack from Aix, a tasty little confection made from almond sponge, melon and tangerine – great with an espresso!
ARTISTS & WRITERS
Aix has been an inspiration to many great writers and painters over the years, including Guigou, Stendhal, Mistral and Zola. Wander the streets lined with ochre buildings under an azure sky or discover the Provencal countryside and the rugged grandeur of the Sainte-Victoire mountain and it’s hard not to see the source of their inspiration. Most famous of all though is undeniably Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), who was inspired by the Provencal light and surrounding country for many of his masterpieces. There’s a Cézanne trail through the city (marked by metal studs in the pavement – occasionally removed as tourist souvenirs!) so you can’t go far without encountering some connection with Cézanne. Two of the must-see attractions are Cézanne’s studio and the Bibémus quarries.
L’atelier de Cézanne was commissioned as a bespoke building project by the man himself, is located amongst some former olive terraces just on the edge of the old city, about a 20 minute uphill walk from the centre. A fascinating insight into the mind and practical concerns of the painter it has been painstakingly preserved exactly as it was when he last painted there. It’s very popular so book ahead.
The Bibémus Quarries
Open since 2006, this former industrial landscape about 15 minutes outside the city is worth a visit if you are interested in Cézannes source of inspiration, especially for his numerous compositions of views of Sainte Victoire. Visit is by guided tour only. You will discover 17 acres of wild, brooding landscapes and perspectives with colours and shapes that inspired Cézanne’s more abstract work.
Surprisingly there are few original Cézannes left in the city but eight of them can be found in the Musée Granet (see below). His fame spread quickly and values of his paintings increased to the point where the vast majority are housed in private and public collections all over the world. The year 2006 marked 100 years since Cezanne’s death, with an exceptional exhibit of his work at the Musée Granet.
MUSEUMS and BUILDINGS
There are a number of museums and galleries worth visiting. Visit the Aix-en-Provence tourism website for full details of opening times and locations.
Highlights include the Musée du Vieil Aix, which explains the history and growth of Aix-en-Provence and houses a collection of furniture, paintings, pottery, costumes and figurines reminding us of the traditions of old Aix; the Musée d’Histoire Naturelle, the natural history museum, housed in the beautiful Boyer d’Eguilles townhouse; the Musée Granet, a stylish and cool re-development of the old Palais de Malte, which is worth visiting for the interesting temporary exhibitions as well as the permanent display of French paintings and sculptures including eight Cézanne canvases. The Pavillion de Vendôme, a 17th century mansion housing permanent and touring art exhibitions.
There’s something going on every month of the year in Aix. Opera, classical music, jazz and contemporary music, dance, cartoons, film, creative arts and fine arts and multi-media all form part of a year-round kaledioscope of cultural activity. Check the Aix tourism site for full details of upcoming events.
As if that was not enough Aix is just 25 minutes from Marseilles, so you can hop between the two cities.
FOUNTAINS & HOT SPRINGS
Aix is renowned as the city of fountains and there are in fact 43 public fountains in the city, all fed from the pure water of the Verdon river, or in some cases from the thermal springs (discovered by the Romans, hence Aquae Sextius is the Roman name for what became Aix). The town’s spa and mineral waters (enriched with calcium, magnesium and other minerals) are piped at 36° and are used for various spa treatments. So if you fancy a day of pampering treat yourself to some spa indulgence at the Thermes Sextius.
Visiting the markets is an excellent way of soaking in the local atmosphere in Aix. Daily markets include the traditional food market and the flower market. The flea market is held every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in the Place Verdun, and there is also an antique book fair held the first Sunday of every month.
Aix-en-Provence is growing – it has a population of approximately 146,000 but what many people don’t realise is that the town is an important educational center, with over 40,000 students, hosting the faculties from the Universities of Aix-Marseille; the Institute of Political Studies; a military academy; a language school for foreign students (L’Institut d’Etudes Françaises pour Etudiants Etrangers); as well as various bilingual schools.
LIVING and WORKING in Aix-en-Provence
It has become without a doubt the city of choice for many Anglophones choosing to live and work in the region as well as a top tourist destination. There are a number of bilingual schools within the area, as well as a host of English and American businesses and associations.
The climate, the beautiful scenery, the proximity to the Riviera, the TGV and airport transport links, the growing strength of the local economy – all of these factors means one can expect prices to be higher here then in other Provençal cities.
Aix-en-Provence Tourist Office
300 Avenue Giuseppe Verdi
Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 16 11 61
Aix-en-Provence tourism website