Is it the gorgeous and colourful historic buildings? Or the many museums and galleries, the fabulous markets, the Cours Mirabeau with its fountains, the pretty squares and plane tree-lined avenues? Maybe it’s the 300 days of sunshine? Or perhaps the 700 restaurants in an always bustling but not busy city surrounded by glorious countryside and vineyards? Aix (pronounced ‘X’) is a bit like a mini-Paris where the sun always shines. Our guide to Aix-en-Provence reveals its many charms…
What to do and see in Aix-en-Provence
You’d be forgiven for thinking that in Aix all roads lead to the Cours Mirabeau and that life revolves around the hustle and bustle of this wide boulevard – it does. Once a toll road and a place for aristocrats and the rich to see and be seen, it now splits the inner city in two. The old town is on one side and the ‘newer’ 17th century Mazarin district on the other. There are restaurants, bars, galleries and shops galore. And on summer nights and Saturday mornings, market stalls are set up and the Cours teems with shoppers. It’s also home to a mossy fountain named unsurprisingly, Fontaine Mossue. Fed by thermal springs (the Romans built baths in Aix) and on cold days steam swirls above its stone bowl.
Sitting at a café with a glass of local rosé, enjoying a three hour dinner and watching the world go by on the Cours is one of life’s great pleasures. Paul Cezanne, Edith Piaf, Pablo Picasso, Jean Paul Sartre and many more have done just this. But don’t sit there too long, there’s a lot to see in Aix.
The old district
You’ll find a warren of cobbled streets, elegant squares and magnificent ancient buildings in the old district. There’s a lively daily market in Place Richelme. Shaded by ancient plane trees, lined with cafés whose chairs and tables spill into the square, and stalls peddling local produce such as lavender, bread, cheese, mountains of the freshest vegetables, great tubs of sunflowers and curtains of garlic – it’s glorious.
In neighbouring Place de l’Hotel de Ville you’ll find a Saturday morning flower market. It’s watched over by a 15th century astronomical clock featuring characters representing the four seasons. Locals say one year Autumn lasted 4 months when someone forgot to turn the key!
In a city that is nicknamed ‘town of 1000 fountains’, elegant Place d’Albertas stands out for its truly beautiful baroque buildings and central fountain. You can walk your socks off in Aix and never be bored.
The Mazarin District
The Mazarin District is named after the Archbishop of Aix, Michel Mazarin, brother of Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister to Louis XIV. He commissioned the extension of the city’s boundaries in the 1600s. The buildings from this time are luxurious and majestic. Elsewhere there are traces of older buildings where you can spot ancient carvings above doors, religious statues on corners and the Maltese cross carved in walls.
Cezanne in Aix
Aix’s most famous son is Paul Cezanne. Every morning at dawn, he would walk from his city apartment up the hill to his studio to paint. When he died in 1906, the studio was preserved and is now open to the public. The objects we see in his paintings are still there. They include the three skulls which are real, though no one knows who they are – anonymously immortalized. The statue of a cherub, the bottles and vases he loved to group together. His brushes and paints, his smock coat and hat. His Godin fire. You really do get the feeling the artist has popped out to wander in his gorgeous garden or to look at his beloved Mont Saint-Victoire, the subject of so many of his paintings. (atelier-cezanne.com)
You can find out more about Cezanne at the Caumont Art Centre. It’s a corker of a museum in an 18th century mansion a stone’s throw from the Cours in the Mazarin District. Here they show a 20-minute film about the life of Cezanne. It’s surprisingly grown up and doesn’t sugar coat his story (neither modest nor particularly likeable by all accounts). The museum has a super exhibition of sculptures and paintings including by several great names such as Monet, Van Gogh, Degas and many more outstanding artists and stunningly preserved rooms.
Don’t miss the ground floor café (you don’t need a ticket to enter). It is gorgeous with glorious salons which feel as though nothing has changed in the last 300 years. There’s also a beautiful shady garden. This is one of the best kept secrets of the locals who love to pop in for a coffee, glass of wine, lunch or fabulous cake.
Two notable museums in the Mazarin District are Musée Granet which has a superb collection of artworks including ten Cezanne paintings, and it’s second part – Granet XXe in a former 17th century chapel
Fondation Vasarely exhibits the optical illusion art of Hungarian-French artist Victor Vasarely. He chose Aix to showcase his art due to his admiration for Cezanne. Vasarely’s work is big, bold and incredible.
Eat out in Aix
Feast on oysters fresh from the coast in Marseille, just 30 km awa. Nibble on lavender infused goats cheese. Enjoy delicious salads flavoured with local olive oil and tapenade. And sigh over sweet almond Calisons, a local speciality legend claims were invented for Queen Jeanne, the wife of Good King René in 1457, said to be the shape of her eyes!
The king of calisson makers in Aix is the Le Roy René. They’ve been making them for more than 100 years. Their calisson gift boxes feature La Rotonde, a landmark fountain in Aix. You can visit their fabulous museum and confectionary where they make calissons in every flavour from natural – almond and melon to lavender, chocolate and pistachio.
The Fromagerie du Passage tucked away down a secret passage at No. 55 Cours Mirabeau. Head to the terrace bar for a cool breeze on a hot night. With a perfectly chilled glass of something delicious to wash down your plancha of tasty Corsican meats and some of the best cheeses you’ll ever try – delicious.
Chateau la Coste
And for a countryside treat, head to Chateau la Coste a dreamy vineyard with a hotel and 5 restaurants about 20 minutes’ drive from the city. It has three art galleries and an ever growing collection of art dotted around the vineyards including a monumental meditation bell created by Paul Matisse, son of Henri Matisse.
Book a tour: Aix has so many secret places and so much to discover. Book a tour at the tourist office by La Rotonde fountain. aixenprovencetourisme.com
How to get there: Trains from Paris take just 3 hours. The station is around 25 minutes’ drive from the city. You can take a bus for a few euros or taxi (expect to pay around 50 Euros).
Where to stay: Hotel Nègre Coste overlooking the Cours Mirabeau. It’s in the centre of the action but perfectly tranquil with comfy rooms, a spa, friendly staff and a lovely restaurant downstairs.