A break around Aix
An old and stylish town – elegant, civilised, traditional. Aix has been a Roman city, the Provençal capital, a resort of the French nobility and the home town of Cézanne and Zola. Small wonder that the place has that particularly French quality of being very pleased with itself. Aix offers the visitor a civilised break in a historic setting, and a destination which works quite well at any time of the year. The crush of tourists in the time of hot sun and strong shadows is eased by the absence, in high summer, of many locals.
How to get to Aix-en-Provence
Aix is at the edge of foothills only 20 miles from the Mediterranean and the port of Marseilles. It’s very handily positioned for a break of journey for drivers heading south towards the Riviera, and is also on the TGV rail express network – although the TGV stop leaves you with a 20-minute bus ride since it’s not the same place as the town’s own railway station. The nearest airport is Marseilles, while Toulon (the next nearest), Nîmes and Montpellier are all within a half-day’s drive.
The main bus terminal (along the sides of a wide road) and the local railway station both lie a few minutes’ flat walk along the Avenue des Belges from the Place du Géneral de Gaulle roundabout on the edge of the town centre. This roundabout, site of the Tourist Information Office, is also referred to as La Rotonde (‘the Rotunda’), after the fine monumental fountain which stands there along with three statues representing Justice, Agriculture and the Arts.
As befits a large town, Aix has a good network of local buses, most of which make use of one or other section of a busy ring road and most of which also stop close to the information centre, which can supply/quote/photocopy the necessary timetables for you. A tip, however: allow time in your schedules to wait in a queue at this office since the staff are very helpful but can be rather busy and a little disorganised.
Aix tourist information
The key to Aix geography is simple: the ring road which follows the route of the former ramparts – a fragment is still visible – and the wide boulevard, Cours Mirabeau, which strikes into the heart of the old city from the Rotunda. Most things worth seeing are inside the ring, which is around a kilometre across, and therefore to be explored on foot. Most parking is on the periphery. There are no hills close at hand, but the town does slope down steadily from north to south, towards a rather seasonal river, the Arc, which marks roughly the edge of the modern city. To the east stands the object which anyone who has come across a handful of Cézanne’s paintings will be desperate to see – Mont Sainte Victoire – but you’ll have difficulty viewing it from anywhere in the streets of the city. Be patient: see below.
South of the Cours Mirabeau is a planned grid of streets still lined in places by 16th and 17th century mansions of the nobility, built of a warm brownish stone. North and beyond the end of Cours Mirabeau lies most of the old town, a less regular jumble among which stand the majority of the church and civic buildings, museums, squares, old lanes and ruined fragments. There was a general smartening-up for the Cézanne centenary in 2006, and the city also likes to look well for its annual arts festival during most of July.
Your first essential is to pick up an excellent handout from the tourist information centre, Guide Map Aix-en-Provence, embellished of course by a thumbnail portrait of Paul Cézanne. Your second is to sit in your room, or preferably outside a café along the Cours Mirabeau, skim through the Guide, recall this short web summary and plan your exertions.
A fortified Celtic settlement occupied what is now an open hilltop north of Aix and was superseded by a Roman town further down the slope. A modern thermal spa, just inside the ring road, exploits a hot spring that originally fed the Roman baths. The town hall and cathedral stand more or less on the site of the Roman forum. The next glorious period lasted from the 12th to the 18th century, during which the city’s status as the political and cultural capital of Provence triumphantly survived the transfer of power in 1486 from the counts of Provence to the kings of France, and the displacement of the Provençal language by French. You may well notice here and there above the streets of Aix the red and yellow stripes of Catalonia, dating from an old dynastic alliance of Provence with Barcelona.
It’s interesting to compare this city with its English equivalent, the Roman-hot-springs-18th-century-fashion-centre of Bath. Bath has the best single showpiece in its Roman Baths, but Aix has the larger and more regal old town. The aristocratic mansions of Aix were built fifty or a hundred years earlier than the sweeping bourgeois terraces of Bath. Its cathedral is centuries older. However, Bath has the lovelier setting among its green hills.
The career of Mirabeau – local aristocrat, demagogue and 1789 revolutionary – roughly coincided with a downturn in the city’s fortunes. Aix stagnated in the 19th century, its ancient university, founded in 1409, declining with it. This did have the beneficial effect of preventing wholesale redevelopment (which was also true of Bath), and it was left to writer Émile Zola and artist Paul Cézanne, childhood friends, to rekindle the fame of the city for modern times. Less romantically, Aix has been nourished by the return of prosperity to the South and our own preference for the old, the sunny and the beautiful.
