At the top of the Alpilles ridge, 7km southwest of St-Rémy, lies the distinctly unreal fortified village of LES BAUX-DE-PROVENCE, where the ruined eleventh-century citadel is hard to distinguish from the edge of the plateau, whose rock is both foundation and part of the structure.
Once, Les Baux lived off the power and widespread possessions in Provence of its medieval lords, who owed allegiance to no one. When the dynasty died out at the end of the fourteenth century, however, the town, which had once numbered six thousand inhabitants, passed to the counts of Provence and then to the kings of France. In 1632 Richelieu razed the feudal citadel to the ground and fined the population into penury for their disobedience. From that date until the nineteenth century, both citadel and village were inhabited almost exclusively by bats and crows. The discovery in the neighbouring hills of the mineral bauxite (whose name derives from "Les Baux") brought back some life to the village, and tourism has more recently transformed the place. Today the population stays steady at around four hundred, while the number of visitors exceeds 1.5 million each year. Day-tripping crowds thin rapidly in Les Baux after around 5pm so, depending on the season, it can be worthwhile turning up rather late and enjoying the splendid castle in relative peace.
Cours Mirabeau is Aix's main thoroughfare. The left side of the Cours leads to the Palais de Justice (judicial center), which carries into the Town Hall area and Aix's old town before coming to the city's Sextius district. On the right side of Cours Mirabeau, Mazarin is the first area you come to and thereafter the area of Carnot, which is sandwiched between Sextius to the north and the university district to the south. The immediate outskirts of the city are divided up geographically and are described here as northern, southern, western and eastern Aix .
A walk along Cours Mirabeau (laid out in 1651), with its many fountains and abundance of greenery, is an essential part of a visit to Aix. In the depths of winter, hot water flows from the Moussue fountain in the middle of the Cours, enveloping the immediate surroundings in a shroud of mist. At the far end of the Cours, Place de la Rotonde is home to the fountain of the same name, an imposing cast-iron basin topped by cherubs from whose lips water continuously trickles. Both sides of the Cours are lined with luxury boutiques (including' Cartier), as well as smart brasseries modeling themselves on the Deux Garçons cafe-brasserie and its famous terrace, now listed as a historic building. Art lovers will be pleased with the nearby Galerie d'art du Conseil General (county council art gallery), which favors works by regional artists. Just a few steps away, Rue Espariat is where one can find the Museum d'histoire naturelle (natural history museum), situated within the magnificent Hôtel Boyer d'Eguilles. Palais de Justice
The Palais de Justice area on the right side of the Cours Mirabeau took shape in 1590 and began to resemble its present state around 1790. Previously the site of the royal gardens, these were transformed during a series of renovations orchestrated by rich statesmen and merchants. After renovation, the former prison next to the current Palais de Justice, became Aix-en-Provence's Cour d'appel (Court of Appeal), second only to Paris' Court of Appeal in terms of importance. However what's really worth seeing here happens every Saturday morning! This is when the square is transformed into a huge open-air antiques market: a big favorite with the locals and an integral part of Aix life. The north side of the square features a grand flight of steps leading up to the Palais de Justice, and the southern side is where the eglise de la Madeleine (Madeleine church) is located. The Verdun 's terrace is the ideal vantage point from which to watch passersby, and in the same square, the Makaire bookshop — an Aix institution — is close by for you to pop into.
The oldest part of the city is situated on the western boundary of the Palais de Justice area. Tucked away in a 17th-century townhouse is the Musee du Vieil Aix , a museum that captures the very essence of Aix's past and a treasure trove of information on local tradition and customs. The Halle aux Grains (a former grain exchange, is a testiment to Provence's agricultural prosperity), the Town Hall , and the Place d'Albertas are wonderful examples of the city's rich heritage and architecture. The layout of superb buildings such as these has created a number of small squares that host (on a daily basis) typical Provençal markets such as the Marche aux herbes (market selling local produce) and the Marche floral (flower market). Meanwhile, tasty local specialties can be purchased on the spot in a variety of fine boutiques such as Brûlerie Richelme (coffee), Confiserie Entrecasteaux (confectionery) and Jacquèmes (delicatessen). Finally, Rue de la Couronne is undoubtedly the best place to come if you enjoy trying different kinds of cuisine, with restaurants such as L'Acteur , Le Saf and La Flambee des Bourras offering a wide variety of delicacies.
