Aix-en-Provence – A Beautiful City of Markets & Fountains
By Gena Reisner
We’re sitting in the outdoor cafe at Chez Grandmere, overlooking one of the many fountains of Aix-en-Provence, eating another delicious meal from Grandma’s kitchen.
Here at the intersection of two winding streets, a musician sets up his portable piano and begins to play classic jazz.
Twilight falls and the sky becomes an intense electric blue, turning the antique ochre buildings and cobblestone streets into an impressionist painting.
The air is warm and breezy and fragrant with the scents of flowering trees and Grandma’s Provencal cooking. The narrow streets ring with the merry sounds of young people at play. This is how we’ll always remember Aix, we think, and toast each other with glasses of the delicious local wine.
My husband and I had come to Aix (pronounced “X”) for one of his scientific meetings, and decided to stay for a two-week visit. We guessed it would be a nice place to feel at home in Provence – and we were right. It also proved a good base for seeing some of the highlights of the region.
A Festive Town
Aix is a lively and festive town with lots of good restaurants and shops. Although it’s the second-largest city in Provence, it’s still small, with only about 130,000 residents.
The Romans named it Aix (aqua) for its thermal springs, and it’s been a center of art and culture since medieval times.
It has a large university and is filled with attractive young people. Aix is fun for solo travelers, couples and families – there’s always something going on.
Culture lovers throng the town during the month of July, when the famous Aix arts festival is held.
The Old Town
The beautiful part of Aix is the old town, where all the sites, restaurants, markets and shops are located. Looking at a map of Aix, this is anywhere inside the ring road that surrounds the city and defines where the city walls once stood (the road has several names). The old town is very small – you can walk clear across it in about fifteen minutes.
Most of the old town is pedestrian-only – making it perfect for strolling – and utterly lovely, with curvy cobbled streets and graceful old buildings. Fountains surprise you at every turn – over a hundred grace the town. Every evening, along street after street, people are sitting out in cafes drinking, eating, talking and laughing. Day and night, musicians provide a musical accompaniment.
The center of town is Cours Mirabeau, the Champs-Elysee of Aix. Only about four blocks long, it’s lined with plane trees, sidewalk cafes and 17th and18th-century mansions. You can still have a drink or meal at the Cafe Les Deux Garcons, where Paul Cezanne and Emile Zola used to drink after class – these two great men were born in Aix and were university schoolmates here.
City of Markets
Aix is famed for its vibrant food markets. The big markets are on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (the biggest one) and span three large squares: Place des Precheurs, Place de la Madeleine and Place de Verdun. They have endless enticing food and also antiques, a flea market, clothing and other temptations.
There’s a smaller daily food market on Place Richelme. Place de l’Hotel de Ville has a flower market, and Cours Mirabeau has an antiques market on Sundays and Mondays and a clothing market on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Food and flower markets close by 1:30.
We couldn’t resist the mouthwatering bounty, and bought peaches, cherries and melons, honey from the flowers of Provence’s famous lavender, and herbes de Provence with a mill carved out of olive wood to grind the herbs.
City of Cezanne
Paul Cezanne lived much of his life here in his birthplace and did many of his greatest paintings here. A visit to Cezanne’s workshop, the Atelier Paul Cezanne, and then further on to Painters’ Ground for the view of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, is a must for any art lover.
Of all the sites in Aix, Painters’ Ground thrilled me the most. There, in the golden light of late afternoon, we stood where Cezanne once stood, and looked at the Montagne Sainte-Victoire that he painted nearly a hundred times. Watching the light change on the mountain, I felt his presence, felt the inspiration that moved him and so many artists after him.
Art lovers will also want to visit the Granet Museum, on the south side of town in the Mazarin Quarter. On the way is an adorable baroque fountain, the Quatre-Dauphins (Four Dolphins).
When in Aix it’s worth stopping at the good tourism office for maps, information, booking tours and asking questions. The office is next to the post office on Avenue des Belges just past the Rotonde Fountain. Open until 8 p.m. Visit the city’s tourism website for more.
Day Trips from Aix
Of the many amazing places to see in Provence, we chose to visit a few that were nearby. Part of the pleasure of these journeys was the ride itself – seeing the famous Provencal landscapes of sculpted farm fields, mountains, hill towns and stone villages along the way.
In season (late June – mid-July) these routes pass Provence’s most dazzling, iconic, fragrant sight – fields of brilliantly colored lavender in bloom. Wanting to savor it all and not watch the road and search for parking, we chose to use tours rather than a rental car. Our full-day tours in 8-seat minibuses were well-run by Rendez-Vous Provence.
The extraordinary perched villages were a highlight: Roussillon, built atop a vivid red cliff, whose buildings are all colored shades of red with the local pigment; Gordes with its steep stone streets and expansive views; and Les Baux-de-Provence, built on a particularly precipitous and rugged cliff with a ruined castle on top.
Vincent Van Gogh paintings drew us to Arles and Saint-Remy-de-Provence, places where Van Gogh lived and painted extensively. Both towns are little gems to wander around. In Arles, you enter through an arch in a still-standing part of the Roman city wall and looming ahead is a Roman amphitheater with medieval watchtowers on top. In St-Remy, the highlight for me was the asylum just outside town where Van Gogh, a patient, painted his surroundings.
Dramatic Mediterranean scenery was the star of a half-day tour to Cassis and the calanques. It’s about an hour’s ride to the picturesque beach village of Cassis – a pretty resort town of multicolored houses with a castle on a cliff. There we boarded a boat to cruise to the calanques, narrow fingers of sea bordered by jagged white cliffs.
We were easily able to visit Marseille on our own. There are frequent buses there from Aix, which is only half an hour away. Marseille is a handsome big French city built on steep hills overlooking the blue Mediterranean. It’s easy to get around by public transportation, and has knock-out views from its hilltop sites. There’s an architecturally stunning new art museum, The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations – called MuCEM – opened in 2013.
We picked up a map from the tourist information office and explored the town. Starting from the old port, we hiked uphill through the old city and took a city bus up to the church at the top of town, then came back down and explored a bit of the new city, then did what you always do in Provence – sat in a sidewalk cafe and watched the world go by.
Wherever we went, it was always a joy to come home to Aix and wend our way through the lovely old streets toward another good meal. Of all the gorgeous places we visited, we never saw another place we liked better.
Where to Eat in Aix
You can eat very well in Aix. All of the following restaurants fed us delicious, memorable meals. All (except one) have outdoor seating.
Chez Grandmere, 11 Rue Isolette. Phone: 04 42 53 33 47.
Le Poivre d’Ane, 40, Place des Cardeurs. Phone: 04 42 21 32 66. Dinner only. Reservation needed.
L’epicurien, 13, Place des Cardeurs. Phone: 06 89 33 49 83. Reservations needed.
Juste en Face, 6 Rue de la Verrerie in Place des Cardeurs. Phone: 04 42 96 47 70.
Divan d’Antioche, 8 Place des Cardeurs – Turkish and Lebanese food. Phone: 04 42 21 19 38.
Cote Cours, 19 Cours Mirabeau, small open-air space, expensive. Phone: 04 42 93 12 51. Reservation needed.
La Pizza, 3 rue Aude – good choice among the zillion pizza joints in Aix. Phone: 04 42 26 22 17.
And don’t miss Patisserie Bechard, 12 Cours Mirabeau, for superb croissants and chocolate croissants (“pain chocolate”), pastries and candies. (No seating.)
Where to Stay
Stay inside the old town. Be warned that those charming old streets are much noisier than you might think. Delivery motorbikes go anywhere, including on pedestrian-only streets. The playful shouting of students echoes well into the morning. If you care, ask for a room facing a courtyard. Book as far ahead as possible.
If you arrive in town without a reservation, the Tourist Information Office can help. Accomodations phone: 04 42 16 11 85.
If, like us, you’re staying a week or more, an apartment rental is an excellent choice; you’ll get more space for less money. Look at: www.vrbo.com; www.homeaway.com; or the Aix tourist board website.
The airport for Aix is Marseille (MRS). The TGV (fast train) takes three hours from Paris www.raileurope.com.
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Gena Reisner is a writer living in New York City. Hooked on travel since her Peace Corps days, she has been traveling the world ever since and writing travel articles for over thirty years. Her husband, Paul Goldhagen, is a physicist and published photographer who illustrates Reisner’s articles when they travel together.