Aix en Provence is a city that manages to pull off the trick of being at once elegant and exciting. Aix is a city with a zest for life, its streets and architecture timelessly classical, its populace kept young by a constant flux of university and art students. What’s more, Aix en Provence is well named - it maintains a real flavour of Provence.
Aix is a place of culture, chic shopping, street markets, rich in cafes and restaurants. There is a buzz but not really any sense of hurry. You can, and must, walk everywhere. You will probably drive there, and the best thing to do is head for one of the underground car parks dotted around the centre, and then spend the day on foot.
The very heart of Aix en Provence, or perhaps spine is more accurate, is the Cours Mirabeau, which has been dubbed ‘the most satisfying street in France’. Cours Mirabeau is a beautiful avenue lined with giant plane trees, with the sunny side of the street given over to cafes and restaurants, and opposite are the grand houses, banks and high-end stores. This is naturally the place for people watching, perhaps from a table at the historic Les Deux Garcons, following in the drinking steps of Picasso, Piaf and Sartre. Make sure you go inside too to see the very fine 18th century interior, in the style of a Parisian bistro. At 55 cours Mirabeau is the house where Cezanne grew up.
THE OLD TOWN
The old town, on the north side of Cours Mirabeau is full of shops, museums, and historical sites and buildings, as well as three markets. There is the daily market in Place Richelme, and a flower market in Place d'Hotel de Ville on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Amid the imposing 17th century mansions (called ‘hôtels particuliers’ in French but not hotels), some minor museums of interest for their architecture if nothing else: the natural history museum (Museum d’Histoire Naturelle) in rue Espariat, the tapestry museum (Musee des Tapisseries) and the museum of old Aix (Musee de Vieil Aix).
On the other side of the Cours Mirabeau from the old town is the Quartier Mazarin, a genteel neighbourhood of beautiful 17th century ‘hôtels’. A stroll down rue du 4 septembre is a must. The quartier Mazarin is home to the Musee Granet, housing a substantial collection of art and archaeology.
Water is the hidden life-blood of Aix emerging in the streets at the many fountains, and at the spa built atop the old Roman thermal baths. Cours Mirabeau is marked by three fountains, one of which, the Fontaine a l’eau chaude, emits warm water.
The companion to the often-heard sound of running water is the effect of the city on the majestic Provence light. With its warmly coloured stone buildings, the streets are bathed in a golden aspect, especially early and late in the day when it feels like Cecil B. DeMille is in charge of lighting.
A little away from the centre is the Atelier Cezanne – Paul Cezanne’s studio. Cezanne was a giant among artists, whose influence went beyond the impressionist movement. “He was like a father to us all,” Picasso said of him. Having spent his childhood in Aix and the surrounding countryside with his friend Emile Zola, Cezanne spent his adulthood painting these scenes. His studio is maintained as it was on his death in 1906. His smock, palette, pipe, and some of the equipment he used are still in place. You can get a guide from the tourist office showing you where Cezanne liked to paint in Aix.
Another artistic landmark in Aix is the Fondation Vasarely, dedicated to the work of the late kinetic artist.