Aix's old town
This part of the city is the continuation of the Town Hall area. The Cathedrale Saint Sauveur bears witness to the presence of Christianity in Aix as far back as the 5th century. Nearby, the first floor of the former Archevêche (archbishop's palace) is home to the Musee des Tapisseries . This building's inner courtyard also serves as the perfect backdrop for the Festival d'Art Lyrique (Operatic Festival), which has been held here every summer since 1948. A few steps further one finds delightful bookshops like Divine Comedie and Rue des Bouquinistes Obscurs , popular destinations for collectors of rare books. Sextius
Situated around Boulevard Jean-Jaurès - the street marking the boundary between this area and the old part of Aix-Sextius is situated on the site of the old medieval town. Excavations have revealed old Roman baths here, on top of which the Aquabella hotel complex (offering visitors thalasso-therapy treatment in luxury surroundings) now stands. Graced with a magnificent formal garden, the Pavillon Vendôme (built in 1655), remains Aix locals' favorite place for a stroll. If you're keen to sample Aix culture and nightlife, theater buffs should find something to suit them just a few minutes from here, in the Maison des Jeunes et de la Culture Jacques Prevert , while those who want to check out the local music scene should try Le Bistrot Aixois .
Named after the seventeenth-century archbishop who designed it, the Mazarin area on the left side of Cours Mirabeau is filled with townhouses. Although the area was in the past inhabited exclusively by members of Parliament and the upper middle classes, today it has become a favorite location for haute couture fashion houses such as Agnès B . In the heart of Mazarin, Place des Quatre-Dauphins is home to the fountain from which the square gets its name: an elegant basin surmounted by dolphins in mid-leap. The Cardinal and the Quatre-Dauphins are just two of the many hotels here, in which you're guaranteed a pleasant stay. Close by, Musee Arbaud , is home to one of the biggest collections of Provençal pottery.
Carnot's Cours St-Louis runs alongside the city's outer ring on the edge of the Mazarin area. Situated in Cours St-Louis, the Theâtre de la Fonderie is a showcase for talented local actors, while not far from here, the Fontaine d'Argent is geared more towards stand-up comedy and humor. Provence's oldest Gothic building, the St-Jean-de-Malte church , built in the 13th century, is also here; its neighbour, the former Palais de Malte, is today the Musee Granet, which exhibits important archaeological and art collections.
Avenue Robert-Schuman, situated in the southern part of the Carnot area, is the district's main road and a large student population is spread over the various university campuses here. The area's Theâtre Antoine Vitez is well known for its original productions.
The city's south side contains the Aix-les-Milles commercial district, shopping complexes such as Carrefour , and a range of leisure activities. Get your skates on for a visit to the Megaglace ice rink. Meanwhile the Cite du Livre (which you on your way out of Aix-en-Provence) is an attractively laid out complex filled with row upon row of books and audiovisual material.
The Cours des Alpes, situated on the northern edge of the city, is the first point of contact with the surrounding countryside. Painter Paul Cezanne fell in love with its beauty, building a house here, (today the Atelier Cezanne museum), which allowed him to paint the northern slopes of Mount Saint-Victoire to his heart's content. A visit to the city's inner suburbs invariably includes a tour of its vineyards, such as Château Revelette in Jouques or gives you the opportunity of learning more about the art of cement tile making still made the traditional way at the Carocim factory situated in the nearby town of Puyricard.
Heading for Saint-Cannat, the route des vins or wine trail attracts connoisseurs and tourists alike, and a visit to vineyards such as Château de Beaupre or Château-Bas more often than not includes an enjoyable wine-tasting session! Also here is the Fondation Vasarely (named after its illustrious creator Victor Vasarely, the visionary painter of Hungarian origin), which has a permanent exhibition of his works.
Mount Saint-Victoire looms on the horizon to the east of Aix. Traveling through local villages like Le Tholonet or Beaurecueil on your way there not only takes you through sublime scenery but also provides the ideal opportunity to stop for a delicious meal on the way; gourmet restaurants abound such as the Relais Ste-Victoire or the Mas de la Bertrande . Experiencing for yourself the fragrant pathways and wild moorland that were so dear to Cezanne remains an essential part of any visit to Aix.
Compared with its famous neighbor Marseilles, Aix isn't exactly cheap where eating out is concerned, but it can be worth paying that little bit more for a taste of the town's old-world charm, the perfect accompaniment to a host of carefully composed menus offering a wide range of exquisitely prepared dishes. Aix boasts an impressive number of restaurants, either tucked away in the shade of narrow streets or more prominently positioned in the better-known squares, which offer cuisine from places as far-flung as Asia, the Orient, South America and of course, Provence. In addition, the enchanting setting of Aix's Sainte-Victoire mountain which was painter Cezanne's main source of inspiration and provides a stunning backdrop to good local fare served in friendly surroundings.
