Cézanne’s birthplace / City of arts / Roman history
Birthplace of renowned artist Paul Cézanne, the university town of Aix-en-Provence is a vibrant place with the arts firmly at its heart. Aix, as it is more commonly known, is referred to as the city of art and lights – and has been the favoured haunt of artists in their many forms – from painters and musicians to dance and film – for centuries. But its history goes much further back.
It was founded in 123 BC by a Roman consul, Sextius Calvinus, who gave his name to the hot underground springs which abound here. Huge stone baths were built for bathing, socialising and generally relaxing – some of which can still be seen today. But far from the laid-back vibe and heavenly spas of the Aix we know and love today, the 2,000 year-old town was far from peaceful.
It was repeatedly attacked and plundered over the ensuing centuries, switching hands between various civilisations ranging from the Romans and Visigoths to the Franks, Lombards and Saracens. It was finally recognised as a centre of arts and learning in the 12th century, and having come under French rule in the 15th century, was soon established as the capital of Provence.
Today this sun-drenched city is associated with an excellent quality of life that attracts French holidaymakers, tourists, investors and of course creative types, who come here in their droves to soak up its rich ancient history, wander along its leafy boulevards, sip a chilled ‘Seize’ in the famous Deux Garçons brasserie (see ‘Things to Do’, below) or to follow in Cézanne’s footsteps.
Things to do in Aix-en-Provence
Packed with museums, markets, stately boutiques and terrace cafes, not to mention fountains (it didn’t get its name as ‘city of a thousand fountains’ for nothing), Aix is a wonderful medley of contrasts – buoyant and laid-back, ancient and modern.
It’s perfect for those who love whiling away the days soaking up the many local and varied treasures. And if that means kicking back on a shady terrace, lazily watching the crowds scurry past as you sip a pastis or tuck into a hearty boeuf Provençale, this is certainly the place to do it.
Aix en Provence: art galleries & museums
Any city with a 2,000 year-old history and a firm artists’ following is bound to have its fair share of museums and galleries. And Aix is no exception.
The city is packed with museums, historical sites and art galleries. Among the best of the museums is Le Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum) on Rue Espariat. Located in the beautifully ornate Hôtel Boyer d’Eguilles, the museum dates back to 1838 and features a wonderful collection of prehistoric bones and fossils found around the Sainte-Victoire mountain, as well as the fossilised remains of fish, insects and plants found in the wider Aix region by local scientist Gaston de Saporta.
The Musée de Vieil-Aix (Museum of Old Aix) on Rue Gaston de Saporta is another favourite. Here you’ll find a curious collection of artefacts telling the story of the town’s provencal heritage, with garments, uniforms, paintings, earthenware and even puppets gracing the display cabinets. Another museum regaling the town’s recent history is Le Musée de Tapisseries (Tapestry Museum) in the Archbishop’s Palace, featuring tapestries and furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries, while Le Musée Paul Arbaud is renowned for its pottery collection.
There are many more museums dotted around the city but of all of them, Le Musée Granet is a must-see. Located on Place Saint Jean de Malte in the old Priory of the Knights of Malta, you’ll find a wonderful collection of fine arts spanning the 16th to the 20th century. A number of original Cézanne paintings are housed here in a room devoted to the local artist, along with the works of many French artists and the schools of Dutch, Flemish and Italian art. Other names include Rubens, Rembrandt, Giacometti, and a little-known Spanish artist by the name of Pablo Picasso. The museum itself has recently undergone extensive renovation and expansion works – now, around 600 paintings, sculptures and archaeological pieces are on proud display.
Things To Do
Music, art, spas and Picasso’s favourite brasserie
Celebrate la musique
In June and July, the town comes alive with music festivals and street parties. The Festival d’Aix-en-Provence is a major opera festival which was founded in 1948. It takes place annually in late June and July in various venues across Aix, such as the outdoor Théâtre de l’Archévêché – located in the former gardens of the archbishop’s palace, no less – the beautiful 18th century Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, and other venues outside of Aix such as the outdoor Théâtre du Grand Saint-Jean. Other musical highlights include ‘Musique dans la Rue’ – a week of street music covering various musical styles including jazz, classical and pop. This takes place in June as part of the national ‘Fête de la Musique.’
