Aix-en-Provence A joyful Provence city of sun, fountains and Cezanne

Locals call Aix ‘a village pretending to be a city’ – a good description for this beautiful and compact city that is easily explored in half a day.

“If you’re born in Aix, nowhere else will do”
Paul Cezanne

Our Top Ten of Aix’s best sights


  • La Place des Quatre Dauphins:  The elegant centrepiece of the Mazarin district.
  • Place des Trois Ormeaux:  Where the rosé is chilled in the fountain.
  • Place Richelme:  With the market in full swing.
  • Repetto:  For the gorgeous window display.
  • Cours Mirabeau:  Looking up the Cours Mirabeau from the Rotonde, especially at night.

 


  • Centre Caumont:  Inside and out, an impressive art centre.
  • Place d’Albertas:  Where the pigeons bathe in the fountain, blind to the architectural beauty all around.
  • Farinoman:  For the bread display.
  • Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur:  12th century cathedral built on the site of the 1st century Roman forum.
  • Puyricard:  The window display of chocolates.

For kids and the young at heart


  • Count the fountains:  Aix is also called Ville d’Eau – city of water. Halfway up the Cours Mirabeau is one that goes by the nickname of name of ‘Moussue’ or Mossy – over the years moss has hidden the four stone children around it. The water is thermal – warm in winter!
  • Black foxes:  Look out for tiny black foxes painted low along walls – they are all over Aix.
  • Cezanne trail:  Help spot the metal studs in the ground that lead you along the Cezanne trail (see Art Lovers below).
  • Cours Mirabeau:  Find the two huge men holding up the doorway (or to use the correct term: Atlantes) – at 38 Cours Mirabeau.
  • Book in Bar:  This is an English bookshop, they also serve tea and cake…
  • Water wall:  Aix has the biggest wall of water in Europe – look out for the bridge over Avenue Max Juvenal on the ring road – covered in greenery on one side and water on the other!
  • Find the pig:  Actually it’s a copy of ‘The Bronze Hog’ dating back to C15th Italy where it was considered good luck to rub its snout. Other copies exist – one appears no less than three times in the Harry Potter films.

And if your kids still have steam to let off:  

  • Walk up to the Grand Theatre de Provence and past the Pavillon Noir to a huge open expanse where kids can run about while admiring the modern architecture of these two buildings. The Pavillon Noir is home to the Ballet Preljocaj – if you’re lucky you’ll see them in rehearsal through the windows.
  • For something greener, the Parc du Jourdan is a 5-minute walk south of the Cours Mirabeau

For Foodies


  • Hediard:  Fancy French food store on Rue d’Italie
  • Bechard :  Reputed to be the best patisserie in Aix since 1870 – on the Cours Mirabeau
  • Farinoman :  These people are obsessed with bread and it shows. Visit at 5 Rue Mignet.
  • Puyricard:  For calissons, chocolate and gorgeous window displays. Find them on the wonderfully named Rue Rifle-Rafle, just behind the Cours d’Appel.
  • Rue d’Italie:   It runs along the top of Cours Mirabeau and has a good selection of speciality food shops: deli, jam, cheese, chocolate, organic.

The absolute speciality of Aix is the calisson – a small crescent-shaped biscuit of almond and candied melon with a history going back to the C15th – even today a local church blesses the calisson.

For Spa lovers


  • Thermes Sextius:  This is a spa complex dating back to the 18th century however it is ‘municipal’ in style.
  • 27 Mazarin:  If you’re after something a little more luxurious head to 27 Mazarin – a tiny but tranquil spa with expert staff using products by Biologique Recherche and Laura Mercier.

For Fashion lovers


On the northern side of the Cours Mirabeau (the side with all the cafes) is a maze of narrow streets housing all the main French brands: Maje, Sandro, Agnes B, Comptoir des Cotonniers, Zadig & Voltaire, Cotélac, Repetto and American Vintage (despite its name this brand was born in the south of France).

The big hitters Longchamp, Yves Saint Laurent and Hermes also have a presence in Aix plus local beachwear brands Villebrequin and Kiwi. In the modern area of Les Allees Provençales you’ll find familiar high street names Zara, H&M, Superdry, Clarks, Levis. Finally Monoprix is the French M&S – clothing, food and homewares.

For History fans


Aix was built up on the Roman town of Aquae Sextiae in 122BC and flourished due to its thermal springs and ideal position between Italy and Northern France. However even before the Romans there were the Celto-Ligurians – and sculptures from these times (180BC) are on display at the Musée Granet.