In the heart of the old town, Place des Cardeurs' many restaurants present diners with a tough choice: there's Chez Maxime , ideal for those partial to charbroiled meat; the Bouchon Provençal , which champions traditional Provençal cuisine with a modern twist, and Aligot , which proudly presents the rich cuisine of the Auvergne region of France.
Most of the restaurants, generally at their busiest in the evenings, are situated a little further south, towards Cours Mirabeau , Rue de la Couronne and the streets running on from it (Rue des Tanneurs and Rue de Lieutaud). A visit to L'Acteur is a must: experience first hand the chef's masterful interpretation of fish and seafood-based dishes. Or, sample the mouth-watering delicacies cooked over a wood fire in Flambee des Bourras' pleasant vaulted interior: they're also prepared using produce of the very highest quality. Meanwhile, inventiveness is the order of the day in the Bistrot Latin , which, despite having a somewhat limited menu, offers dishes that are prepared according to what's available at the local market. Another place to head for is Le Saf , which offers particularly tasty, simple, African-style dishes. Finally, if you're into sushi and other Japanese food, the talented chef at Yamato will not disappoint.
One street you can't miss on your way to Cours Mirabeau is Rue Espariat, whose long-standing pizzeria Chez Jo offers an amazing choice of delicious pizzas cooked before your eyes, Italian-style salads and traditional recipes that form part of the local culinary heritage. The next street, Rue Doumer, is home to the Amphitryon , a different kind of restaurant. Managed by two immensely talented chefs, Bruno Ungaro and Patrice Lesne, this gourmet restaurant serves good, traditional cuisine to consistently high standards. Cours Mirabeau, Aix's very own Champs-Elysees, is home to legendary brasserie now a listed building-the Deux Garçons , which has occupied this spot since 1748. The pleasure of sitting out on the brasserie's terrace to see and be seen while tasting some of its light, aromatic cuisine is well worth stopping for!
Icône is situated at the start of Rue Mistral (one of the roads running at right angles to the town's main avenue) and offers perfectly executed, Mediterranean-inspired cuisine is served in surroundings entirely devoted to film stars and memorabilia.
Linked to Cours Mirabeau by Passage Agard, the Place du palais de Justice (Law Courts), is another spot you're bound to pass through while visiting the town's historic center. You can sample local cuisine inside Verdun or on its famous terrace; the Table Marocaine offers North African and oriental specialties, while the Platanos will take you on a culinary tour of the Aegean Islands. Not to be forgotten, Asian delicacies from Vietnam are served in Cay-Tam , and those from India can be tasted in Nirvana .
Dining out in Aix-en-Provence is at its most refined in the Clos de la Violette restaurant, set in beautiful surroundings overlooking the Sextius area, which is situated on the fringes of Aix's old town. Gourmets and indeed anyone who enjoys good food agree that the food served here is orchestrated in an original, almost perfect fashion by chef Jean-Marc Banzo.
The town's other well-known eateries are dotted around the surrounding countryside. Montagne Ste-Victoire (Sainte-Victoire mountain) has several restaurants nestled at the foot of its southern slope. Whether you hanker for Mr Bergès' Relais Sainte-Victoire a splendid mas (Provençal house or farm) or Anne Carbonel's country-style hideaway Puyfond , both are proud to serve authentic, local cuisine that owes its flavor and character to the region's abundant sunshine. The mountain's north side is home to a more laid-back restaurant, Chez le Garde , a former bastide (Provençal country house). Its country setting, on the way out of Vauvenargues village, is the ideal place to meet up with friends for a game of boules (bowls) before enjoying the place's simple, exceptionally tasty cuisine.
A city with an exciting past, Aix is also the birthplace of painter Paul Cezanne, whose life-long passion for nearby Mount Saint-Victoire is reflected in many of his paintings. Using these two tours as a guide, you'll discover that the beautiful city of Bon Roi Rene (Rene I, Earl of Provence) has much to be explored...
1. Aix's old town
"Groups of buildings are more important than isolated structures because of the role they play in everyday human life. Such architectural harmony exists in Aix". The perceptiveness of architect Fernand Pouillon, who designed the town's first council housing developments built between 1948 and 1952, enables visitors to adopt a simple approach to Aix's old town, giving them a better understanding of its ensemble of palaces, churches, legal and local government buildings.
The old town is the city's oldest spot. It comprises the former village of Saint Sauveur (the site on which the Roman city once stood) and the Cite Comtale, the original residence of Provence's nobility.
This tour - best begun early in the day - kicks off with Cathedrale St.Sauveur (Saint Sauveur cathedral) whose union of three naves dating from three different periods (Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque) is home to works of art of exceptional quality. Supported by the surrounding walls, the cloister brings a divine coolness to its garden, which can be enjoyed even when the summer sun is at its hottest.