Eating and drinking
It’s almost enough to know that Aix is a fashionable French town with a good climate. There are bars/cafés with outside seating along the Cours Mirabeau and plenty of other restaurants scattered among the streets of the old town, especially between Cours Mirabeau and the Cathedral. You might pay 25 euros a head for a decent two- or three-course meal with a carafe of wine, or twice as much for a gastronomic experience. The food has no very strong local character, but takes its cue from a rich and varied agriculture and the proximity of the sea.
There are, as always, some cheaper pizzerias, and a few clubs and ‘pubs’, but the town’s large and usually well-dressed younger population are most typically seen talking happily over drinks at an outside table. There’s not much shouting or vomiting at night in this part of the world and the town feels pretty safe.
Itineraries: Three days for the active visitor
Day 1 – the town
After looking at your Guide over morning coffee, stroll any way you like up to the central square of the old town, La Place de la Mairie, where – among other notable buildings – stands a lovely old clock tower. If you’re too late to catch the fruit and vegetable market just round the corner, don’t worry: it’s here every morning. Continue north to the Cathedral, which is built across Roman foundations and has a 12th-century cloister. This is one of the two interiors you shouldn’t miss, but remember that churches in southern Europe are inclined to close for a couple of hours at midday. Take lunch in the vicinity: either at a restaurant or with a picnic which if you want peace and quiet can be eaten in the pretty garden of the Pavillon de Vendôme, a miniature chateau (now museum) 10 minutes’ walk west.
Just north of the Cathedral, on the ring road, stands a remnant of the city’s medieval ramparts, and immediately opposite is the street which leads up to that other important interior, Cézanne’s studio. It’s a stiff uphill walk of about 20 minutes, perhaps best avoided by taking a bus or taxi. As well as the studio, where the painter’s paraphernalia including brushes and smock seem to be waiting for the master to come back from lunch, you can stroll around his informal and now rather woody garden and sit down over refreshments. Surprisingly, you still haven’t seen Monte Sainte Victoire. If you walk back to town, however, there is, on the way, an expertly planted public garden on the right which slopes up to a belvedere with copies of the great man’s paintings and a recognisable view – still a little distant – of the mountain itself.
Any time left can be very easily spent exploring more of the centre. Eastward of your morning’s stroll up through the middle stand several of the town’s best one-off pieces of architecture, while westward lie mostly the narrower and humbler streets of old Aix. There, also, is the atmospheric, and for a long time disregarded, Place des Cardeurs, once part of the Jewish quarter. It’s a sunny place, lined with restaurants. Need we say more?
Day 2 – more town
It’s easy to spend another day idling around the old town, well furnished as it is with varied ‘cityscape’, markets, museums and cafés. The information office can give you leaflets for both a Cézanne walk and a Zola walk, or book you onto a guided walking tour of the old town: this is only a few euros and is not – like many such tours in this country – a mechanical French-only disappointment. More informally, you could make your own exploration of the grid-like quarter south of the Cours Mirabeau, where stand most of the old aristocratic mansions from the days of Archbishop Mazarin, brother of the great Cardinal, regent of France. At the far end of this area, next door to each other, you will find the Gothic church of St. John of Malta and the Granet Museum, the most important in Aix, rich in the work of French painters including Cézanne, whose pictures the town didn’t originally want. This museum and its immediate district were given an expensive uplift for his centenary in 2006.
The modern thermal baths, next to a ruined medieval tower at the top of the town, offer a range of ‘wellness’ treatments. Anyone condemned to waiting for a partner to finish a session there can kill time pleasantly enough at any café back in the Place des Cardeurs five minutes walk away. The town does lack a riverside promenade with seats.
Day 3 – mountain and footpath
The day for Mont Ste. Victoire. No other piece of landscape has been so fetishised by a painter, Cézanne portraying the mountain over and over again in its (or more accurately his) different moods, almost always from the same direction. He painted elsewhere in the same district, but never such that the scene is instantly recognisable. Even if the mountain outline seems smoother when we see it ourselves for the first time, it remains a tilted pyramid, steeper on the right than the left, dominated by bare rock. More prosaically, Ste.Victoire and its surroundings offer the best walking opportunities for 30 miles (50 km.).
