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Aix is Cézanne’s hometown and prides itself on being very “high” culture. So there’s a lot to see. You can follow Cézanne’s trail that takes in his workshop, the Musée Granet that has lots of his paintings and sketches as well as the renovated Hôtel Caumont, which has a permanent video exhibition chronicling Cézanne’s life and work. It also has one temporary art exhibition at any time, ranging from Caravaggio to Marilyn Monroe. Ten minutes out of town, you’ll find the avant-garde art museum of the Fondation Vasarely.
Cézanne painted the Sainte-Victoire mountain, just outside of Aix, more than 180 times. When Picasso bought a château in Vauvenargues at the foot of the mountain, he said that “he had finally bought a piece of the mountains that Cézanne loved so much”. There are lots of walks to do in the countryside around the mountain and the Biment dam. You can visit Picasso’s château by contacting the local tourist office in Aix.
Walk along the Cours Mirabeau, the main thoroughfare in the centre of the old town, to marvel at the architecture or wander the back streets of the Mazarin District, the high class residential neighbourhood. What’s more, Aix has some interesting history that you can’t find anywhere else in France; just outside town is the Camp des Milles, France’s only remaining internment camp from World War Two.
Aix is often called the “city of a 1000 fountains” and while it might not technically have a thousand, it has a great many of them. Some are in grand squares, some like La Rotonde are a central focal point for the town, while others are often tucked away in back alleys or small, quiet cobbled streets. They make the hot summers seem refreshing. The “fountaine Moussue” (the moss fountain) on the main tree-lined avenue in Cours Mirabeau is fed from a nearby hot water spring, so occasionally it pours out steam or icicles depending on the weather.
It’s a cliché to come to France for the food and drink, but Aix is a foodie lover’s paradise. Head to the daily market in Place Richelme (open every day of the year until 1pm) and the surrounding streets – you’ll find macaron shops that treat chocolate like an art form and treat olive oil like delicate perfume. The rue d’Italie is full of delicatessens, independent cheese shops and great butchers and bakers, where you can pick up roast chicken for lunch and fresh baguettes. Aix boasts 444 restaurants of different kinds and styles so choose one with an outside terrace and have a glass of local rosé wine in the sun.
Aix is called the 21st “arondissement” of Paris (suburb) and it shows in its upper middle class residents and the elegant way they dress and above all, shop. Aix has lots of independent fashion boutiques dotted all over town, as well as all the usual international and national chains. There are more and more shops opening all day and on Sundays, but the trend is still to open from 10am to 12pm and again from 2pm to 7pm. Many places are still closed on Sundays and Mondays, including restaurants.
People come to France for the way of life as much as anything else. Life in Aix is slow and lazy and its buildings are kept in a pristine condition, which means that there are constant opportunities to have a coffee or cup of tea in beautifully restored town squares. Head to Place Richelme any day after 1pm (when the market stalls disappear, the square is washed down and the cafe tables are put up until midnight). The Place de l’Hotel de Ville (where you’ll find the Town Hall) is another favourite for an “aperitif“, the drink before dinner.
Lavender used to be just for old ladies and to keep away mothballs but it’s one of Aix’s biggest exports. The lavender fields outside Aix are a must-see if you’re there in warmer months and the shops in town do big business selling lavender products. Everyone buys the Marseille soap (“savon de marseille“) which is cheaper from the street markets and just as good. You’ll also find lavender in food items at the upmarket delis, in macarons, and on many market stalls.
Aix is has its own sweety delight called the Calisson that is only found in this area. It’s said that it was made for the Queen Jeanne to make her feel better about marrying King Réné who was twice her age. It’s made from almonds and has icing which is similar to marzipan. Many of the shops in Aix sell them but the most well known is Léonard Parli or Patisserie Béchard, or go to Le Roy René just outside of town.
Aix is well known for its musical heritage – it boasts one of the best “conservatoires” (music school) in the country. It also has a thriving music and festival scene, ranging from Music In The Streets to the annual free opera concert on the Cours Mirabeau. From April to October, you can usually find something going on. Check on the town’s website for up-to-date details.