The early hours of the morning resound with the bustle of shops and neighboring restaurants situated on Place des Martyrs-de-la-resistance, which is where the Archevêche , the former palace of Aix-en-Provence's archbishops, is situated. This prestigious building is home to the Musee des Tapisseries whose sumptuous tapestry collections are a joy to behold, while its splendid interior courtyard has hosted the city's Festival d'Art Lyrique (Operatic Festival) every summer since 1948.
Take a stroll down Rue Gaston-de-Saporta while admiring the sixteenth and seventeenth century town houses. It ends at Place de la Mairie, where the marche floral (flower market) takes place every Saturday morning. Stallholders start setting up from the crack of dawn and it's one market that Aix locals are sure to visit. The hôtel de ville (town hall) and adjoining Tour de l'Horloge (Clocktower), overlook a beautifully composed square graced with a gently babbling fountain, while the square's south side is taken up by the Halle aux Grains (Corn Exchange), built in the 18th century in recognition of Provence's agricultural prosperity.
What will really your attention however is the constant hubbub generated by the marche aux herbes (market selling local produce), which takes place every weekday morning except Mondays in neighboring Place Richelme. Provençal fruit and vegetables of all kinds are laid out on stalls run by local farmers whose strong accents and booming voices invite you to sample their produce. Pieces of melon, mature goat's cheese, and slices of toast spread with black olive tapenade are just some of the goodies that will give you a taste of the Mediterranean.
Situated just a few minutes from all this hustle and bustle, Place d'Albertas provides a peaceful rest stop in surroundings that resemble an open-air theater. The shaded pedestrian precincts have exquisite façades reaching all the way along to nearby Place des Prêcheurs (Aix's legal and religious hub), which features buildings such as the Palais de Justice (Law Courts), flanked by the new Court of Appeal on one side and the Eglise de la Madeleine on the other. Every Saturday morning the square is overrun by a huge flea market, while on the square's east side is Passage Agard, a street leading to the city's renowned main thoroughfare Cours Mirabeau , which has an impressive array of well-known shops and sophisticated boutiques. Thanks to its numerous fountains and an abundance of greenery, the Cours proves to be a pleasantly cool oasis of calm where you can take in all the charm of the town houses' facades as they vie with the designer boutiques' elegance. This walk is a must if you want to enjoy all of Aix's charm.
2. Following in Cezanne's footsteps
This walk through the heart of town (easily followed by looking out for studs embedded in the ground in the shape of the letter C, for Cezanne) is combined with a visit to Mount Saint-Victoire . It gives you the chance to learn all about the life of the Aix painter (1839-1906) famed the world over for his landscapes. The trail takes you from the house in which the artist was born, to his favorite viewpoints in the surrounding countryside, right up to the last place in which he lived, with the walk meandering through both the streets of Aix and along the pathways of the surrounding garrigue, or wild moorland. Paul Cezanne was born on 19th January 1839 at 28 Rue de l'Opera, just minutes from the Cours Mirabeau . He was baptized on the 20th of February the same year in the Eglise de la Madeleine . From 1843 to 1849 he attended Mignet school, where he met Emile Zola, the famous French novelist whose writings reflect his life-long obsession with human passions. He subsequently joined an art class in a school situated in the current Musee Granet, which he went to from 1857 until 1862. In accordance with his father's wishes, he then enrolled in law school. Following his mother's death in 1899, the family home of Jas-de-Bouffan (literally sheep-fold in Provençal), situated on the outskirts of town to the west of Aix, was sold. At that time Paul had a studio (now a museum which has remained much the same as the studio was in his day) built 3km north of the city on Lauves hill, called Atelier Paul Cezanne , or Atelier des Lauves. Bursting with almost religious fervor, the studio is a Cezanne enthusiast's paradise filled with items used by the artist, including the tools he worked with as well as everyday household utensils and personal items.
From this period onwards, right up to the time of his death on October 23rd, 1906, Cezanne continued to paint Mount Saint-Victoire. Accessible via Route du Tholonet to the east of Aix, this mass of white limestone has almost chameleon-like properties: it glistens, shimmers, and shifts color depending on the brightness of the sun. He would move around in relation to the play of light on the mountain, painting it from different angles in order to capture his favorite subject in all its majesty. The painter would set up his easel from anywhere along the banks of the river Arc situated to the east of Aix, to the top of Lauves hill on the north side (using the Chemin de la Marguerite path), constantly carried aloft by the scenery surrounding him that inspired him to even greater artistic heights. Follow in his footsteps, letting your gaze wander over the rocks and pine trees that belong to this amazing landscape that meant so much to Cezanne, and understand just what it was that fascinated and inspired him.