Aix-en-Provence, in Cézanne’s footsteps
Aix-en-Provence begins to stir as the first rays of the morning sun creep through the wooden shutters. Down in the street, the market stallholders are already setting up shop in the shade of the plane trees. The riot of colours from their flowers, ripe tomatoes and sugar-sweet figs create an ever-changing tableau of Provence life. Soon enough, the café terraces begin to fill up. Time to compare hauls from the morning’s market, over a glass of chilled rosé.
Just across the way, the children are splashing about in the fountain. Aix has always been famous for its natural springs, and the city which the Romans knew as Aquae Sextiae still has around a thousand fountains. These symbols of Aix’s long history also serve as convenient meeting points for the locals, as well as providing a welcome supply of cool water when the temperatures begin to rise. The exception to the rule is the striking Hot Water Fountain, whose sculpted decorations have long since disappeared beneath a thick coating of moss. On crisp winter days, plumes of steam rise from the warm spring water.
Regardless of the season, the sun always shines on Aix-en-Provence. Scattered by the Mistral breeze, clouds are a rare sight in these parts. The best way to visit Aix is to stroll through the streets with your head held high, soaking up the cool air of the narrow streets lined with honey-hued façades. Each stroll brings its own share of surprises, from extravagantly-sculpted balconies held up by imposing telamons to the crafty visual effects employed to transform modest houses into opulent palaces.
The long and storied history of the city and its people reveals itself step by step, from Saint Sauveur Cathedral to the solemn townhouses of Cours Mirabeau. Down on the boulevard, the Brasserie des Deux Garçons is the perfect spot to stop off and watch the crowds go by. This café is an enduring emblem of the effervescent spirit which has always defined Aix. It’s also where local hero Cézanne used to meet up for a drink with his old friend Emile Zola, before heading back to contemplate his one true love: Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
The old girl is just a few miles away, towering imperiously over the surrounding villages like a landlocked lighthouse. At the foot of the mountain, the Château de Vauvenargues still bears the traces of its most famous owner, Pablo Picasso. Here the flower-strewn meadows are dotted with little villages perched on the hillsides. Take the time to roam from village to village, taking the little lanes bordered with local stone walls which wind their way through fields of lavender, poppies and olive trees. Along the way, you’re guaranteed to stumble across any number of Roman ruins and abandoned chapels.
Without ever losing sight of Montagne Sainte-Victoire, call in at the Tholonet windmill before stopping at Puyricard for chocolates and calissons. Each village is home to its own vibrant community, with ochre-hued houses clustered around shady squares. Pull up a stool at the café for the latest news from the pétanque rink, or speculation on the weather. And of course there’s always a festival, an antique fair or a flower market to visit before the Mistral starts blowing. Strolling through Provence is the best way to plunge into a culture sculpted by the sun and the Mediterranean.
When to go?
Aix-en-Provence and the surrounding region are a pleasure to visit all year round, but they really come into their own in July. The lavender comes into flower just as the Lyric Festival rolls into town. The perfect opportunity to visit the opera house, or catch a private concert in one of Aix’s grand townhouses. The off-season is wonderfully peaceful, ideal for long walks among the almond trees (which blossom in February).
How to get there?
Several major road networks meet at Aix-en-Provence, making the city easy to reach by car. The train station, a few miles outside the centre, offers connections to the whole region. The streets of the old town are so narrow that they are inaccessible to most cars and buses, and the city council has limited traffic to residents only. No tram or underground here: the best way to get around Aix-en-Provence is on foot or on one of the local electric buses. The rest of the region is easily accessible by car, bike or bus.
In the heights of Sainte-Victoire
In the crisp, cool hours of the morning, follow in the boot prints of our expert local guide – a climbing enthusiast with a passion for the region and its traditions – and set off on a dizzying hike combining walking with via ferrata climbing routes. Up in the heights of Sainte-Victoire, discover centuries of local history while soaking up the magnificent view. Enjoy a gourmet breakfast at the summit, as the sun rises over the mountains and the countryside below gradually comes to life.
The art of winemaking
Step inside the sleek, modernist gates of Château La Coste to discover how centuries of winemaking tradition have shaped the reputation of this incredible estate, just as renowned for the quality of its wines as it is for its incredible collection of contemporary art. Wander freely through the woods, the olive groves and the fields, with a private tour guide to help you learn more about the works of art scattered all over the estate. Back in your living room, challenge yourself to a blind tasting with the help of our resident oenologist, testing your newly-acquired expertise on the region’s wines.
Yoga in the vines
As the sun sinks low in the sky, roll out your mat amid the vines and follow the lead of Andréa, our passionate yoga instructor. Breathing, strength, flexibility and relaxation, drawing on the energy of these beautiful surroundings and historic structures. As the last rays of sunshine dance across the endless sea of vines, enjoy a moment of pure communion with nature.
Our address book
Mallmann at Château la Coste
A taste of Argentina in Provence
Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann left his homeland – a little island off the coast of Patagonia – to take the helm at Château La Coste, a winery-cum-art gallery. But he brought with him the essential element which defines his cuisine: fire. For Mallmann, cooking is an art, and patience a philosophy to live by. His dishes are wild and authentic, such as fire-roasted vegetables served with lamb fresh off the coals.
2750 Route De La Cride | Chateau La Coste, 13610 Le Puy-Sainte-Réparade
Just like home
In the heart of Aix’s historic centre, Le Bidule has become a local institution. A charming combination of guinguette and antique shop, Le Bidule has its own indefinably unique style. A great place to meet family and friends, and tuck in to simple but delicious dishes beneath the multi-coloured lanterns out on the lively terrace.
38 Rue Lieutaud, 13100 Aix en Provence
Le Saint Estève
Looking out over Montagne Sainte-Victoire
At Lodges Sainte-Victoire, Michelin-starred chef Mathias Dandine is hard at work reimagining the timeless classics of Provençal cuisine, from bouillabaisse to calissons and even the humble aïoli. With a view straight out of an old master painting, this luxurious terrace is the best place to spend an evening in the company of Sainte-Victoire.
2250 Route Cézanne 13100 Le Tholonet
A château in Provence
In the extraordinary surroundings of Hôtel Le Pigonnet, the 1924 club serves cocktails, cognac and cigars, best enjoyed when comfortably ensconced in a leather armchair. The terrace looks out over the gardens, where you can stroll through the alleys of immaculately-pruned roses. Live music every Tuesday and Thursday night, with jazz, blues and bossa nova.
5 Avenue du Pigonnet, 13090 Aix-en-Provence
Les Deux Garçons
An Aix institution
As the city’s oldest brasserie, Les Deux Garçons has been an institution on Cours Mirabeau since 1792. Raimu, Jouvet, Mistinguette, Picasso, Piaf, Churchill… The sumptuous interior and shady terrace have welcomed a steady stream of illustrious figures over the years. Cézanne liked to stop by in the late afternoon to kill a few hours before dinner with Emile Zola, a firm friend since their school days together at Lycée Mignet.
53 Cours Mirabeau, 13100 Aix-en-Provence
Le Relais Cézanne
Pétanque and rosé
In the little village of Tholonet, Le Relais Cézanne and its terrace are conveniently located just in front of the pétanque rink. A glass of rosé or pastis in hand, the afternoons just slip by to the soundtrack of cicadas and chiming boules. The perfect opportunity to try your hand, with some help from the local experts. But be warned: if you lose 13-0 you’ll have to buy drinks all round.
Route Cézanne 13100 Le Tholonet
Hiking in the hills of Provence
In the footsteps of Pagnol
From Montaiguet to Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the hills around Aix-en-Provence are criss-crossed with trails ideal for hiking or mountain-biking. Follow in the footsteps of Marcel Pagnol and get lost in the scrub, climbing rocks and taking shelter in cool caves. There are a number of well-marked routes starting in Aix and the surrounding villages, ranging from calm and cultural to more physically-demanding. Our favourite is the Canyon Provençal route, setting off from Simiane (the oldest village in the Bouches-du- Rhône) for a four-hour feast of flower-strewn walls and medieval monuments. Or else the Puyloubier wine trail, an eight-mile route through the vineyards in the shadow of Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
Over the hills
Visit a living work of art
Built in the 1970s by contemporary artist Victor Vasarely, the foundation which bears his name is an “architectonic centre,” that is to say a structure which combines elements of art and architecture in pursuit of its own idiosyncratic aesthetic goal. The foundation hosts special exhibitions and other cultural events, but the building is a work of art in its own right, an enduring monument to the oneiric, kinetic vision of its creator.
1 Avenue Marcel Pagnol - Jas de Bouffan, 13096 Aix-en-Provence
Up close and personal with the artist
Paul Cézanne’s studio still survives in its original condition on the Colline des Lauves. From 1902 until his death in 1906 he spent every day painting in this large workshop, and it still bears the traces of his presence: his favourite hat, his brushes and his furniture are all here, untouched. Looking out of the vast windows, it’s easy to imagine the artist hard at work in his “big country studio”, putting the finishing touches to late-period masterpieces such as The Bathers or his studies of Montagne Sainte-Victoire.
9 Avenue Paul Cézanne, 13100 Aix-en-Provence