I sat at a white, wrought-iron table in an outdoor café, in Aix-en-Provence, watching the flow of people strolling along the Cours Mirabeau. They were exploring the shops, boutiques and galleries under the warm Provençal sun and deep blue sky. The town, which during the Middle Ages was the capital of Provence, has a unique energy and excitement to it.
Aix, as it is known, was founded in the early second century B.C.E. by the Roman Consul Calvinus. After being constantly overrun by Vandals, the town was conquered by Visigoths in the fifth century and later Franks and Lombards. Eventually it came under the control of Barcelona, Aragon and Anjou, when it grew into a highly respected art center. In 1474 Louis XII of France took control of Aix and created a parliament there. For nearly two centuries, Aix either ignored or denied the French Monarchy’s policies, choosing to live “out of time,” attempting to isolate itself from the rest of France. The Parliament lasted until 1789. And, it wasn’t until Aix moved into the twentieth century that it became a major force in France.
With its Mediterranean climate, and a distance of just 32 kilometers (20 miles) from Marseilles, Aix is in an ideal location for both residents and visitors. Being partially inland, it is generally protected from the Mistral wind which sweeps down from the north with ice and snow in winter and sometimes torrential rains in summer. The town receives on average 300 days of sunshine and 91 days of rain per year. It’s a climate that encourages you to slow down and enjoy life.
For me, Aix has three different personalities. First, the medieval legacy, historic homes, mansions and la Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur. Second the modern part. Third is the world reflected in le Cours Mirabeau, one of the most life-affirming places I have visited.
The Medieval personality goes back to the time when Aix, controlled by various foreign elements, had begun to develop its reputation as a dominant art location and force. It became a place where people from northern regions sought out its warm climate and slower lifestyle.
The Modern personality is that of high-fashion (haute couture) boutiques competing with Paris. It also includes an electronics industry, highly competitive and world-renown universities, and international fame as an art center.
Le Cours Mirabeau
Le Cours Mirabeau draws together, for me, major elements of the first two and adds a unique one. In summer it is a place that is dominated by the energy, drive and joie de vivre, especially of students and visitors who experience the lively attitude and sense of wonder.
On the broad, relatively short boulevard some 440 meters (almost 1445 feet) long and 42 meters (nearly 140 feet) wide, many visitors and residents feel they experience a lifestyle rarely found elsewhere. The Promenade des Anglais in Nice or the Boulevard de la Croisette in Cannes come close. But the Cours Mirabeau has something unique: a sense of innocence and wonder.
Historic mansions with wrought iron balconies are on one side of the Cours, cafés and restaurants on the other side. Elegant townhouses and plane trees line both sides. There are culinary treats on display in boulangeries. patisseries and charcuteries. People sit at open-air cafés and savor cups of fine coffee and croissants and people-watch. Multi-colored awnings shade diners from the sun as they listen to the tinkling of fountains.
The fountains of Aix
Aix is nicknamed The Town of a Thousand Fountains – perhaps a slight exaggeration, although no one really cares. The fountains in the Cours are magnificent works of art, with the rarest, a functioning one, la Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins (the Fountain of the Four Dolphins) dating to the mid-seventeenth century. It dominates the center of la Place des Quatres Dauphins.
Others are intricately designed and feature humans (sometimes grotesque) or animals. The most famous one is la Fontaine de la Rotonde, commissioned by the town of Aix in 1860. Located on a busy roundabout at one end of the Cours, it stands 12 meters high (39 feet), with a diameter of 41 meters (134 feet). One female figure on top faces la Cours Mirabeau and represents Justice. A second female figure faces Avignon and suggests the Fine Arts. A third female faces Marseille and signifies Agriculture. The three figures embody the main business concerns of Aix and majestically stand in la Place d’Albertas.
One of the most fascinating fountains is la Fontaine Mussue (the Fountain of Moss). While the temperatures rarely drop below freeing in Aix; when they do, the moss surrounding la Fontaine acquires a coating of frost.
A local told me that the water from the main fountains isn’t for drinking, but from les fontaine d’eau potable (public fountains) on most street corners it is. Children and dogs cool themselves in the fountains and some restaurants chill their wines in the water.
What to see in Aix
Plenty of cultural events take place year-round. Le Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, a major opera festival, takes place in late June and July in three settings: the outdoor Théâtre de l’Archévêché, the restored 18th-century Théâtre du Jeu de Paume and the newly built Grand Théâtre de Provence.
The Musique dans la Rue is held each June in conjunction with the national Fête de la Musique. A week-long event featuring jazz, popular and classical music.
The dance company Ballet Preljocaj, is in residence in the Pavilon Noir, a centre for dance performances. One of its kind, the Pavilon was designated Centre chorégraphique national. Tickets sell fast so book in advance if this floats your boat.
There are many museums in historic buildings, some going back several centuries. Among them is the Vendôme Pavilion, a seventeenth century mansion. La Musée du Vieil Aix (Museum of Old Aix) is devoted to the history and Provençal heritage of Aix. And la Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs contains over 300 works of art by Degas, Renoir, Gauguin, Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, plus many others.
The former studio of Paul Cézanne is fascinating. It is within walking distance of la Cours Mirabeau. L’atelier is preserved as it existed at the time of the painter’s death and contains many of his personal items. A dark coat, pants, boots, hat and walking stick. There are tools of his trade including plaster casts. Paper flowers and other objects which served as his still-life models. L’atelier was where Cezanne painted his famous Grandes Boigneuses as well as some of his “Bathers” scenes. It is as though time has stood still there. I expected the artist to return from a trek to the nearby Montagne Sainte-Victoire at any time.
The Montagne was one of Cezanne’s favorite haunts and painting subjects. He painted multiple images of it, attempting to capture the subtleties of light shining throughout the day. In late afternoon, I walked along the dusty road for about twenty-minutes toward this enchanting mountain but alas it never seemed to come closer. I returned to the Cours and sat at a café with a pastis watching the world go by and enjoying the charms of this enchanting small city.
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA