Capital of Provence since the Middle Ages
www.aixenprovencetourisme.com. Settled by the Romans, who named it Aquae Sextiae on account of its hot springs, Aix was the capital of Provence from the 12thC until the Revolution. During the 15thC, René le Bon, Duke of Anjou, Count of Provence and King of Sicily, and indeed a true Renaissance prince, established a flourishing cultural tradition which distinguishes the town even today. Prosperous and cosmopolitan, host to a prestigious annual International Music Festival (www.festival-aix.com) and hordes of foreign students, Aix has been nicknamed Paris’s 21st arrondisement, which is also a reflection on the cost of living here.
King René still presides over the festivities from a fountain at the top of Cours Mirabeau, a broad, tree-lined boulevard flanked by 17th-18thC mansions which divides the town centre in two. To the north, Vieil Aix is a bustling maze of narrow streets interrupted by little squares and frequent fountains. Aix is famous for its markets which invade place Richelme and the surrounding streets with a colourful profusion of local fruits, vegetables and great tubs of glorious flowers. Bargain hunters will also find a sprawling flea market centred on place de Verdun.
On rue Gaston-de-Saporta, the Musée du Vieil Aix (amis-musees-aix.fr) houses displays of Proven√ç¬µcal crafts including puppets and santons, the traditional pottery crib figures found throughout the region. Further up the hill, the Cathédrale de Saint-Saveur is a notable hybrid with a 5thC baptistry, Romanesque aisle and 16thC additions. At certain times the custodian reveals the interior of a marvellous 15thC triptych illustrating the Burning Bush with King René and Queen Jeanne in attendance, plus the twin castles of Tarascon and Beaucaire (see page 335). Behind the cathedral, the Musée des Tapisseries, place des Martyrs-de-la-Résistance, www.aixenprovencetourisme.com, boasts a magnificent collection of 16th-17thC Beauvais tapestries housed in the former archbishop’s palace.
On the south side of cours Mirabeau lies the largely residential Quartier Mazarin. named after Archbishop Mazarin, brother of the illustrious cardinal. In quiet streets, the flat-fronted 17th-18thC town houses appear smugly secretive behind their shutters.
There is the occasional splash of colour in a window box, a lovely fountain in place des Quartre-Dolphins, plus two more museums: the Musée Arbaud, 2a rue du Quatre-Septembre with a distinguished library and notable collections of ceramics; and archaeology and fine arts in the Musée Granet, place Saint-Jean-de-Malte. The latter has a motley collection of dreary 18thC paintings, but also a Rembrandt, an Ingres and several minor Cézannes. Fans of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) can explore the artist’s home town with the help of a walking trail devised by the S.I. It treks out to his last studio, Atelier Cézanne, 9 avenue Paul-Cézanne, which has been preserved as he left it complete with painting smock, pipe and unfinished canvas. For more information on these museums and the atelier, see www.aixenprovencetourisme.com.
Another detour on the cultural trail lies 4 km west of the town centre, the Fondation Vasarély, avenue Marcel-Pagnol at Jas-de-Bouffan. The 90-m long building constructed of giant black-and-white building blocks houses an eclectic selection of the 20thC Hungarian artist’s expansive ‘mural integrations’. Make of them what you will.
During the International Music Festival, accommodation and tickets are at a premium.
Find more in: Culture treasure troves