Follow in Cézanne’s brushstrokes
You can’t miss the rugged and majestic Montagne Sainte-Victoire. This magnificent landmark of Aix is not just an attractive addition to the skyline, it was also the favoured haunt of artist Paul Cézanne. He would spend time exploring and painting the landscapes and scenery of the region, often making use of a windmill in the village of le Tholonet, or a mountain hut, known as ‘Cézanne’s refuge’. Walkers keen to explore the Sainte-Victoire mountain can reach the area via the wooded footpath of Escrachou Pevou to the plateau of Bibemus. There are plenty of footpaths around the mountains, leading to such beauty spots as the Croix de Provence and the roman viaduct above le Tholonet.
Make time for a pitstop at the Deux Garçons along Cours Mirabeau. This famous brasserie was built in 1792 and has long been a favourite of various celebrities. Among them, Édith Piaf, Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway and of course Paul Cézanne would come here for a refreshing apperitif. As well as its claim to fame, it’s a pleasant spot with an outdoor terrace shaded by tall plane trees, perfect for people-watching on the stately Cours Mirabeau.
Wallow in hydro luxury
Famous for its underground springs, which the Romans made use of by building stony thermal baths over 2,000 years ago, Aix still draws many a weary soul to its plush spas and revitalising hydro treatments. The modern Thermes Sextius on Avenue des Thermes was built over the old Roman baths, which can still be seen through glass panels. Enjoy the likes of a hot stone therapy, a warm mud wrap or head for the heavenly hydrotherapy cabins.
Tues, Thurs and Sat – Place de Verdun
Daily – Place de l’Hôtel de ville, Place des Prêcheurs (flower market)
Daily – Place Richelme (local produce)
Regular markets held in various town quarters
First Sunday of each month – Place de l’hôtel de ville (books)
Our selection of restaurants in Aix-en-Provence
32 rue Espariat
04 42 27 08 31
Set in a stunning 15th century vaulted cellar, this relaxed and friendly restaurant consistently receives rave reviews. It’s an intimate place with a high quality of food covering various French classics, inspired by the flavours of Provence and often with an innovative twist. Prices are reasonable, ranging from €22 for lunch up to €40-€75, depending on whether you opt for the set or the a la carte menu.
Le Poivre d’Ane
40 place des Cardeurs
04 42 21 32 66
A busting little place in a prime tourist area on a busy square. Modern cuisine that’s reasonably priced and comes highly recommended from past visitors. Prices typically range from €28 – €50.
11 Petite rue St-Jean
04 42 20 58 26
The creme de la creme. This Michelin-starred restaurant in the beautiful Old Town boasts a creative menu with local Côtes de Provence wines and a sumptuous, innovative menu. Emphasis is placed on local flavours and local or regionally produced ingredients, with many bought in Aix’s market. Prices typically range from €40 up to €140.
Driving distances from Aix-en-Provence to nearby cities
Marseille – 32km / 20 miles
Arles – 77km / 48 miles
Toulon – 84km / 52 miles
Avignon – 90km / 56 miles
Nimes – 107km / 66 miles
Nice – 176km / 109 miles
Les allées provençales – 300 avenue Giuseppe Verdi
F 13 605, Aix en Provence
33 04 42 16 11 61
The Southern areas of France and especially those along or near the French Riviera are typically expensive. Aix is no exception, and this pretty, lively university town is a magnet to investors and foreign buyers seeking a laid-back place in the sun – particularly the British. While the town itself is popular, the outlying villages are typically in high demand from buyers seeking picture-perfect stone cottages, villas and farmhouses. The general advice is that if funds are tight, look outside of the main British interests. Prices are generally better half an hour or so outside of the most expensive towns and villages.
The general consensus is that while Aix is expensive, the town maintains solid rental opportunities. It boasts a good quality of life which appeals to the French just as much as foreign buyers, and its status as a university town also ensures plenty of alternative rental income from students.