The city of Aix en Provence is often voted the best place to live in France. The reasons are obvious when you visit. Aix has a beautiful, preserved, photogenic centre, with all the necessary but ugly stuff outside the city walls. You can walk the whole town in less than a day, or linger for much longer among the honeyed streets and squares. There is a young and lively population, thanks to the university, and there are bars, cafes and restaurants galore.
The central avenue in Aix is Cours Mirabeau. This has been called ‘the most satisfying street in France’. It is lined with towering plane trees, restaurants and grand buildings, with the odd fountain in the middle of its course.
What is less satisfying is the quality of the restaurants on Cours Mirabeau, which cater to the tourist trade and do not worry too much about standards. This includes the legendary Deux Garcons, the bistrot where Cezanne lunched. For a good dining experience in Aix you need to come off the main thoroughfare and head off into the streets that run off it.
Near the big roundabout at one end – La Rotonde – head to the left into the Tanneurs district for a myriad of small restaurants serving better stuff than on Mirabeau.
On the other side of Cours Mirabeau, the south side with all the banks, is the Mazarin quarter, the most venerable and desirable place to have a city apartment, in one of the grand old houses with high ceilings and red tile floors.
The Mazarin in the 17th century was open fields to the south of the city, with a solitary church. That church, St Jean de Malte, is still there, while all the land around it was sold and built on by wealthy merchants, bequeathing Aix some sumptuous architecture.
Next to the church is the Granet Museum, with paintings from Renaissance to 20th century, and occasional special exhibitions. Cezanne offered the Granet dozens of his canvasses, but he was rejected and now the Granet only has a small handful of minor Cezannes.
In the centre of the Mazarin is the Place des Quatre Dauphins (the square of the 4 dolphins), named after the beautiful fountain in its centre.
Going off on the opposite side of the Mirabeau from the Mazarin is the old town, and unlike the Mazarin with its rectilinear hushed streets, this is a place to put the map away and follow the curves and nooks, past the fancy shops and expensive boutiques, but also the market squares.
There is a market every day in Aix, the key ones are the daily farmers’ market in Place Richelme; the fruit and veg market alternates with the flower market in Place des Precheurs; and a flower market in Place d’Hotel de Ville on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
A little away from the centre is the Atelier Cezanne – Paul Cezanne’s studio. His studio is maintained as it was on his death in 1906. His smock, palette, pipe, and some of the equipment he used are still in place.
All around the centre of Aix you will see metal markers in the sidewalk with a C for Cezanne: these plot a route round some of the landmarks of his life in Aix – the tourist office on La Rotonde will give you a map with information on each stop (without which the route makes no sense). This is also a good way to see all of Aix on foot.
Aix is a city of fountains. In fact it is known as the city of a thousand fountains, but there can’t be that many. There are three along the Cours Mirabeau, including a warm-water one. The city was founded by the Romans because of its spring water, the name Aix coming from Aquae Sextiae, Sextius being the consul who gave his name to the springs. The Romans would have had splendid baths here, now there is the Thermes Sextius spa, with spring water and all the usual wellness treatments.
Aix is easily visited on foot, but if you tire take a Diabline – the little electric shuttles that run along 3 routes in the city centre can be hailed like taxis and are cheap to use.