Marseille is an intriguing, heady mix of melting pot cultures and extremely hip scene setting. With a population of 1.5 million, the city – France’s oldest and the largest after Paris – thrums and throbs to the beat of neighbouring North Africa. If you’re looking for rough and tumble fun, vibrant, exotic Marseille is the place to go. Yet not more than 30km from its doorsteps is something altogether more quaint, quiet and gentrified – Aix-en-Provence.
There isn’t any other way to describe this city of less of 140,000 citizens – it’s elegant, classy and chic, a sizeable, velvet-lined pocket of left-bank Paris located deep within bucolic Pays d’Aix. It has green’n’leafy boulevards and public squares that are lined with 17th and 18th century mansions, and dotted with bubbling, ancient fountains. It also enjoys a Mediterranean climate, which means about 300 days of sunshine every year. I visited in late July for a weekend, sweltered in 30-degree heat, and loved every minute of it; friends had booked a villa for three weeks in that month, and experienced just one day of rain. As Lily Allen would say: it’s just not fair.
It hasn’t been fair for more than two millennia. Founded in 123 BC by the Roman consul Sextius Calvinus, who gave his name to its springs, Aix (Aquae Sextiae) tumbled ingloriously through the centuries: occupied by the Visigoths in 477 and by the Saracens in 731, it became the capital of Provence during the Middle Ages (which it remained until the Revolution, from when it was supplanted by Marseille), and in the 12th century was positioned as an artistic centre and seat of learning. And so it has been since – first established in 1409, the Université de Provence Aix-Marseille now has a complement of 30,000 students, which makes mid-term breaks and summer months even more appealing for a visit.
Because of its size, Aix-en-Provence is a perfect small city in which to walk from one end to the other without thinking of public transport. Its wide thoroughfare, the Cours Mirabeau – often referred to as the intersecting point of Aix (think about it) – is planted with double rows of plane trees that provide daylong shade; it is also decorated by lazy-spray fountains and bordered by fine old houses. The avenue follows the line of the old city wall and divides into two sections. The old town, with its spacious if architecturally variable streets, and its 16th/17th/18th century mansions, lies to the north; the new town extends to the south and west.
Inevitably, it is the old town section that seduces and draws in the visitor with its laid back if venerable atmosphere. When your feet need to rest (as they always should), they will invariably guide you to Aix’s famous outdoor café, Les Deux Garçons. Who knows – as you sip from a coffee, beer or a local wine, perhaps you will sit in the very chair that once suported the bottoms of Jean-Paul Sartre, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Paul Cézanne, Emile Zola or Edith Piaf. If you’d prefer not to think of Cézanne’s cheeks or Piaf’s posterior, but rather view another of the city’s functional artefacts, make your way to the Quartier Mazarin, south of the Cours Mirabeau. Once a residential area for the aristocracy and the ‘grande bourgeoisie’, seek out Place des Quatre Dauphins, where the city’s prettiest fountain, built in 1667 by Jean-Claude Rambot, rests and gurgles.
So – pretty fountains, tree-lined boulevards, renowned cafés, Michelin-star restaurants, market days, art, history, climate, literature, learning, wine, museums, regional produce… If you think Aix-en-Provence provides a perfect antidote to the frantic antics of Marseille, you’d be right. But remember, should you ever tire of gentility, civility, elegance or serenity – and you’ll find that in abundance in Aix, as well as in nearby towns such as Lourmarin, Gordes and Bonnieux – the port city is less than an hour away. The best of both worlds in Provence? Somehow, life has become very interesting again.
Two Places To Stay
Hôtel Le Pigonnet, 5 avenue du Pigonnet. Located to the south of the town and within easy walking distance of the centre, this 18th century Provençal establishment is something of classic of its kind.
Bastide du Cours, 43-47 cours Mirabeau. A hotel with a delish café, or a café with a several beautifully ornate rooms? Either way, this is a winner – although an additional cost of breakfast (upto €20) is, as usual, extremely irritating and, arguably, unfair.
Two Places To Eat/Drink
Les Deux Garçons, 53 cours Mirabeau (0033) 442-260-051. An Aix institution, rightly regarded as the best café in the city. Cézanne and Emile Zola (Aix’s other famous son) used to hang out here swapping their favourite chat-up lines as lassez-faire white-aproned waiters glided by. Well…
Le Grillon, 49 cours Mirabeau (0033) 442-275-881. Seen as the most obvious rival to Les Deux Garçons, this might not have as lovely a setting, but the service is sharper and smarter. Menu choices are slightly cheaper, too.
Two Things/Places To Go/See/Do
Cathédral St-Sauveur: Aix’s cathedral dates back to the fifth century, but a few architectural styles including Gothic and Romanesque) have been added. Gregorian chants each Sunday afternoon have become part of the do-not-miss tourist (and resident) experience. Rue J de Laroque
Paul Cézanne: Local artist made good Cézanne (1839-1906) is afforded due respect in Aix, and you can follow the Cézanne Trail (Circuit de Cézanne) from the tourist office, which also provides a free English-language guide, Cézanne Footsteps. You can also visit his fastidiously preserved final studio, which is just over a kilometre north of the tourist office. Atelier Paul Cézanne, 9 av Paul Cézanne (0033) 442-210-653
Zoo de la Barben: You’ll need transport for this 33-hectare space, located 20km out of town, with a sizeable play area and a wide range of animals. There are 10km of walkways, but those with aggrieved feet or small children (or even small feet and aggrieved children) will appreciate an on-site tourist train.
Institut pour la forét: A compact eco-museum that is less than ten minutes drive south of Aix. A cleverly designed walkway safely brings children into contact with aspects of the forest.
Decathlon Adventure Park: For the older child/teenager, try this outdoors abseiling, biking and skating park. There is also an on-site sports clothes/equipment store. That’ll keep ‘em quiet for a few hours!
Hit the shops
You can take your pick between chic shopping along the pedestrian rue Marius Reinard (behind the Palais de Justice, place de Verdun), some natty high street names along cours Mirabeau, or vintage items (and some tat) at the flea market on place de Verdun (Tues, Thurs, Sat mornings). Food and produce markets are commonplace: at place Richelme (every morning), and at place des Précheurs (Tues, Thurs, Sat mornings).
The central old town of Aix is largely pedestrianised, so drivers should take note of regularly signposted underground and overground car parks. Experienced drivers only should attempt to drive into the old town, which is accessed by a sequence of confusing, narrow one-way boulevards.
Tourist Office, 2 place du Général de Gaulle.
(This first appeared in The Irish Times/Go, July 2010.)