Cours Mirabeau – the street around which Aixs different areas are situated – is the citys main thoroughfare. The left side of the Cours leads to the Palais de Justice (Law courts) area, which carries onto the Town Hall area and Aixs old town before coming to the citys Sextius district. On the Cours’ right side, 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 Aix north, south, west and east.
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 the jewellers Cartier), as well as smart brasseries modelling themselves on the Deux Garçons café-brasserie and its famous terrace, now a listed building. Art lovers are catered for with the nearby Galerie d’art du Conseil Général (county council art gallery), which favours works by regional artists, and not far from here, Rue Espariat is where the Muséum d’histoire naturelle (natural history museum) is situated, inside the magnificent Hôtel Boyer d’Eguilles.
Palais de Justice
The Palais de Justice (Law courts) area on the right side of the Cours Mirabeau took shape in 1590 and began to look much as it does today around 1790. Previously the site of royal gardens, these were transformed during a spate of town planning orchestrated by rich city worthies and merchants. After renovation, the former prison next to the current Palais de Justice, became Aix-en-Provences Cour d’appel (Court of Appeal), second only to Paris’ Court of Appeal in terms of importance. However whats really worth seeing here happens every Saturday morning! This is when the square – taken up on the north side by the huge flight of steps leading up to the Palais de Justice and on the south side by the église de la Madeleine (Madeleine church) – is transformed into a huge open-air antiques market: a big favourite with the locals and an integral part of Aix life. The Verduns terrace is the ideal vantage point from which to watch strollers idling by, 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 seventeenth-century town house is the Musée du Vieil Aix, a museum that captures the very essence of Aixs past and a treasure trove of information on local tradition and customs.
The architecture of the Halle aux Grains – former Corn Exchange and testimony to Provences agricultural prosperity (today it is the main post office building) – the Town Hall, and especially the attractive design of Place d’Albertas are wonderful examples of the citys rich heritage. Indeed the layout of superb buildings such as these has created a number of small squares that play host (on a daily basis) to typical Provençal markets such as the Marché aux herbes (market selling local produce) and the Marché floral (flower market). Meanwhile tasty local specialities 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, Saf-Saf and La Flambée des Bourras offering a wide variety of delicacies.
Aixs old town
This part of the city is the continuation of the Town Hall area.
The cathédrale Saint Sauveur bears witness to the presence of Christianity in Aix as far back as the 5th century, while nearby, the first floor of the former Archevêché (archbishops palace) is home to the Musée des Tapisseries. This buildings inner courtyard also serves as the perfect backdrop to the Festival d’Art Lyrique (Operatic Festival), which has been held here every summer since 1948. Not much further on from here, delightful bookshops like Divine Comédie and Rue des Bouquinistes Obscurs remain firm favourites with collectors of rare books.
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 thalassotherapy treatment in luxury surroundings) now stands. Graced with a magnificent formal garden, the Pavillon Vendôme (built in 1655), remains Aix locals’ favourite place for a stroll.
If you’re keen to sample Aix culture and nightlife, theatre buffs should find something to suit them just a few minutes from here, in the Maison des Jeunes et de la Culture Jacques Prévert, 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 town houses. Although the area was in the past inhabited exclusively by members of Parliament and the upper middle classes, today it has become a favourite location for haute couture fashion houses such as Inès de la Fressange, Agnès B and Laura Ashley. 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, the Musée Arbaud, home to one of the biggest Provençal pottery collections, is also worth a visit.
Carnots Cours St-Louis runs alongside the citys outer ring road on the edge of the Mazarin area. Situated in Cours St-Louis, the Théâtre de la Fonderie is a showcase for talented local actors, while not far from here, the Fontaine d’Argent is more geared towards stand-up comedy and humour. Provences 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 Musée Granet, which exhibits important archaeological and art collections.
Avenue Robert-Schuman, situated in the south part of the Carnot area, is the areas main road and a large student population is spread over the various university campuses here. The areas Théâtre Antoine Vitez is well known for its original productions.
The citys south side contains the Aix-les-Milles business enterprise zone, shopping complexes such as Carrefour, and a range of leisure activities. Get your skates on for a visit to the Mégaglace ice rink or if you’re into rock climbing, the Grimper sports association is the place to head for. Meanwhile the Cité du Livre (which you pass when coming here 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 Cézanne fell in love with its beauty, building a house here, (today the Atelier Cézanne museum), which allowed him to paint the northern slopes of Mount Saint-Victoire to his hearts content. A visit to the citys 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.
Fans of motor sports and the great outdoors are catered for by shops located in the citys western suburbs (where businesses dealing in these activities tend to gravitate) such as Crocodil Motor, Moto Hall and Cycles Naddéo. 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 Beaupré 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. Travelling 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 for stopping off for a delicious meal on the way in gourmet restaurants 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 Cézanne remains an essential part of any visit to Aix.