The mountain, a great ridge which looks from the west like a single summit, is less than 10 miles (15km.) from Aix, and leaps into view as soon as you’re clear of the town. There are good minibus routes, mostly for the benefit of walkers, which operate from the information centre at the Rotunda to bus stops both north and south of the ridge. There are also good car parks along both flanks. Have with you the perfectly adequate fold-out map (Ste. Victoire et Secteur Zola a Pied: Sentiers Balisés) supplied by the Information Centre, and at least a little food and drink since this isn’t a gastronomic outing. Here are three possible walks:
An easy walk – ‘sensible’ shoes rather than big boots. Dismount from the bus or park at the Bimont reservoir and try a circular walk to and from the second reservoir, this one designed and named after Zola’s father. The route is a mixture of holm oak forest and open scrub scattered with pines, with some fine views. Paths are clear, and you can simply turn back if it seems too far. The full round should take a couple of hours plus halts. Drivers with time to spare can go on to make a complete circuit of the mountain – out via Vauvenargues, back via Puyloubier – along roads which are slow enough for you to enjoy the magnificent views.
An energetic walk – boots needed, and a little experience of hill-walking. Attempt the summit. The easiest route, much of it on a wide forest track, starts from the bus stop and car park at Les Cabassols. The harder but busier route starts from the Bimont reservoir. This is mostly on steep and rough open ground – stone and low maquis vegetation – which can make for hot work on a sunny day. In either case you finish on a bare limestone ridge with radiant views and an ancient chapel, partly ruined and partly restored, where services are still sometimes held. A short further scramble takes you up to the Croix de Provence, a cross which stands on one of the highest summits of the 6-mile (10km.) ridge. In spring you’re likely to see masses of narcissi – tiny yellow daffodils – up here, along with wild irises (mauve or yellow-green), white rock-roses and pale antirrhinums. The total climb is 2,000 feet (600 metres), and you will need around four hours plus halts. Despite this, the climb is very popular among locals.
An adventurous walk – similar standard but much quieter. A narrow and very scenic path undulates along the steep southern slope of the ridge from the Cézanne Refuge to the St. Ser Hermitage. This track can be reached either by a long walk out from Bimont or more readily from any of several stops/car parks along the D17. The views are consistently fine, the terrain always interesting, but do take water and keep check of the time. Turn back or down one of the descending paths when your schedule requires.
More days out
Apart from Mont Ste. Victoire, local buses don’t offer very much, because the area around Aix is quite built up and the villages are either rather ordinary or take too long to reach. The best value is Marseilles (Marseille to the French), to which a fast and frequent service runs from the Avenue des Belges, just beyond the railway station.
Day trip to Marseilles
On getting off, you would do well to ask someone to point you towards the harbour, which is 15 minutes walk. When there, pick up a map from the information centre. For the day visitor, Marseilles is by no means a place of crime, poverty and ethnic tension, and it has pedigree, being founded by the Greeks long before the Romans reached Aix.
There are fish for sale on the quay each morning. From here, walk or take a ride on the toy train up past elegant terraced houses to the mighty church/viewpoint of Notre Dame de la Garde, with its Alps-to-ocean panorama. Dine at a café by the port. The famous Bouillabaise of Marseilles, once a cheap dish for fisherman, is likely to be on the menu, but at a very modern price. You could take a short boat ride out to one of those rocky islands to see the Chateau d’If, where Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo was incarcerated. Finally explore le Panier, the oldest part of the city and still a district of great charm, where 15 windmills once stood. It’s to the right (ie north) of the harbour. A route is shown on one of the tourist maps, and is also indicated along its course, but you might want to extend it slightly, around the coastal fort and the cathedral. The price of a tea or coffee in le Panier is likely to be half what you might pay back in the Cours Mirabeau.
With a hire car
With a car, the list of other options from Aix is long and alluring. Within comfortable reach are: Avignon, Arles, the cragtop ruins of les Baux, the little port of Cassis and the Calanques (deep rocky inlets), the Lubéron, the gorges of the Verdon, and the Vaucluse. In season, the tourist office in Aix offers a programme of half-day and full-day outings by coach to many of these attractions. The tickets are expensive – reckon on an average of around 40 euros – but the destinations are first-class.