  • The Mazarin:  The supremely elegant Mazarin district was conceived by Cardinal Michael Mazarin and could be considered the forerunner to today’s housing estates, albeit on a very luxurious scale. The huge houses, or ‘hotels particuliers’ were the winter homes of rich families who spent the warmer months in their country estates, coming to Aix for the winter. Today these house are highly protected, conserving extravagant staircases, rooms and fireplaces more suited to castles.
  • Cathedral Saint-Sauveur:  Roman columns that still form part of this cathedral are thought to be remnants of a temple to Apollo. Building around these remains began in 500AD and continued on and off until the 16th century, resulting in a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. A French national monument, the Cathedral Saint Sauveur houses several important works of art and exquisite carvings.
  • Camp des Milles:  A 10-minute drive south of Aix brings you to a darker side of Provence history. Opened as recently as 2012, the Les Milles brickworks was an internment camp during WW2 and in 1942 while under Vichy control was the point from which 2000 Jews left for certain death. A low-point on holiday perhaps, but this restoration has been extremely well thought out, and is after all historically important.

For Art lovers


  • Cezanne:  If Aix is about one person it is about the painter Cezanne, who was born and died here. Basic guides to the artist’s life in Aix can be picked up from the tourist office or downloaded from the website.
  • Cezanne trail:  A series of metal studs in the pavement marked with a C will take you from his place of birth to place of funeral. Along the way are 37 points connected to his life such as school, art studies and where his family lived.
  • Cezanne locations:  Visit the three sites that were key to Cezanne’s life: Bastide du Jas de Bouffan, the Lauves Studio and the Bibémus Quarries. Of these the Lauves Studio is the only one that can be reached by foot from the centre of Aix. It is quite amazing that this is his actual studio with items he used himself still in place.
  • Ballet Preljocaj:   This ballet company was formed in 1985 and now resides in the purpose-built Pavillon Noir, a striking landmark of Aix. The company tour all over the world and often in Aix, frequently performing in public spaces. A full schedule is on their website.
  • Grand Theatre de Provence:   A modern theatre hosting a wide mix of classic and jazz music, contemporary and classical dance.

Galleries


  • Centre Caumont:   Aix’s newest art centre opened in 2015. It will host two exhibitions a year but on continuous loop is a short video about the life of local boy Cezanne. The centre itself is in an extravagantly restored mansion, decorated in 18th century style with a terrace restaurant and traditional tea rooms overlooking a formal garden.
  • The Granet Museum:   Aix’s main art gallery but the permanent collection can be disappointing to those hoping for a feast of Cezanne. At the turn of the century its curator refused any paintings by the local artist – preference was given to Francois Granet. As a result the museum holds just 10 Cezannes – the most well known are Les Baigneuses and Portrait of Madame Cezanne.
  • The Granet XXe:   is an add-on to the Musee Granet, and your ticket will count for both. A few minutes walk from the main museum, its collection of 20th century art is housed in a refurbished chapel and includes Picasso, Bonnard, Dufy.
  • Fondation Vasarely:   Founded by op artist Victor Vasarely in 1966, this peculiar and striking building on the outskirts of Aix hosts a collection of huge and colourful op art works. The building and its interior have certainly seen better days, but if you can make time it’s a fun place to visit. Parking is easy or take the shuttle bus from the Rotonde.

Restaurants


Our recommendations:

We only mention restaurants that we have eaten in ourselves and found delicious enough to return to.

Budget:
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One to avoid: While the restaurant Les Deux Garcons is very good-looking has a colourful past (including Cezanne eating there regularly) and is cited as the ‘place to be’ in many guide books, we say you’ll never see a local there and the food is consistently bad – best avoided for anything other than a coffee!

Things to note


  • Don’t try to park on the streets, you won’t find a spot, instead use the excellent multi-storey car parks dotted around the edge of the centre. Nearest to Cours Mirabeau are Rotonde and Mignet.
  • Aix is small and very easy to navigate and get around on foot but if you’d rather take it easy there is a mini train tour and the wonderful jump on/jump off slow-travelling electric taxi called La Diabline, which follows three set routes but stops on request and costs 1€ for a day-ticket.
  • The Tourist Office is in a large modern building next to the Rotonde.
  • Watch out: Some shops and museums are shut on Mondays

 

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