History of Aix-en-Provence
At 370m above sea level, the fortified village of Entremont (known today as Oppidum d’Entremont, an archaeological site located 3kms north of Aix), was the capital town for a mixture of Celtic Salyens and native Ligurians in 123 BC. At this time it also commanded the intersection of Provences two principal roads: the Spain-Italy axis and the passage from the Mediterranean coast to the Alps.
After the siege, capture and destruction of this Celtic-Ligurian town, the Roman proconsul, Caïus Sextius Calvinus, founded “Aquae Sextiae Salluviorum” in 122 BC, thus christened because of the abundance of hot and cold water springs in the region.
Because of its privileged location between Italy and Spain, the citys importance blossomed both in urban development and as a spa. Surrounding walls with colossal gates, theatres, amphitheatres and sumptuous villas were built, delicately outlining the city. Having become the administrative capital of Narbonnaise Seconde, a province born from the division of a small province in the Alpes-Maritimes and crowned with an archbishop, it suffered a fatal blow when invaded by Germanic barbarians, the Visigoths and Lombards. The towns rebirth was thanks to the Count of Provence, William II -also known as the Liberator- who stopped the Saracen invaders from the East. At this time Provence began to free itself from the distant rule of the Kingdom of Burgundy, in favour of the counts and marquises who were descendants of William II.
The cultural influence of the city continued to grow under the reign of the princes from the Anjou dynasty: Louis I of Anjou, then Louis II, founder of the University, until the arrival of King René the Good. His court attracted masters of the arts and scholars from all over Europe. The city became a centre for artistic creation and famous sculptors such as Guiramand and painters such as Nicolas Froment set up workshops. This cultural expansion saw the end of Provences independence and in 1481 it became French when Charles III, then Count of Provence, left the province of Provence to Louis XI, king of France. The new governor, Palamède, the appointed representative of the King of France, then came to reside in the city.
In the XVIth and XVIIth centuries, in spite of a succession of imperial wars (1524 – 1529 – 1536) between François the 1st, king of France, and the Emperor Charles-Quint for the supremacy of Provence and its coast, life in Aix boomed. A carriageway linking the old town to the new Mazarin district was built in 1651; today this is the elegant cours Mirabeau. The wealthy built splendid mansions, and fountains were erected on important squares giving the city its current sophistication. Architects of the era such as J.C.Rambot privileged curved shapes, symbols of grace and femininity, over the straight and severe lines of the baroque style. The famous Fontaine des Quatre-Dauphins erected in 1667 on the square of the same name is a fine example of this: it brings together the cardo representing the North-South axis and the decumanus, the East-West axis, with four dolphins “singing” the virtues of natural spring water towards the points of the compass. 1789 saw the French Revolution and the abolition of privileges. “The Florence of Provence” lost some of its prestige but above all it lost its status as capital of the region in favour of Marseilles, a coarse and vulgar apology for a city in the eyes of the established aristocracy.
Aix then became a “sleeping beauty” in the wake of symbolic monuments such as the Fontaine de la Rotonde (built in 1860), the palais de Justice (1831) and the Fontaine du Roi René (1832). The industrial revolution passed the city by, but confirmed its cultural and artistic vocation still alive today- seeing the construction of universities, including the Faculties of Law and Arts, and elite grandes écoles such as the Ecole Normale and the Ecole Nationale des Arts et Métiers. In 1839 Aix witnessed the birth of one of her most famous children, Cézanne, painter of the awesome montagne Ste-Victoire. Great names from the world of literature (e.g. Zola and Mistral) came and stayed -so long that they wore out the armchairs of the famous brasserie of Deux Garçons seeking inspiration.
The 20th century saw strong demographic growth: 54 000 inhabitants in 1954 and nearly 135 000 today. The building of new districts such as Jas de Bouffan and Encagnane, and the institution of large urban projects such as Sextius-Mirabeau actively contribute to the well being of its people, a concept closely linked to the image of the city. Spa town, university town, cultural town, Aix lays claims to all these titles. Every summer since 1948, it has invited music lovers from all over the world to the Festival d’Art Lyrique in the prestigious and beautifully renovated Archevêché.
All postgraduate courses are available on the campus located south of the town. Spring 2000 has seen the opening of a prestigious establishment in the heart of the Thermes to answer the soaring interest in thalassotherapy tourism. Since 1999, the old prison located near the palais de Justice has housed the Court of Appeal (the second most important in France) confirming its position as a leading judicial pole. At the beginning of the third millennium, the industrial zones established in the surrounding area demonstrate the importance of the regions economic fabric and its dynamic employment situation.
Aix keeps a distance from large-scale industrialization and preserves its cultural lifestyle, natural elegance and sophisticated way of living.